Sunday, January 17, 2021

Noah Wardrip-Fruin's "How Pac-Man Eats"

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is Professor of Computational Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he codirects the Expressive Intelligence Studio. He is the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.

Wardrip-Fruin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How Pac-Man Eats, and reported the following:
In How Pac-Man Eats, the top of page 99 is a full-width image. At first glance it might appear to be a game screenshot, but on closer examination it’s a composite, showing an artist-made character skin posed both at street level and on a rooftop in the game Grand Theft Auto III.

The composite is made from Jim Munroe’s video, “My Trip to Liberty City.” Page 99 picks up after I have quoted the first line of the video’s voice-over, “Mm-kay. This is just some of the video from my trip to Liberty City.” From there it continues:
One of the first things that Munroe’s character does is refuse the game’s mission system. He’s asked to “introduce a bat” to the face of another criminal, and Munroe reflects: “You know, I just didn’t feel like it. It was a great day, it was beautiful out, the sun was shining. And I don’t even play baseball. Much less, you know, want to kill someone with a baseball bat.”

He changes the game’s avatar into a “Canadian Tourist” skin, so as not to confuse anyone else by having a thug-like appearance.

Next, Munroe’s character refuses driving. While everyone’s heard of all the cars in Grand Theft Auto, he feels like the best way to get to know a city is to walk around on foot. He demonstrates the beauty one can find by walking up to a rooftop—pointedly ignoring the valuable hidden package spinning at its top—and takes in the almost-setting sun and the street scene below. Then he notices a distant stand of trees that may be a park.

Back at street level he tries to “ask directions” to the park but finds an impolite response from everyone he meets (as GTA III players know, there is no way to ask anyone anything, only a way to bump into them). He tries to take in the natural beauty, but falls in the water and ends up at the hospital. On the way home he tries to catch a cab, but they all pull away (as GTA III players know, it is because he refuses to engage the carjacking mechanic), leaving him behind.
In the case of How Pac-Man Eats, the page 99 test finds a key example, but other pages must be read to understand why it is key. At this point I’m discussing the idea that video game players are most interesting when they are not doing what game designers expect of them. They may be opting out of the apparent rules or inventing new, creative modes of playful engagement with games. I’m asking: What are players really doing in these cases?

To answer that requires a step back. How Pac-Man Eats argues that we have consistently mis-identified the fundamental elements of video games. Most discussions of game fundamentals focus on “mechanics”—the things players are invited to do. I argue that mechanics are themselves supported by a set of “operational logics,” which enable things such as player control, object collision, and resource accumulation and expenditure. These logics are fundamental elements of “playable models,” the procedural representations through which we experience games’ physical space, combat, character progression, and more.

When you’re focused on mechanics, “My Trip to Liberty City” looks like someone refusing everything the game invites them to do. But How Pac-Man Eats argues that even if players are ignoring the high-level rules and expectations built into the game design, even if players are refusing the core mechanics meant to be at the center of the gameplay experience, these same players are deeply engaging the game’s logics and models. Munroe’s rooftop visit is a celebration of GTA III’s spatial movement model, while refusing to be motivated by the “rewards” meant to entice movement. In a later part of the video, to earn money again after his unfortunate hospitalization (no Canadian socialized medicine in Liberty City), he decides to try street busking. This involves “miming” by triggering the animations of the combat model without a target. That is, he exploits aspects of the combat model, while refusing to employ the mechanics it supports.

In short, this example helps reveal how logics and models help us understand what players are doing and how games respond, no matter how players approach games. Even if, as players, we choose not to address the problems the designers imagined us solving, or choose to deliberately subvert them, our play is always grounded in the environment defined by the logics and models.
Learn more about How Pac-Man Eats at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue