"Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality"
by Ted Friedman
 An earlier version of this essay appeared in Cybersociety,
edited by Steven G. Jones (Sage Publications, 1995).

Every encounter between reader and text is a kind of exchange. A book lies inert until it you pick it up and begin to read, extracting meaning out of the jumble of markings on the page. Once you've begun reading, your understanding and expectations structure your encounter with each new passage; that text, in turn, affects your subsequent response to the next passage. The exchange continues, back and forth, so that a good book can seem to "suck you in" until you lose track of where you end and the book begins.

This magical connection between reader and book, however, is tenuous, and difficult to maintain. A moment's distraction, and the words are once again just markings on a page. In a way, the exchange is always one-sided; no matter what you do on your end, the text remains the same.

What makes interaction with computers so powerfully absorbing - for better and worse - is the way computers can transform the exchange between reader and text into a feedback loop. Every response you make provokes a reaction from the computer, which leads to a new response, and so on, as the loop from the screen to your eyes to your fingers on the keyboard to the computer to the screen becomes a single cybernetic circuit.

Of course, there's many different kinds of software, and different levels of engagement with computers. Using a word processor is a fairly disengaged activity. You see the words appear on the screen as you type, but the rest is up to you. Surfing the web offers a moderate degree of engagement, as the term "browsing" implies. The feedback is incremental rather than fluid - each new page offers a series of discrete options; each surfing choice brings up a new page of hyperlinks. For a sense of full immersion, there's nothing like a computer game, in which the computer responds almost instantaneously to every action of the player, which in turn provokes a new reaction from the player, and so on.

If the feedback loop between user and computer is what is most distinctive about human-computer interaction, then computer games are in many ways the quintessential software products. Looking more closely at the dynamics of computer games, then, may help us understand the new interactive possibilities opened up by computer software.

A Brief History of Computer Games

Playing games on computers was first made possible by the introduction of minicomputers in the late 1950s. Freed from the IBM punch card bureaucracy, programmers for the first time were able to explore the possibilities opened up by hands-on interaction with computers. Games were among the first programs attempted by the original "hackers," undergraduate members of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club. The result, in 1962, was the collaborative development of the first computer game: Spacewar, a basic version of what would become the Asteroids arcade game, played on a $120,000 DEC PDP-1. (Levy, 1984; Wilson, 1992; Laurel, 1993) Computer designer Brenda Laurel points out this early recognition of the centrality of computer games as models of human-computer interaction:

Why was Spacewar the "natural" thing to build with this new technology? Why not a pie chart or an automated kaleidoscope or a desktop? Its designers identified action as the key ingredient and conceived Spacewar as a game that could provide a good balance between thinking and doing for its players. They regarded the computer as a machine naturally suited for representing things that you could see, control, and play with. Its interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which humans could participate (Laurel, 1993, p. 1).

As computers became more accessible to university researchers through the 1960s, several genres of computer games emerged. Programmers developed chess programs sophisticated enough to defeat humans. The first computer role-playing game, Adventure, was written at Stanford in the 1960s: by typing short phrases, you could control the adventures of a character trekking through a magical landscape while solving puzzles. And in 1970 Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner introduced Americans to LIFE, a simulation of cellular growth patterns written by British mathematician John Conway. LIFE was the first "software toy," an addictively open-ended model of systemic development designed to be endlessly tinkered with and enjoyed (Levy, 1984; Wilson, 1992).

The 1970s, of course, saw the birth of the video arcade, the home video game system, and the personal computer. By the early 1980s, computer game software production had become an industry (Wilson, 1992). And in the past fifteen years, as personal computers' capacities have continued to exponentially expand, computer games have continued to develop, offering increasingly detailed graphics and sounds, growing opportunities for multiple-player interaction via modems and on-line services, and ever-more sophisticated simulation algorithms.

