I cringe inside when people say they're not "good" at video games, or that they'd never in a million years be able to figure out the controls to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. "It looks really good, but I'm not really a gamer so I'll probably never play it," they say with a defeated shrug.
In the past, I've argued that video games are a medium unto themselves, but I realize now I've been wrong. There is a new and evolving medium, but video games are only a small piece of a much larger picture.
If you have a Facebook profile, can use MS Word, or have bought something on eBay, you understand the essential language of interaction, which is at the heart of every video game. You may not want to bother figuring out a hardcore shooter, but that doesn't mean you're not an active patron of the medium in which video games are contained.
Virtual interaction is at the heart of the modern media, the answer to the looming question of what comes next. For thousands of years games mimicked the forms of interaction, but they required two present parties to reproduce the interactivity.
With widespread adoption of the home computer and, consequently the internet, all the necessary technology for systemic interaction in everything from commerce to storytelling has arrived.
It's Facebook that's introduced the benefits of interactivity to the mainstream more than Wii or DS. Like AOL, Amazon, and eBay before it, Facebook uses many of the same mechanical principles of traditional video games, though its ultimate purpose is completely different.
What follows is a comparison of Facebook to World of Warcraft in an effort to more clearly define interactivity as its own unique medium, and then carve out the special purpose of video games within that larger medium.
The PC is the biggest gaming platform in the world, and it's the frontline for demonstrating the most essential qualities of interactivity. With a mouse and keyboard you have the interface to browse the web, build a spreadsheet, or smack zombies in the face with a crowbar. While the purposes in moving the mouse cursor in PowerPoint versus adjusting your aim in Left 4 Dead 2 are different, the interface is identical.
In World of Warcraft, user interface is multi-layered, framing the game world with iconic buttons, a running log of events, and a record of social exchange. Facebook's pages are drawn in clean columns with actionable buttons and links standing out in sharp blue against the soft white background.
In both, mouse navigation fine-tunes your orientation in the world while keystrokes are used for personal interaction and expression. WoW presents its visual interface as the frame of the entire game world. In Facebook, each new bit of information has a smaller set of interface options that are consistent from profile to profile and status update to status update.
"The primary guideline for anything that we add to Facebook is to help our users connect and share with each other," said Gareth Davis, Platform Manager and Games Lead at Facebook. "That's the lens through which we evaluate every single thing that we add to the site. Does it help people connect and does it facilitate sharing?"
Sharing and connecting is crucial to WoW, but it happens in the context of roleplay and fantasy projection. Those elements, the quest design, the story that connects them, and the art style through which players can bring their fantasy to life are elements of art and authorship.
"Simplified UI that is able to easily achieve what the user is motivated to accomplish often outweighs gorgeous design," said Ariel Waldman, digital anthropologist, founder of Spacehack.org, and former NASA coordinator.
"In social networks, Twitter and Foursquare are shining examples of this factor, while Tumblr leads the way on balancing simple interactivity with decent aesthetics and information architecture."
Creating an Identity
Interacting is a way of self-expressing, be it on the highest level of metaphysical fantasy or in the most mundane functions of e-commerce. "I think the difference between an MMO and a social platform is an MMO is about a fantasy projection and a social network is about self-identity and expression," said Neil Young, co-founder of ngmoco.
"Another way of thinking about it is the difference between reality television and dramatic television. Yes, it's a reflection of yourself, but it's also fictional. Whereas a social network tends to be a much more accurate reflection of you and you can modify that and play with that, but it tends to be regulated by your friends in the real world. "
In WoW you align with a faction (conveniently good or evil), pick a character class based on your preferred metaphor for interaction (druid, hunter, priest, mage, paladin etc.). Your appearance becomes a record of events you've completed or places you've been. It's a fictional aggregator that tells people small pieces of information about your experience.
In Facebook, you have many more options for creating your identity, but the function is still through association. Your most basic identity is established through personal affiliation, guilds and classes become towns, networks, and mutual friends. The aggregation of tagged photos creates its own sort of narrative about where you've been and what you've done.
"A decision was made very early on that the interface should look very clean and very consistent, so if I'm visiting three different friends' profiles I can find the information that I care about very quickly and easily," said Davis.
"The most important thing is that people are really who they say they are and who you know they are."
The tools for creating your virtual self might be broadly similar, but once again, the uses of those creations differ significantly. "In WoW, emergent social norms make it difficult to join a group: typically someone within a guild needs to vouch for you and you have to prove you're trustworthy on a few runs before an officer invites you in," said Waldman.
"Between extensive privacy levels and the constant user worries that if they don't accept friend requests from old school mates that it will cause drama, social pressure surrounding Facebook ends up devaluing collaborative interaction in favor of self-serving sharing."
There is also a tension point where user expression can turn into a spoil-sport that ruins the whole experience; Leeroy Jenkins, for example, or the legion of joke profiles that eventually diluted Friendster and MySpace.
"The core is real world identity, the fact that when you visit a friend's page you know that it's them," said Davis. "This is based both on the amount of information that a person has voluntarily put on their profile, so that I know it's them; and when we create a friend relationship, it's symmetrical. We both agree to share a certain amount of information with each other and that's a trust relationship."
The degree to which the medium gets in the way of this transparency is a point at which many creative experiences can become manipulative and unexpectedly dramatic. Such is the case of EVE Online, one of WoW's most intriguing contemporaries.
"It's often hard to evaluate whether the person you're talking to is honorable in their intentions if you've only ever talked in a virtual environment," said Arnar Gylfason, Content Director and Associate Producer at CCP Games.
