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Negative egress, capability

January 8, 2009

freemanvssnakeProminent scholar Henry Jenkins wrote a post about the concept of “negative capability” on his blog, Confessions of an Arca Fan. Taking the term from Jon Keats, Jenkin’s effortlessly provides the reference,

“Consider, for example, a horror film where the monster remains in the shadows and thus becomes more terrifying as we flesh it out in our minds. The less the filmmaker shows us, the more we are able to imagine something that terrifies us. The minute the monster comes into the light, we are stuck with whatever the filmmaker thought we would find fearsome.”

In the text he relates the concept in the use of fan fiction, where writers have taken advantage of this character attribute and have proceeded to continue the tales of their favorite cult universes or characters.

Looking at my graphical header, you would assume that this posting would concern with character development and narratives that provide protagonists with highly descriptive back-story versus the silent protagonist where little is known of the character’s history or motives. But I am quite certain that you can process the concept of negative capability yourself in the gaming realm. There are always advantages and disadvantages to each method and, of course, there are multitudes of fan fiction on the Internet to demonstrate the relevance of negative capability in the gaming realm. But aside from the narrative and characterization prospects of the concept, I would like to focus on something entirely different: the notion of negative capability in game design.

Now, the closest comparable model on the proposed concept is the idea of emergent gameplay. For those unaware, it is the evolution of player driven gameplay that is unintended by the designer. We often see this occur in open world games from the sandbox mentality of the Grand Theft Auto 3 series to the online games universes of various MMOs. Designer, Peter Molyneux, has been a vocal supporter of emergent gameplay and has attempted to promote this sort of game design philosophy for Lionhead Studios from the Black & White series to the Fable series. Emergent gameplay has become a new “it” concept for a select number of designers of recent, leading to the debate on which game experience takes more advantage of the medium.

Mandelbrot killed the dinosaurs.

Mandelbrot killed the dinosaurs.

But emergent gameplay becomes is itself an expected result in spite of the attempts to promote it. It is almost like attempting to predict the result of chaos theory. There are parameters of prediction, but the specifics upon the results and more than less unknown. Hence despite the ideals of creating a game in order to instill emergent gameplay, designers continue to provide a primary path, a narrative, and a major set of goals and experiences that are intended for the player to experience. Despite the emergent gameplay, games retain the instilled ideals of authorship and the intended experience of the player. I would relate this factor similarly to how Jenkin’s approaches the idea of deleted scenes and director’s cuts in film.

“We might contrast this focus on deleted scenes with a genre of fan fiction called ‘missing scenes.’ Here, fans add to the fiction, offering their own versions of what might have happened during scenes absent from the original source… So, the term, ‘deleted scenes,’ holds onto the idea that authors get to determine what belongs in their story, while the term, ‘missing scenes,’ allows fans to decide for themselves what parts of the story they want to see. Both can represent creative contributions to our understanding of the work but they have different kinds of status because our culture tends to value the original author over their readers.”

When looking at Keat’s definition of negative capability, the poet states, “”I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” This sounds very much like the philosophy of emergent gameplay design and maybe this is as far as I should take the term against the extent towards gameplay. But I would like to introduce a completely different approach to the concept, that is related to but outside normalcy of considered game space. This is the idea of “emersive” gameplay.

If we are to assume the majority belief that videogames are attempting to create an immersive experience, a kind of absorption through engagement, then we can assume emersive gameplay intends to be the opposite affect. I am coing the term from both “emersion” and “immersive” in order to express that the concept I am attempted to create resides somewhere in between both definitions. It is the negative capability of the design and response of the game to the user to creative an emergent experience that is both immersive but dissonant. In other words, the experience follows in line with the immersive nature of videogames, but is designed with the ideals of emergent gameplay while is different in one defining factor; there is no authorship present. As opposed to as previously stated, emergent gameplay or the parameters of it become the primary intended path of experience.

We can look at emersive gameplay in two ways. One is the notion of player driven gameplay and content where the designer takes a back seat distancing the player from the game. Instead, authorship becomes communal and demarcated to the investment of each individual. More recently, we can look at games like Spore and Little Big Planet. But these models become problematic and, honestly, stretching it a bit thin. Rather, I would like to return to an idea I have touch upon in the past. The Freudian notion of “umheimlich,” an uncanny or familiar dissonance. This dissonance does not completely alienate the gamer with the game space, but influences itself upon the feeling of separation that consistently remains in the background of the experience. Often this commonly creates a negative response in the form of detachment to the gameplay, gaming experience, or even revealed as glitches in the programming.

SackVader does not approve of his retconned character history.

SackVader does not approve of his retconned character history.

But negative response, the same with negative capability, does not have to disengage or not be enjoyable. Emersive gameplay can be exploiting a glitch or even griefing in the game world. Emersive gameplay is the presence of game design that has no singular authorship, reveals the separation of the game from the player, and thereafter allows the player to immerse himself in a different manner through this particular kind of emergent gameplay that separates him from the game space. It is the negative capability of game design, a subversive and risky venture for any game designer. But it is an experience that has yet to be utilized and developed upon and I hope that in the future more experimentation on this concept will reach fruition and maturity.

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One comment

  1. […] My purpose of this post is to offer some sort of reading on how we see the direction of the videogame industry evolving and how we can justify approaching the medium in more culturally relevant manner concerning the production of the work itself rather than merely focusing on the reaction of the player and the product. And post as an effort to also comment on the interesting relationship of the industry, its developers, the critics, and the gamers. Where new media continues to emphasize the importance of convergence culture, consumer relationships, and transparency it is important to note how videogames as a medium contains the foundation for a more intimate relationship between corporation and individual similar to artist and admirer. The most inaccessable intellectual in videogames.Note: You may have noticed the Monkey Island skull in the graphical header of this posting. In an attempt to integrate more theoretical texts into this blog, I have branded this entry as an MCR (Motley Crew Reader). The rag tag “crew” will be the theorists and philosophers I intend to further read and integrate into an unofficial series of blog posts. It also refers to you dear readers and bloggers and I feel we are all in this boat together discussing interactive media and the new horizons in videogames. This article will be tagged under MCR as well as my post discussing Henry Jenkin’s theory on negative capability. […]



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