chapter  7
18 Pages

Understanding Digital Playability

WithSébastien Genvo

In his book Pourquoi la fiction? 1 Jean-Marie Schaeffer notes that the modalities of circulation of digital fictions are much more flexible than the fictions known as “traditional,” because of the quasi-instantaneity of the transmission as well as the infinite reproducibility of the transmitted signals. This has as a consequence an extraordinary multiplication of the fictional worlds in circulation in a transcultural context. In this perspective, video games are established as a representative case of the potential of the new media to connect various cultures at an international level. This applies for online games as well as for offline games, since the video game industry is a globalized one. This reflection encourages one to question the modalities of expression that the video games offer. Indeed, authors such as Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, or Jacques Henriot have raised the fact that the various forms of play and the representations related to this activity can vary according to places and times. Consequently, video games raise the question of communication processes set up on an international scale, particularly within the field of game design. Indeed, it is through the design of a video game’s world that players from different cultures will be encouraged to adopt a ludic attitude, in order to get them involved in its fictional universe. Therefore, game design concerns what I call “ludic mediation,” that is, the process of transmitting the will-to-play to someone. To understand this process, I will show at first that when someone plays, he adopts a particular posture of immersion that is a “ludic attitude” (we will see that this attitude rests on a willingness to operate by certain

rules and restrictions in a metaphorical way). But in order to be able to adopt this attitude, the structure upon which the actions are performed must be appropriate to the activity of play: it must contain a certain amount of “playability.” This is true of the structures of both traditional, physically-based games as well as digital ones. Nevertheless, we will see that digital media imply particular modalities of mediation, which do not exist within traditional games. These different elements raise questions as to which theoretical tools can be mobilized to describe the structural conditions of ludic mediation set up by a given video game, in order to understand the way it presents a specific playability. To achieve this analysis successfully, it will be necessary to link a ludologic approach to some useful elements of narrative semiotics in order to formulate what I call a descriptive approach of playability. The purpose of this link is to take fully into account specificities of the meaning production process in the case of digital play. The last part of this essay is an example of analysis of Tetris, a game which may not appear to have any narrative aspects, yet which is perfectly suited to the descriptive approach as I define it.