Contemplating categorization

The videogaming industry has always loved categories–largely because they make for efficient marketing to established user-bases. But as the games we play get more complex–combining more and diverse mechanics in more and diverse contexts–developing stable categories will only become more difficult and misleading.

A game like Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, for example, would probably qualify as an action-adventure, stealth, RPG, with elements of tower defense, and resource management. While listing these mechanics may signal how the game is to be played, it says little about how those elements come together into a meaningful for the player.

Assasin's Creed Revelations: Tower Defense

It seems inevitable that games like Journey, which I have described as promoting contemplation, will be positioned against games featuring more violent content. I think it is important, however, not to stake “contemplative games” against “violent games” as comparable categories or types of games.

The adjective “violent” would describe the CONTENT of a violent videogame. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a violent videogame because it depicts violence onscreen. Journey, by contrast, doesn’t depict contemplation; players don’t press X to reflect wistfully. “Contemplative” as a category would, I think, describe a kind of user-experience.

For this reason I want to resist defining a category of contemplative games. I believe instead that it is a style of play that games can promote or encourage to varying degrees. I suppose you could say that games that tend toward rewarding contemplative play, contemplative games; but for me it has problematic connotations. It suggests unidirectional influence, the kind of influence those of us who defend games reject when parent groups and politicians criticize violent games. Do contemplative games evoke contemplation in the ways violent games evoke violence?

Videogames are sets of affordances. They grant us a range of actions that elicit a range of responses. How one employs those actions and processes those responses is really up to the player. Portal supports both imaginative reflection and speed runs. The Sims can be a life simulator–as marketed–or it can just as easily become a game about an impatient, vengeful god. Even in Journey, players can reject the parable-driven attitude all together and look for glitches, grief other players by sacrificing them to the scarf-eating monsters, try to do funny or weird things with their avatars, or really anything the environment allows.

Glitching Journey

If contemplation is understood as a style, then all manner of videogames can promote it in spots. In fact, violence can itself be an occasion for contemplative play. For all the awkwardness of the scene, the one great success of the No Russian sequence in Modern Warfare 2 was its ability to prompt FPS players to pause over the trigger button (I wrote about this here , continued here, and inĀ Guns, Grunts, and Grenades ).

Or, for a less controversial example, take the first reveal of the Capitol Building in Fallout 3 One certainly could ignore that monument of US democracy off in the distance and get right on to the mutant nuking. But it can also be an moment in which a player considers how Fallout’s alternative history compares to the current socio-political climate. This is a game that introduced a slowmotion kill cam to highlight spectacular skull-shattering finishes.

The Capitol Building, Fallout 3

A game like Fallout 3 would likely never be placed in a contemplative category with games like Journey. And yet, it supports contemplative play. Again, the game does not pause to grant the player time to reflect, nor is the player necessarily compelled to make these connections to proceed. The point is that the game offers opportunities to do it, and that opportunity produces an aspect of gameplay that exceeds its combination of action role-playing open world game mechanics.

Now, I seriously doubt the standard categories and their re-combinations will soon fall out of use; they are simply too ingrained in the gamer culture as shorthands, nor do I think an alternative is absolutely necessary. I do, however, want to find more ways to talk about gameplay in excess of game mechanics and I think contemplative gaming is one of those ways.