Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


"As a starting point, we can note that to play a game is to respect the game contract: the player of a game agrees to 1) follow the rules, and 2) to work towards the game goal. The players will then develop strategies for playing the game. But a game is a collection of rules, not strategies. We may use the concept of emergence to describe this: it is one of the basic features of most popular games that a description of the strategies for playing takes much more space than a description of the rules themselves." (Jesper Juul, "Protect Your Resource Gathering Units At All Cost: Sketching a Theory of Gameplay":

"In many respects, players are also creators: they help to perform a game's special effects, they shape a game's storyline, and, in the case of god games, they create worlds within the boundaries of a game's universe. For the experienced gamer undaunted by computing learning curves, gameplay can also include the creation of deep modifications to games and gaming environments using development tools made freely available by game developers. In other words, computer gameplay involves a spectrum of creative practices." (Andrew Mactavish, "Mods, Gods, and Creative Computer Gameplay":

Juul suggests that gameplay deconstructs the narrative text since it involves a dynamic process of supplementing rules with strategies--often an improvisatory practice in well-designed computer games--and involving action on the part of the player. In many cases, the rules and strategies must be discovered (easter eggs in Super Mario Bros or Myst), negotiated, or purchased. There is an active trade in hacks, cheats, and online lore. Strategies are improvised responses to the formality or rules that constitute gameplay. Juul argues that "games are not fun in spite of their being formal, but because they are formal" and the concept of gameplay might explain "why we enjoy submitting to the rules of a game."

The emergence of higher-level strategies from the rules introduces degrees of unpredictable variation that may well shape how the game comes to be played: "Subtle modifications of the game rules can completely change the strategies required to win the game." Andrew Mactavish has argued along these lines that "creative gameplay 1) involves the pleasures of creation, experimentation, and control of virtual environments and 2) acts an expression of power within real-world social arrangements."

The possibility of modifications, altering or transferring skins, or the construction of virtual worlds introduce satisfying degrees of improvisation into the constraints afforded by the rules. Mactavish suggests "that the pleasure of creative gameplay is composed of a mixture of experiencing and participating in technological virtuosity." (Valve Software's Half-Life is an example.) Of course, there is a caveat to the limits of creative expression in gameplay: material access to the technology being the most concrete.