The world of computer games today ranges from arcade-style games emphasizing hand-eye coordination, to role-playing games adding sound and video to the Adventure formula, to simulation games in which players oversee the growth and development of systems ranging from cities to galaxies to alternate life-forms. Computer game publications divide the contemporary field into seven genres: action/arcade, adventure, role-playing adventure, simulation, sports, strategy, and war. Within these categories, of course, there remains much overlap. An empire-building game like Civilization, for example, rests somewhere between a wargame and a simulation, while many adventure games contain arcade-style interludes.1

"Interactive Cinema"

How can we make sense of the new interactive possibilities computer games offer? One popular perspective is to think of computer games a like movies, only more so. Computer game development companies, the argument goes, are "The New Hollywood."2 This analogy has its roots in the changing economics of entertainment production. Over the last few years, Hollywood studios have flocked to Silicon Valley to gain access to the latest computer-generated special-effects techniques, and to position themselves to be able to produce the kind of interactive entertainment to come in the 500-channel future. The "New Hollywood" analogy serves as a helpful model for understanding the process of computer game design. Although in the industry's infancy it was possible for one programmer to write and market a game single-handedly, today computer game production is a complex collaborative process among many specialists. The introduction screens for contemporary games read like movie credits, listing producers, programmers, artists, musicians, and actors. At the top of the credits are the designers, the equivalent to movie directors. In the computer gaming world, designers like Ultima's Lord British, King's Quest's Roberta Williams, and SimCity's Will Wright are respected as auteurs with unique personal visions.

The difference between the New Hollywood and the Old, according to the analogy, is that computer games are "interactive cinema," in which the game player takes on the role of the protagonist. This model particularly fits adventure games such as Sierra On-Line's Gabriel Knight and Phantasmagoria series, which employ digitized video of actors in an attempt to create a movie-like experience. But while production values may have vastly improved since the days of text-based "interactive fiction," the problem designers of contemporary "interactive cinema" face remains the same: how to define "interactive"? How can one give the player a sense of "control" over the game, while still propelling the player through a compelling narrative? The solution, dating back to Adventure and Zork, has always been to set up the game as a series of puzzles. You muddle through the universe of the game - exploring the settings, talking to the characters, acquiring and using objects - until you've accomplished everything necessary to trigger the next stage of the plot. In the process, you're expected to regularly make mistakes, die, and restart the game in a previously saved position.3 Out of the flaws in this system, a whole cottage industry of hint books, 900-numbers, and bulletin boards has developed, to help players stuck halfway through their adventures.

The idea of computer "role-playing" emphasizes the opportunity to identify with the character on the screen - the fantasy is that rather than just watching the hero, you can actually be the hero, or at least make all the hero's decisions yourself. But while classical Hollywood cinema is structured in every way to facilitate "losing yourself" in the fantasy onscreen, the stop-and-go nature of the puzzle-solving paradigm makes it very hard to establish the same level of identification. While adventure games can be a lot of fun, even the best of them can't often deliver what they promise. It's not surprising that the most successful computer game of all time, Myst, is an anomaly, "interactive cinema" without the cinema. Rather than populating the game with the standard digitized B-movie actors, Myst designers Robyn and Rand Miller leave their settings eerily empty, giving the game a stately, haunted feel. Imitators, however, have been unable to match the Millers' command of mood.

A second option in designing "interactive cinema" is to make the game less linear, more hypertextual: rather than railroading the player through a predetermined story line, the game could simply present a series of choices, each branching out into new possibilities, like the children's book series Choose Your Own Adventure. But designers have been reluctant to waste time, money, and disc space on scenes players may never get around to seeing. And in any case, a hypertext model of "interactive cinema" still does little to give the player a sense of real autonomy. The choices remain a limited set of pre-defined options. This certainly increases the complexity of the game: the linear narrative becomes a web, giving the gamer the opportunity to explore the ramifications of various options and map out the game's network of forking paths. But whether a single plot or a network of choices, the world of the game remains as predetermined as that of any film or novel.

All of this is not to say that computer gaming is inherently a more distanced, alienating form of interaction than watching a movie; far from it, as we shall see. But, ironically, those games modeled upon cinema are likely to be the least involving. Hamstrung by the demands of traditional narrative, these games operate under a limited model of computer interaction as a series of distinct decisions. As a result, they don't begin to take advantage of the opportunities for constant interaction and feedback between player and computer the way other forms of computer games can.


SimCity is a very different kind of computer game from Gabriel Knight or Myst. A "simulation game," SimCity gives you the opportunity to orchestrate the building and development of a city. The tremendous success of SimCity demonstrates the surprisingly compelling power of a particular kind of human-computer interaction miles away from "interactive cinema."

SimCity actually didn't start off as a simulation game. As the game's creator, Will Wright, explains,

Nervous that the product Wright came up with would appear too "educational," distributors Broderbund took extra steps on SimCity's release in 1987 to make sure it would be perceived as a game, adding "disaster" options and prepackaged scenarios - earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, even an attack from Godzilla. But as a 1989 Newsweek article on the game points out, "these are excess baggage" (Barol, p. 64). What turned SimCity into a giant software hit, spawning numerous bootlegs, imitations, and spin-offs (including SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife, SimFarm, SimHealth, SimGolf, SimTown, SimTune, SimIsle, and the sequels SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000), was the pleasure Wright discovered in the simulation process itself.

