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Playing Rationally or Playing Actively?

This is the seventh in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

We’ve been talking about the role of player identity in open-world games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, and how those games can be seen as literature from different perspectives (see our previous posts). It’s important, when talking about any form of literature, to consider the role of the reader, viewer, or player. Our playing experience with the game Skyrim differs entirely from the experience of literary and videogame critic Tom Bissell, author of the wonderful book, Extra Lives. It helps to know that Skyrim is a fantasy role-playing game that debuted late last year and has quickly become one of the biggest selling games of 2012, despite its lackluster storytelling, wooden dialogue, and overall clichéd fantasy conventions.

Bissell, responding to the game's “un-intelligent narrative,” describes Skyrim this way: “When you combine high-fantasy characters with limited animation with affected writing and artificial performances, the quality of the material becomes irrelevant. It probably wouldn't matter if Skyrim's characters were working with a kilo of uncut Tolkien. Nothing framed in this way can be dramatically interesting. Why bother, then, with trying to generate drama in this very specialized way?”

What Bissell fails to understand is that Skyrim isn’t telling a story at all. At least, not in the traditional narrative way that cinematic games like Mass Effect tell stories. Instead, Skyrim engages the player to allow them to craft their own story, which is a trait more conducive to the Active Player rather than the Rational Player (see our previous post on player types).

Just like Grand Theft Auto, where motivational setups can be skipped altogether with no affect on the gameplay, Skyrim’s dialogue, while clunky, is only meant to provide the projected identity of the player with a moral sounding-board, as in the case of the mission “The White Vial,” in which the player must go out in search of a white vial that supposedly contains a mixture of great power. Here, the player can skip the dialogue portion altogether, choosing to play the game from the Rational Player perspective, but Bissell outlines the problem with this, “there's a point at which this brand of enjoyableness becomes indistinguishable from compulsion, and it seems fair to ask when a game's expansiveness becomes an affable form of indentured servitude.”

Using videogame theorist Miguel Sicart’s open ethical model “in which the players’ values can be used in developing a relationship with the game world, and in which the game world accepts and encourages this player-driven ethical affordance, and on occasion reacts accordingly,” (The Ethics of Computer Games) the player who listens to the dialogue will learn of the power of the white vial and may choose to seek to deprive the sickly old man who told of its replenishing powers, or perhaps seek it out in hopes of saving the old man. The fact that the player will discover the vial cracked and useless doesn’t matter because they will have had sufficient motivation to seek it out. Later missions will reward such motives. Bissell’s rational way of playing works only when morality is provided by the game’s storyline, but for open moral modeled games like Skyrim and GTA, the repetitiveness of rational gameplay becomes “compulsion” and the player is little more than a salivating zombie chasing an ever more elusive goal of 100% game completion.