Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

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Steven Poole con­sid­ers gaming verbs beyond walk and shoot

When analysing the range of ac­tion avail­able to the player of a videogame, an­a­lysts some­times talk about the ‘verbs’. Walk, run, crouch, shoot, hi­jack car, hack CCTV cam­era – th­ese are all fa­mil­iar verbs in videogames, which just means that if you ma­nip­u­late a con­trol in a cer­tain way, your on­screen avatar or per­spec­ti­val point will shift in a cer­tain way, or some­thing else will hap­pen in the game­world. Less common verbs in games are shud­der, ca­ress, kneel or day­dream.

To remark on the paucity of common verbs is one way to point out the amaz­ingly stunted sim­u­la­tion of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence in most of to­day’s videogames, even or es­pe­cially those that as­pire to be the most ma­ture or cin­e­matic. What hap­pens in them is that vaguely recog­nis­able hu­man in­ter­ac­tions hap­pen in cutscenes, and then one is thrown back into play­ing with the or­di­nary hand­ful of verbs avail­able to the kind of sup­pos­edly charis­matic psy­chopath who counts as a hero.

To speak of player ‘verbs’ in a videogame is, of course, a metaphor. Verbs are parts of lan­guage, not of be­hav­iour, vir­tual or oth­er­wise. So it is salutory to be re­minded of the pos­si­bil­ity that the menu of verbs could be far longer and richer in the kind of game built with words rather than poly­gons. The poet John Red­mond makes this im­plicit point in his re­mark­able long poem from 2008, MUDe. It takes the form of a fic­tional tran­script of sev­eral MUD ses­sions.

Of­ten the player in the poem types in or­di­nary com­mands such as ‘look’ or ‘drink’. But in one in­ter­ac­tion be­tween user and sys­tem Red­mond makes a sub­tle gen­eral joke about player verbs: ‘>ack / You ack’. What does it mean to ack? Per­haps the player means to say ‘ack’ in an ex­pres­sion of an­noy­ance or dis­gust. But we can’t be sure, and we are given no in­di­ca­tion whether the sys­tem un­der­stands the verb ‘ack’, or whether it is just par­rot­ing it back to the player. The point may be that it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter, as long as the player feels that suc­cess­ful ex­pres­sion has oc­curred.

This ‘ack’ is ev­i­dently the kind of verb that one can­not imag­ine be­ing as­signed to a joy­pad but­ton in an open-world city-based mur­der sim­u­la­tor. Sim­i­larly im­pos­si­ble to build in such a game would be the eerie and disturbing se­quence in MUDe in which the player meets Death. “Your mouth is forced open as wide as it can go. Then wider. Death tum­bles inside with his six wet arms.” One could watch this hap­pen­ing to a player avatar on a screen, but it wouldn’t be hap­pen­ing to you.

Red­mond’s poem is not merely an as­ser­tion of the power of lan­guage to get at you where you live, so to speak, although in a sub­se­quent ex­plana­tory note the poet does riff on some of the prop­er­ties of lan­guage, and par­tic­u­larly verbs, that make a word­built world so flex­i­ble. “MUDs at­tract spe­cial kinds of lan­guage use,” he ex­plains. “One ex­am­ple is the so-called ‘emote’. An emote oc­curs when a player demon­strates an emo­tion the­atri­cally rather than merely re­port­ing it. So, for ex­am­ple, a player who is feel­ing chirpy might type ‘bounce’. The other play­ers in the same room will then read ‘John bounces around’ in­stead of ‘John says: I am ex­cited’.” In MUDs, then, lan­guage is of­ten per­for­ma­tive, in the terms of philoso­pher JL Austin: words do things.

The point is not that word-built games are sim­ply su­pe­rior, although it is likely that they will al­ways do in­te­ri­or­ity bet­ter (Death climb­ing into you) than visual games, in the same way that nov­els do in­te­ri­or­ity bet­ter than cin­ema. But per­haps the fact that the text ad­ven­ture is again resur­gent (un­der the rubric of In­ter­ac­tive Fic­tion) be­speaks a dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the verbs avail­able in main­stream videogames. In Watch Dogs, for ex­am­ple, it is lit­er­ally im­pos­si­ble to sit down on a park bench. And after a few sleep cy­cles in my scummy hide­out I se­ri­ously wanted to brush my teeth.

It would of course be much more work to build many such ap­par­ently triv­ial pos­si­bil­i­ties of ac­tion into videogames that are al­ready ex­tremely com­pli­cated. But the dan­ger is that as long as play­ers are limited to not much more than move­ment and con­de­scend­ingly con­tex­tual ac­tion-but­ton pushes, they will never re­ally feel that the per­son rep­re­sent­ing them in the game­world is a hu­man be­ing. In­stead, that fig­ure will re­main a re­mote-con­trolled an­droid, some­how mutely sad­dened by its own em­bar­rass­ingly poor vo­cab­u­lary of verbs.

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