Here's a description of the original game from a Maxis catalog:

Beginning (in the basic scenario) with an undeveloped patch of land and an initial development fund, you create a city by choosing where and what kind of power plants to build; zoning industrial, commercial, and residential areas; laying down roads, mass transit, and power lines; and building police stations, fire departments, airports, seaports, and stadiums. And so on - while playing the game eventually comes to feel entirely intuitive, the system is quite complex, and the sequel SimCity 2000 offers even more options. Every action is assigned a price, and you can only spend as much money as you have in the city treasury. The treasury begins at a base amount, then can be replenished yearly by taxes, the rate of which is up to you. As you becomes more familiar with the system, you gradually develop strategies to encourage economic growth, build up the population of the city, and score a higher "approval rating" from the Sims. Which of these or other goals the player chooses to pursue, however, is up to you; Maxis likes to refer to its products as "Software Toys" rather than games, and insists,
  Expanding upon the "Software Toy" ideal, science fiction writer and computer game critic Orson Scott Card argues that the best computer games are those which provide the most open-ended frameworks to allow players the opportunity to create their own worlds:
  Computer Gaming as Demystification

Of course, however much "freedom" computer game designers grant players, any simulation will be rooted in a set of baseline assumptions. SimCity has been criticized from both the left and right for its economic model. It assumes that low taxes will encourage growth while high taxes will hasten recessions. It discourages nuclear power, while rewarding investment in mass transit. And most fundamentally, it rests on the empiricist, technophilic fantasy that the complex dynamics of city development can be abstracted, quantified, simulated, and micromanaged.4

These are not flaws in the game - they are its founding principles. They can be engaged and debated, and other computer games can be written following different principles. But there could never be an "objective" simulation free from "bias." Computer programs, like all texts, will always be ideological constructions.

The fear of some computer game critics, though, is that technology may mask the constructedness of any simulation. Science fiction writer and Byte magazine columnist Jerry Pournelle argues:

While Pournelle's warnings are well taken, I think he overestimates the mystifying power of technophilia. In fact, I would argue that computer games reveal their own constructedness to a much greater extent than more traditional texts. Pournelle asks that designers open up their programs, so that gamers can "know what the inner relationships are." But this is exactly what the process of computer game playing reveals. Learning and winning (or, in the case of a non-competitive "software toy," "reaching one's goals at") a computer game is a process of demystification: one succeeds by discovering how the software is put together. The player molds her or his strategy through trial-and-error experimentation to see "what works" - which actions are rewarded and which are punished. Likewise, the extensive discourse on game strategy in manuals, magazines, bulletin boards, and guides like The Official SimCity Planning Commission Handbook and The SimEarth Bible does exactly what Pournelle asks, exposing the "inner relationships" of the simulation to help players succeed more fully.

Unlike a book or film which one is likely to encounter only once, a computer game is usually played over and over. The moment it is no longer interesting is the moment when all its secrets have been discovered, its limitations exposed. Game designer and author Chris Crawford describes the hermeneutics of computer games as fundamentally a process of deconstruction rather than simple interpretation. David Myers observes,

Simulation and Subjectivity

Playing SimCity is a very different experience from playing an adventure game like King's Quest. The interaction between player and computer is constant and intense. Gameplaying is a continuous flow - it can be very hard to stop, because you're always in the middle of dozens of different projects: nurturing a new residential zone in one corner of the map, building an airport in another, saving up money to buy a new power plant, monitoring the crime rate in a particularly troubled neighborhood, and so on. Meanwhile, the city is continually changing, as the simulation inexorably chugs forward from one month to the next (unless you put the game on pause to handle a crisis). By the time you've made a complete pass through the city, a whole new batch of problems and opportunities have developed. If the pace of the city's development is moving too fast to keep up with, the simulation can be slowed down (i.e., it'll wait longer in real-time to move from one month to the next); if you're waiting around for things to happen, the simulation can be speeded up.

As a result, it's easy slide into a routine with absolutely no down-time, no interruptions from complete communion with the computer. The game can grow so absorbing, in fact, your subjective sense of time is distorted (See Myers, 1992). Myers writes, "from personal experience and interviews with other players, I can say it is very common to play these games for eight or more hours without pause, usually through the entire first night of purchase" (Myers, 1991, p. 343). You look up, and all of a sudden it's morning.