"Hence, trust is one of the most valuable commodities in EVE Online. While Facebook takes some steps to verify your identity, EVE has an extra layer of anonymity which allows pilots to forge their own online personas -- which is often their most powerful tool."
Marshal McLuhan & 4D Media
There are twenty-four frames per second at the end of a movie -- the same as at the beginning. The requirements for viewing don't change over time. The viewer just aggregates a constant stream of information. With interactivity the method of consumption changes significantly throughout an experience.
Marshal McLuhan described media along a continuum of "hot" and "cold" in 1964's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Hot media requires the least amount of viewer effort to understand, often working to heighten a single sense. On these grounds, cinema can be considered "hot" for its rendering of emotion through a mix of image, music, and association. When a scene is sad you feel it first and articulate it second.
Cold media exist on the opposite end of the spectrum and require the most audience effort to decipher. Newspapers, comic books, and books all require varying intensities of deconstruction and filling in of the gaps to fully appreciate.
Interactivity introduces a new axis to McLuhan's paradigm of media perception, as it allows the audience to affect the nature of the medium mid-stream. In World of Warcraft your experience is "cold" while tweaking character stats and equipping weaponry in a menu screen. Things heat up in exploration and quests, where the world, music, and character models directly inform you of the drama, value, and threat level of all those surrounding you.
Crucially, you must respond to all this hot content as if it were cold. When you see an enemy attack animation it's not enough to intuit what the behavior is signifying, you are required to have an immediate response.
"Facebook rewards more asynchronous behavior and has little dependency on timeliness (e.g. you don't lose out on much for not being on Facebook at the exact same time someone else is, unlike WoW)," said Waldman.
"At the crux of it, WoW actively rewards collaboration and teamwork -- aspects that Facebook falls flat on."
The consumption cycle in Facebook is much more drawn out, but it vacillates in the same way between hot and cold. Users read status updates, look at other people's pictures, follow links of interest; and then they can reach back into the world, either commenting on someone else's content or adding new content for other users.
Interactive media adds the vector of time to McLuhan's continuum of hot and cold. Figuring out how different forms of interactive media work isn't about classifying them as hot and cold, but determining the frequency and intensity with which it moves between the two.
Toolsets and Paintbrushes
With so much left in the hands of the audience, the old standards of separating art from utility become even blurrier for interactive media. If WoW is a social platform, why do its 12 million users pay a monthly fee while 300 million Facebook users enjoy the same basic functions for free?
"A work of entertainment is meant to evoke an emotional reaction, you could argue that email also has buttons and increases social interaction but at its core email is a functional technology, an online game isn't," said Rod Humble, Head of EA's The Sims Studio and art game developer.
"A utility advances by reducing user interaction time and increasing productivity, a game does the opposite, it's the non productive bit that's enjoyable."
During the past 40 years, video games have vindicated the idea that they should be considered as separate from other forms of software. They require purchase of consoles in five-year cycles for the sole purpose of entertainment and expressive experience.
"Playing a game on a console is sort of like going to a movie theater or watching a DVD in your living room. That's a really different experience than browsing the web," said Young.
"Both can be entertaining, both can be engaging, both can be interesting; games on a framework like Facebook and games on your phone are, to some degree, a function of the medium."
With the advent of Facebook, the iPhone, and mass market pricing for computers entertainment and utility are inching closer and closer together. You could be playing Passage on your iPhone when you get a text, Facebook update, or Twitter message.
You could be playing FarmVille on Facebook (whose 60 million users dwarf WoW's user base) with Excel and Outlook a mouse-click away. With games like Spy Master invading Twitter, it's hard to tell where the true art and craft comes in interactive media. Does the designer deserve credit for creating the interactive environment or does the player make it artistic through her creative use of it?
"If we simplify a developer as someone who directs how something should work and an artist as someone who directs how something should feel, then a player definitely swings both ways," said Waldman.
"When playing online shooters I have seen players who do things that are unnecessarily beautiful (like winning a round using only a bolt action rifle or a pistol), it reminds me of ballet or at times improv comedy," Humble said. "Some games are based almost entirely on players sharing their creativity such as The Sims."
As a writer I have a natural interest in better delineating all the potential categories of the emerging media. But what is the purpose of such a distinction for content creators? Designers bring ideas to life; call it art, a utility, or an iPhone game.
"I think it's probably worthwhile to have some sort of taxonomy, but at the same time, you run the risk of over-thinking the categorization versus really trying to understand what's common between these things," said Young.
"I think that's the thing that hasn't really been explored or articulated is the commonality and how compulsion is consistent across MMOs and social networks and traditional video games."
The connective tissue between all forms of interactive media, from Facebook to WoW, and from MS Office to Wii Sports Resort, is in defining the wants of an audience, offering them tools to satisfy that want within a constrained space, and then anticipating consequences for as many possible inputs as you can imagine. In some cases the end result will be a PowerPoint presentation, in other cases it will have been participation in an interactive narrative.
As we continue to wrestle with where exactly the art of interaction comes from, all signs point back to the users. What will inspire or surprise them? What will make them more efficient? What will give them the tools to express a fuller version of themselves within the boundaries of the environment you've created? What purpose do those boundaries serve?
"There are varieties of art, from the narrative rational family such as literature and theater -- to the emotional irrational family such as music and dance," said Humble.
"That's one axis, the other axis I cannot define yet but it has something to do with where the art is experienced, on its way to its final destination -- a person's mind."