The Meaning of Games: a gravity field.

Steven E. Jones’ book, The Meaning of Video Games, regards games as only the central objects in a universe of other objects that in their entirety make up the possible meanings of a game. These other objects can be pretty much anything from the artwork on the cover of a game, to the platform the game is played on, to fan modded content and machinima films, to marketing campaigns; figuratively speaking, a whole universe worth of stuff makes up the universe of the game. At the nucleus of this universe is any given game, and the meaning of the game is the gravitational field that holds these objects in orbits and patterns of relative influence. When using this analogy, I’m reminded of the hermeneutic circle, in which one interprets the whole by analyzing its parts and interprets the parts in relation to the whole: a process that is continually turning as variations in interpretation affect both part and whole in considerable ways.

Jones uses the universe analogy to describe his views on video games and their paratext. The chapter above summarizes the book in a short and sweet nutshell, but there are other things you might want to know, reader. =] For one, the idea of the paratext relies on the concept of intertextuality, which describes how texts, such as a game, are always already referring to, influenced by, and in relation with other texts; these other texts can be pretty much anything related to the game. Gerard Gennette gets the credit for being the first to describe the concept of the paratext, but he mainly used it in regards to books. The paratext for a book can be the jacket copy, the publicity, the author’s picture, the critics’ reviews (both on and off the material book’s cover), etc. These factors outside of the main text serve as transition points or thresholds that influence the reception of the main text in the world. In Jones’s words, “The paratext is thus about the material conditions of the book’s [or game’s] production, publication, and reception, how a book makes its way out into the world and comes to mean something to the public audience that receives it” (7).

Furthermore, the work of other scholars such as D.F. Mackenzie and Jerome McGann has influenced others to approach the meaning of texts (games) as “the whole social history ‘the totality of expression’ of any work” (9). Of course, this is where a ludologist would step in a say “WTF,” and with good reason. To say that the meaning of a game is outside the game itself risks undermining games as a whole, but Jones makes a pre-emptive acknowledgement of this and agrees, “the game is always in the playing. But its important to remember that the playing is always in a social world, always a complicated, highly mediated experience, never purely formal anymore than a text is purely a verbal construct” (9). I don’t know if that would satisfy a ludologist, but I think it’s a pretty cool way of analyzing games, and it definitely takes into account the player, who is always already caught up in the world and interprets the meaning of anything from their event-horizon.

The player(s) makes meanings of games possible, and the potential for meaning is only enhanced by the convergence of media. Industry, technology, and players collaborate to create and alter the meanings of any particular game. Perhaps most players are unaware of the totality of paratextual objects that exist in the universe of a particular game, but the paratext’s potential for transforming and enriching the reality of any particular player remains important to a scholars’ understanding of a game. Jones describes this potential as “a transmedia, multidimensional grid of possibilities surrounding any given game” (10).

Jones has so many compelling examples to back up his views, a whole book’s worth! I’m not sure how productive it would be to go into detail. In fact, I don’t think it would be productive at all, so I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book if you really want to know more, dear reader. I’ll entice you a bit by listing the topics he touches on, all of which are really quite interesting.

OK, He starts of discussing Lost and its use of alternate reality games and viral marketing, and he discusses the fluidity of authorship and the influence the audience had on the production of the show. Then he compares Lost’s paratext to that of Myst (a PC game) and Charles Dicken’s serialized novels.

OK, I feel kinda silly just summarizing the content of the book, so I’ll just list the titles of the chapters.

Ch.1 The game of Lost Ch.2 Collecting Katamari Damacy Ch.3 The Halo universe Ch.4 The game behind Façade Ch.5 The Wii platform Ch.6 Anticipating Spore

I will say this, one could argue that a methodology that focuses on the paratext risks becoming “a study of everything and a science of nothing,” and evidence of this can be seen just in the diversity of the topics in the list of chapter titles, but the common thread in these topics, and what I really like about paratextual awareness, is that it gives importance to the role of the player and their contributions to the meaning of a game overall. After all, games don’t mean in and of themselves, they mean something to someone, and that someone is situated in a complex world full of stuff.

However, I would not say that studying games on a paratextual scale is the best or most productive way of analyzing games. In fact, trying to account for everything can be pretty counter-productive, but being aware of and able to refer to the paratext is definitely a valuable tool I’ll keep handy during future bouts of video-game research.

The book I’m talking about.

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About Alphabet1

always already is
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