It's very hard to describe what it feels like when you're "lost" inside a computer game, precisely because at that moment your sense of self has been fundamentally transformed. Flowing through a continuous series of decisions made almost automatically, hardly aware of the passage of time, you form a symbiotic circuit with the computer, a version of the cyborgian consciousness described by Donna Haraway in her influential "Manifesto for Cyborgs" (1985). The computer comes to feel like an organic extension of your consciousness, and you may feel like an extension of the computer itself.5

This isn't exactly the way the SimCity user's manual puts it. The manual describes your role as a "combination Mayor and City Planner." In Civilization, you're referred to as "Chief," "Warlord," "Prince," "King," or "Emperor" (depending on the skill level), and you can adopt the names of various historical leaders - Abraham Lincoln when playing the Americans, Genghis Khan when leading the Mongols, and so on. But while these titles suggest that you imagine yourself playing a specific "role" along the lines of the "interactive cinema" model, the structures of identification in simulation games are much more complex. Closer to the truth is the setup in Populous, where you're simply God - omnipotent (within the rules of the game), omniscient, and omnipresent. While in some simulations explicitly about politics, like Hidden Agenda and Crisis in the Kremlin, your power and perspective is limited to that of a chief of state, in games like SimCity you're personally responsible for far more than any one leader - or even an entire government - could ever manage. You directly controls the city's budget, economic and residential growth, transportation, police and fire services, zoning, and even entertainment (the "Sims" eventually get mad if you don't build them a stadium). While each function is putatively within the province of government control, the game structure makes you identify as much with the roles of industrialist, merchant, real estate agent, and citizen, as with those of Mayor or City Planner.

For example, in SimCity, the way a new area of town is developed is to "zone" it. You decides whether each parcel of land should be marked for residential, industrial, or commercial use. You can't make the zones develop into thriving homes or businesses; that's determined by the simulation, on the basis of a range of interconnected factors including crime rate, pollution, economic conditions, power supply, and the accessibility of other zones. If you've set up conditions right, an empty residential zone will quickly blossom into a high-rise apartment complex, raising land values, adding tax money to the city's coffers, and increasing the population of the city. If the zone isn't well-integrated into the city, it may stay undeveloped, or degenerate into a crime-ridden slum.

But while you can't control the behavior putatively assigned to the residents of the city - "the Sims" - the identification process at the moment the player zones the city goes beyond simply seeing yourself as "the Mayor," or even as the collective zoning commission. The cost of zoning eats up a substantial portion of a city's budget - much more than it would cost a real city. This is structurally necessary to limit your ability to develop the city, so that building the city is a gradual, challenging process (something close to a narrative, in fact). The effect on gameplay is to see the process less as "zoning" than as buying the land. Not to say that you think of every SimCity building as being owned by the government. But at the moment of zoning, you're not playing the role of mayor, but of someone else - homeowner, landlord, or real estate developer, perhaps, in the case of a residential zone.

We could see playing SimCity, then, as a constant shifting of identifications, depending on whether you're buying land, organizing the police force, paving the roads, or whatever. This, I think, is part of what's going on. But this model suggests a level of disjunction - jumping back and forth from one role to the next - belied by the smooth, almost trance-like state of gameplay. Overarching these functional shifts, I think, is a more general state of identification: with the city as a whole, as a single system.

What does it mean to identify with an entire city? Perhaps attempting to map "roles" onto the player's on-screen identification misses the point. When a player "zones" a land area, she or he is less identifying less with a role than with a process. And the reason that the decision, and the continuous series of decisions the gamer makes, can be made so quickly and intuitively, is that you have internalized the logic of the program, so that you're always able to anticipate the results of your actions. "Losing yourself" in a computer game means, in a sense, identifying with the simulation itself.

Simulation as Cognitive Mapping

In The Condition of Postmodernity, geographer David Harvey argues for the primacy of spatialization in constructing cognitive frameworks: We learn our ways of thinking and conceptualizing from active grappling with the spatializations of the written word, the study and production of maps, graphs, diagrams, photographs, models, paintings, mathematical symbols, and the like (Harvey, 1989, p. 206).Harvey then points out the dilemma of making sense of space under late capitalism:

Representing flux and change is exactly what a simulation can do, by replacing the stasis of 2- or 3- dimensional spatial models with a map that shifts over time to reflect change. And this change is not simply the one-way communication of a series of still images, but a continually interactive process. Computer simulations bring the tools of narrative to mapmaking, allowing the individual not simply to observe structures, but to become experientially immersed in their logic.

