I am reviewing the first chapter of Douglas Brown’s thesis on the suspension of disbelief in video games. I chose this chapter for analysis because I wanted to understand the foundations upon which the thesis is based – the case for games as a distinct medium. One of my own research interests is the nature of VR (virtual reality) and I am interested in the implications of Brown’s conclusion within the field of VR creativity.
When Dr Brown authored this thesis in 2012 the idea of splitting the gaming experience entirely into text and receiver wasn’t yet technologically possible: “There must always be an input device, of one sort or another, between where game ends and player begins.” (p.138). It still isn’t possible; but, over the last 8 years since this thesis was published, VR technology has become much more mainstream. Haptic technology, facial recognition and so on could provide new grounds for the way we think about gaming. Having skimmed latter parts of the thesis I am aware that VR is discussed; but, for this assessment I have focused on chapter one.
Chapter one sets about constructing an argument for defining games as a distinct media type rather than lumping it into a general category of narrative, or worse still, entertainment. While the author states early on (in the introduction to the thesis) that he believes games now to be generally accepted as a distinct medium; he believes that suspension of disbelief (from hereon, I’ll use the abbreviation s.o.d.) to offer some interesting reconciliation (p.5) which would otherwise have been missed.
Throughout the chapter Brown compares the narrative qualities of games with fictional products of other media. The aim of his analysis is to show that players do not “suspend their disbelief in the same manner as readers, viewers or theatre audiences” (p21) even if elements of these other media are also present in games.
It is important for Brown’s thesis that he is able to successfully build a case for this distinction. Otherwise, one can simply refer to studies about s.o.d. in traditional
media. If games were not a distinct type, the works written about s.o.d. in theatre, for example, would also apply here and there would be no reason to write a thesis specific to games.
If Brown succeeds it could help further consolidate the polarised views of “those who saw games as a new literary form and those who wanted to defend their unique qualities.” (p.5). An early premise within the thesis is the acceptance of the “inherent fictive quality of games on their own terms” (p.9). This entails that the uniqueness of gaming s.o.d. lies somewhere in the
relationship between text (narrative) and player. This is something, Brown already hints at, within the introduction, stating how his intention is to “illuminate the interactive process that transmits these textual features to the player, and interprets their actions in its turn” (p.5)
Within the chapter, Brown identifies three elements which he claims to be unique to s.o.d. in gaming (p.55). These are: skill, agency and authorship. He argues that these elements are not covered by other media types; e.g. books (reading), pictures (viewing) , film (theatre). A successful case for just ones of these three elements would be enough to validate a s.o.d based uniqueness claim.
Agency, Brown observes, is a fundamental part of gaming. The player is not merely a viewer, as in the case of a movie, for example. They must actively and wilfully participate or else they are not engaging with the medium:
“Primarily difficulties stem from players’ agency, the ability to affect the goings-on on-screen through the input device and the user interface. Since generally refusing to use agency is tantamount to not reading the text at all, this fundamental interactivity of gaming makes the gamer something other than an audience.” (p.12)
The sense of authorship in the detail of a game’s writing, says Brown, is as critical as it would be for any work of fiction. But, uniquely, games additionally enhance a sense of player-authorship through wilful participation and interaction via the game’s interface and hardware (controls, etc).
Building on the player-authorship and agency premises, Brown presents, in my view, the strongest claim of the chapter – the idea that skill, a fundamental element to the way games are made and played, directly contradicts the notion of suspending belief in the way it is usually though of with traditional media. Skill entails agency and mastery on the player’s part which directly and meaningfully engages them in the co-authorship of the narrative.
“Skill, and skilled readers suggest quite the opposite of any kind of ‘suspension’, agency is almost diametrically opposed to ‘disbelief’ and the ‘will’ to empower theatrical proceedings is challenged by the possibility of actual, meaningful audience authorship.” (p.55)
Possible Counter Argument
I am immediately tempted to think back to the choose-your-own adventure books that I read as a child in the 1980’s. These were, after-all, texts with a narrative I could influence. There were different skill levels available and agency was involved or the text would not make any sense if merely read from start to finish. And, what about interactive TV shows? For example, the 2018 Netflix film Bandersnatch. If these are examples of traditional types of media – film, fiction, surely this means games belong to their category too and are not a unique type of media after-all.
But, as Brown points out, experimental works from non-gaming media,e.g. film and books, generally tend to have more in common with games than the medium to which they originally belonged. If I take that interpretation a step further, I would conclude that games are not of the same medium as the Bandersnatch film or the choose-your-own-adventure books. The opposite would be true: Bandersnatch and choose-your-own-adventure books are actually of the media type: Game.
This was an stimulating introduction to reading philosophical writing within the field of video games. This chapter alone, merits a full analytical essay rather than a brief overview in which I am aware I have barely scratched the surface. The small amount of time I have been able to afford to studying the chapter is enough to see that the author presents a very strong argument for making the case for gaming as a distinct type of medium. This chapter provides him with the foundation to go on to explore the interactive processes behind the relationship between text and player; without the constraints of s.o.d. theory tied to traditional non-gaming media.