Representational issues in video games

A game of noughts-and-crosses can be played by drawing with a stick in the sand. A game of chess requires a bit more equipment: a board and 32 pieces. Video games require rather more equipment, and in return, the domain of the game becomes richer, in the sense that many more words are required to describe what is going on.

It is possible to get immersed in a game of chess, becoming oblivious to one’s physical surroundings, as one considers intricate tactical moves, evaluates positional strength, imagines potential attacks and defences on both sides, until drawn back to the grounded present by a spark from the fire, a nudge from the dog, or a comment from one’s opponent. Video games thrive on immersion, and they offer a rich set of possibilities for getting lost. One of my favourites is Grand Theft Auto which offers a digitally drawn three-dimensional world of vast size, and an avatar, or small drawn figure, who can be controlled and made to run around in that world. As one controls this little figure, through a manual controller, there is an obligatory shift of perspective.  I may be (in H) sitting on my couch twiddling the controller with my thumbs, yet if asked what I was doing, I am quite likely to report from the imagined perspective of the avatar, rather than from that of the couch potato.

Here is a brief attempt to recount some activity lasting less than two minutes:

Right now, I’m in the ocean, swimming slightly offshore.  I’m a hard-bitten woman wearing a nice hat and skirt.  I can swim.  I can look under the water.  There is a non-negligible possibility that I will be eaten by a shark at any moment.  I have a point of view.  I am not sure how to use the word “I” when I write about this, because you might interpret the subject as either the author of these words, or the game player, or the character in the game.  I am all of these.   I shall swim to shore now.  I dive down.  It is a bit effortful.  Once under the water, the light changes.  It is dark and murky.  I have a knife, but I am aware of the shortness of air.  I know I must surface to breathe.  I see that in a small white bar at bottom left, but if truth be told, I am not aware of checking that.  I simply know I must breathe. I forget how I came to be in the water here.  I could recall, but why try?  It is of no concern. I make land, and run up to the side of a road.  I can run surprisingly well in these heels. Some cars come along the road.  I stand in front of one, choose my shotgun, aim it at his head, and kill the driver.  Then I walk up and pull him from his cab.  I sit into the driver seat.  Music plays.  Not my favourite radio station, but it will do, for now.

It sounds rather more dramatic than it would appear.  If you were in the room where I played the game, you would have seen a middle-aged man in pants wielding a controller, and perhaps sipping a beer, which is even less dramatic than the relatively uneventful (by the standards of the game) sequence of events just recounted.

As I write about my in-game activities, my use of the personal pronoun is very unstable. I am the writer of these words. I am the player of the game who sits on a couch. I am the woman swimming under water. In game, I cycle my bicycle off a cliff and fall wildly, spinning in mid-air, until I crash on the rocks and die.  As I do so, my stomach lurches, I am tense, and the eventual collision comes as a relief. There is no pain, and my character will be reassembled and let loose upon the world again, without damage. Meanwhile I am still on the couch. My stomach, oddly, seems to belong to both worlds simultaneously, enjoying a sip of beer, and being tugged and torn as I plummet from a height.

This sense of blending reality is important. It does not do justice to the case at hand to say that there is the game world (in which I am a woman swimming) and there is the real world (where I am a man, on a couch). We normally rely on a crisp separation between the real and the virtual. Some have sought to distinguish in principled fashion between the real, the virtual (as in the game) and the imaginary (as when I daydream). Keeping these modes of reality apart seems like a necessary thing to do. But it does not seem to be possible.

In teasing out the P-H framework, I am becoming very aware that my words can never escape the trap of representation. To use words is to project from H to P, as the words must of necessity pick out discrete entities, removing them from their contexts and their histories. In talking about my game playing, I am condemned to instability in the use of the personal pronoun. Although there can only ever be one H, my words conjure up two “worlds”, one in game, one on the couch. Time even passes differently in the two (one second in couch-world corresponds to about 5 minutes in game-world, I believe). This apparent overlap of reality between the two worlds has caused much consternation as debate rages about the morality of in-game acts of violence. Because I use similar words to describe a sequence of in-game events (I killed the driver) and events in the world (I killed my grandmother with an axe), it sounds as if the acts are comparable, and it requires some effort to separate the two apparent murders.

As this, and subsequent examples, show, we encounter difficulties if we assume that some of our words manage to conjure up literal truths, while others are used metaphorically. All use of language must, of necessity, conjure up constructed worlds (P). Those constructions may be done in many ways, some better and richer and more useful than others, but it is not the case that some words manage to escape this basic feature of language use. So there will be a constant need to be vigilant in recognising when we have mistaken one represented reality for another.


The dual timelines associated with the game world and the couch world might usefully be compared to the scientific image and the manifest image, as recounted by Sellars.