Simulations may be our best opportunity to create what Fredric Jameson calls "an aesthetic of cognitive mapping: a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system" (Jameson, 1991, p. 54) Playing a simulation means becoming engrossed in a systemic logic which connects a myriad array of causes and effects. The simulation acts as a kind of map-in-time, visually and viscerally (as the player internalizes the game's logic) demonstrating the repercussions and interrelatedness of many different social decisions. Escaping the prison-house of language which seems so inadequate for holding together the disparate strands that construct postmodern subjectivity, computer simulations provide a radically new quasi-narrative form through which to communicate structures of interconnection.

Sergei Eisenstein hoped that the technology of montage could make it possible to film Marx's Capital. But the narrative techniques of Hollywood cinema developed in a way which directs the viewer to respond to individuals rather than abstract concepts. A computer game based on Capital, on the other hand, is easy to imagine. As Chris Crawford notes, (paraphrased by David Myers), "game personalities are not as important as game processes - 'You can interact with a process . . . Ultimately, you can learn about it'" (Myers, 1990, p. 27. Quote from Crawford, 1986, p. 15).

The Future: From Interactive Textuality to Computer-Mediated Communication

One criticism often made of simulation games like SimCity is that they're solipsistic "power trips," gratifying the gamer's desire to play God. This is to some degree unfair - simulations are often played in groups, particularly in educational settings. (SimCity is used as a pedagogical tool in many Urban Studies classes.) But it is true that the absorbing interaction between human and computer in simulation gaming can tend to discourage collaborative play.

Adventure games, by comparison, have always been more conducive to collaborative playing, because of the stop-and-go nature of the gameplay. When you can't get any further in a game until you solve a puzzle, the more minds the better. Players on the Internet have gone even further, developing "MUDs" ("Multi-User Dungeons") that transcend the boundaries of gaming, allow hundreds of players to collaborate in creating an open-ended world of fantasy. The basic commands invented for text-based adventures - "move," "look," "talk," "ask," "get," and so on - provide participants with a range of interactive opportunities. And the computer game traditions of thick textual description, playful role-playing, and persistent exploration remain powerful imaginative tools. Today, MUDs are virtual spaces in which users, unconstrained by physical presence, can freely experiment with identity.

Noticing the popularity of these cyberspace communities, more conventional computer games have also begun going online. Gamers can now log on and play adventure games like Diablo and Ultima against thousands of human opponents. Other games operate over local area networks: staff-wide Doom battles are a popular office pastime, and even SimCity has been released in a networkable version. More and more, computer gaming is becoming a social rather than solitary activity.

It's hard not to find this development salutary. And yet, I think there will always be a place for the individual cybernetic connection between player and machine. Like reading a book, playing a computer game is often an intensely personal experience, and a transformative one.6


1. See Myers, 1989, for a more extensive discussion of computer game genres.

2. This widely-quoted phrase was coined by Electronic Arts executive Trip Hawkins in the early 1980s (Wilson, 1992).

3. I'm certain the film Groundhog Day was made by computer game players - it perfectly captures the "oh no, not again" exasperation of playing the same sequence over and over, again and again, until you get everything right.

4. Complaining about the pro-government "bias" of SimHealth, a game that simulates the economics of health care reform, one critic speculates, "maybe what we really need is an economic simulator called SimAdam Smith: You turn it on and just leave it alone" (Moss, 1993). As we shall see, however, it's not a simple step to equate the player with the hand of government, even if you're putatively designated "SimMayor."

5. For more on computer gaming as a cybernetic link between player and computer, see Friedman 1998.

6. I would like to thank Robert Allen, Adam Frank, Joseba Gabilondo, Kevin Jon Heller, Maude Hines, Norman Holland, Fredric Jameson, Henry Jenkins, Kate Lewis, Ann Maderer, Janet Murray, Janice Radway and Tyler Stevens for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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Ted Friedman (tlove@acpub.duke.edu) is a doctoral student at Duke University's Program in Literature and Literary Theory. He is currently completing his disseration, "Cybertopian Visions: A Cultural History of Personal Computers." He has written about pop culture for Details, Spin, Vibe, The Source, Stim, Blender, Bad Subjects, Radio On, and alt.culture. His home page is http://www.duke.edu/~tlove