Would Halo be Halo without the Master Chief? Could we identify the game if all the representational facets were changed or erased? What if we kept the core, but we played as a pokemon using a paintball gun? Would I be able to say, “this is still Halo”…? I don’t know. My first instinct is to say, “Yes. I would still recognize Halo’s game play in spite of the shell change.” But does it matter that I can recognize it? After all, a change in the shell would alter the experience all together. The question (one of many) is, “how drastically would it alter the experience?”
In my previous post, I stated that a game’s core (game-play) makes up its identity, but it is usually less consciously noticeable than the shell (representational cues). However, the shell affects the game play experience, so we can’t really ignore it if we hope to understand the game as a whole.
Some would say that playing Halo means crouching, aiming, jumping, circle-strafing, and using weapons strategically. Others would say that it means being a genetically enhanced space marine wearing some bad-ass armor using futuristic weapons to kill a variety of religiously fanatical aliens bent on genocide of galactic proportions. Both of these meanings are truthful to a certain extent, but an individual might place more importance on one meaning than the other, or they might appreciate both meanings equally.Either way, the person who focuses on the core will have a hard time ignoring the shell, and the person who focuses on the shell will undoubtedly notice the core. This is what I mean when I say that to understand what a game means, you must ultimately consider core, shell, and how they affect each other.
But wait, there’s more. Too much more! I suppose we can start with the dialectic between shell and culture. So, being a genetically enhanced space marine carries a slew of implications and pre-conceptions. Pre-conceptions vary for individual players, but they can include ideas about the military, science fiction, stem cell research, violence, anything really. Space marines don’t exist in a vacuum. They can mean and connote any number of things, and all these meanings affect what it means to play a game with space marines in it. The same applies to every facet of the game’s shell; that’s a whole lot of meaning. (it’s worth noting that this form of meaning-making can be called Semiosis).
The core also affects and is affected by culture, but in a slightly different way, I think. I don’t know exactly what it means to crouch, aim, throw grenades, and circle-strafe in culture, but the act of playing an FPS has cultural implications, and the act of playing at all actually has very strong cultural implications. Like space marines, the act of playing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Play is usually connoted with free time, leisure, and maybe even luxury. It can be seen as a childish, nerdy, or even introverted activity (prevalent misconceptions), and different kinds of play have different cultural implications. To give some wildly reductive examples, playing an FPS can connote violence or immaturity, playing an MMO can connote not having a life, and playing an RTS can connote intellect, or something. These are really stupid examples, but I think most people would agree that playing can have different cultural implications.
The technology through which we access games is another factor that affects overall meaning and understanding, but I think I’ll save that for another post (reminder to self: post about platform studies).
In conclusion, games, game play, and space marines do not exist in a void. Gamers encounter games in culture, through technology, with preconceptions and social value systems that allow them to interpret the game. Although it is useful to mentally separate and analyze these concepts, games, like everything else, exist in a world that must be acknowledged.
This relationship, however, is a two-way street, if you will. Games not only affect the culture they are situated in, they can actually create their own culture by bringing together like-minded, or like-interested, individuals (Foreshadowing for my next post!).
Some separate but related concepts I would like to have touched on are Johan Huizinga’s magic circle, the idea that meaning is socially constructed, and the theory of game aesthetics, which in some ways contradicts the way I described the relationship between cultural values and the shell.