Handle With Care: Computer Games, Noise, and the Fragility of Play

September 27, 2010
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Like the creatures they often contain, computer games (or “video games,” depending on your orientation) tend to be noisy little beasts, constantly calling out to players in a variety of ways. The visuals can strain gamers’ eyes with garish colors or unnervingly dark palettes, audio tracks coax a range of emotions and awarenesses, and puzzle variants taunt from players endless hours of interaction. These entreaties can be overt (e.g., ”Press START”), subtle (e.g., the sound of approaching footsteps), kinaesthetic (e.g., the throb of a force feedback game controller), and aesthetic (e.g., the elegant and futuristic design of a game console); when done well, they all seem natural to players. They also bombard the player and create a cacophonous yet somehow unified command: Pay Attention to Me!

The crass commercial explanation for the making of all this visual, auditory, and kinesthetic noise is that compelling games make money. Games that are capable of holding players’ attention tend to fair better in the market than those that do not, and constantly forcing players to respond is one way to captivate them. A less commercial explanation (though perhaps more controversial) is one my colleague Ken McAllister and I make in our forthcoming book Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium (University of Alabama Press, Spring 2011): games are fundamentally and intractably boring. Like lonely children, they call out constantly because otherwise players would leave them for something more fun and interesting.

But I would like to offer a third explanation. Computer games are noisy because computer game play is fragile; it dissipates far more readily than it coheres. In some sense, all play is fragile–as an intermezzo, to use Johan Huizinga’s famous descriptor, it is constantly under threat of intrusion from non-play, that which it interrupts and gives pause from. However, computer game play seems especially prone to breakage. Take game hardware, for example. What player has not been victimized by a wireless controller battery running down at the most inopportune moment? Sadly, complete console failure is almost as common (e.g., the Xbox 360’s “Red Ring of Death”), and network latency issues (e.g., lag pockets, high ping) far more so. Game software is even more problematical, with operating system strangeness, bugs, crashes, glitches, cheats, patches, updates, rage quits–all of which disrupt games, their spaces, and play proper (though arguably, and I think interestingly, these also help constitute computer games and their play). It is a miracle that computer games are even playable at all, let alone able to mesmerize players the way they often do.

No wonder, then, that computer games are so noisy. They need to do something to counteract the constant threat and occurrence of violation. Their ceaseless beseechments serve to remind players that games are fun, enveloping experiences, and that these experiences can have a constancy and consistency of meaning.

In the end, perhaps it is its fragility that makes computer game play so potent. Like antique glassware or a desert wildflower, much of games’ beauty and expressive power flows from the contradiction of their delicacy and surprising persistence. In other words, they mean more precisely because they are so easily broken.


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One Response to “ Handle With Care: Computer Games, Noise, and the Fragility of Play ”

  1. Sean Duncan on September 27, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    Interesting ideas, and they raise a number of questions — are you making a determininstic argument here? That games would be less “noisy” if the hardware and software weren’t quite so disruptable? How does your notion of fragility connect with non-electronic contexts, such as board and card games? Is something like Apples to Apples “fragile” in the same way? Or television — is the experience of watching a live television broadcast, almost always necessarily broken up by commercials (not to mention real life interruptions) similar, and thus this might not be as much about “games” as just some form of “persistent experience”?