Roland Barthes’ “Death of the author” line of criticism has carried a lot of weight in videogame circles. In large part because it’s just an attractive, empowering theory. Barthes was a French literary critic writing in the 1960’s; a time when literary criticism—particularly from French authors—was a new, dynamic and popular discipline. In killing the author, Barthes was attacking the establishment, Man. A dead author meant that all literature was relevant so long as there was a reader willing to engage with it. The canon was no longer sacred because tradition did not dictate value: readers did.
Barthes argues that the writer doesn’t have a voice, that their intentions of the text are meaningless and that readers are free—required, in fact—to impose whatever interpretations onto a text that they want. The reader’s cultural climate, their personalities, their histories, philosophies, politics and tastes all determine what a text means. The author is just a scrivener that puts all the raw labour into making a text exist; all the ideas—the reason it exists at all—come from the reader. It’s an attractive theory for games critics because players occupy a space between audience and author. Not only is there an absence of a solitary author, but each player does not experience the same text because each player/reader literally constructs a new text out of the developer’s/author’s work in each playthrough. Players are in a better place than even readers to stamp their ideas onto a game because games structurally require players to be a part of them.
This is so intrinsic to games that players are now at their core. Games are designed such that players will have as much opportunity to create their own stories and validate their own interpretations of the fiction as possible. We call these things emergent stories, and they’re quickly turning into the Holy Grail of games design (Alexander, Leigh. “Spector: Go emergent – game design is not all about you.” Gamasutra. Nov 16 2013.). Even those developers that resist making the player feel powerful still design a space for players to express themselves (Alexander, Leigh. “In narrative games, self-expression doesn’t mean ’empowerment’. Gamasutra. Nov 18 2013.). Players (that is, the text’s readers) are the centre of the game, they are the reason a game exists.
The catch with Barthes’ theory, though, is that authors aren’t just monkeys at typewriters spitting out bits of language without context. Writers are people, inevitably readers themselves, who are trying to communicate something deliberately. Their intentions might be to exploit a fashionable and profitable trend in their market, their intentions might be blurred by their craftsmanship or they might be misinterpreted by an unreceptive audience. But by virtue of communicating, writers are saying something and they’re saying something with a reason. You can’t say something without it meaning something, that’s not how language works.
Authors are people long before they are authors and people come from circumstances: they have lives, passions, interests, biases and beliefs. They are subjects in the world and when they write something down they are doing so from the perspective of their own lived experiences. Writers write for a reason, they aim to say something to an audience. Understanding the circumstances of the author’s life around the time of writing is not the end of criticism but there’s a great deal of value in knowing who commits their ideas to language (language being broader than words here) and who gets to make a living off doing so. Don’t get me wrong, readers are great, and I’m happy to dance on the Author’s grave, but it’s good to take note of the epitaph.
Barthes may have defied his literary tradition but the tradition still exists and, more importantly, readers usually end up creating and upholding a tradition of their own. When readers are free to pick and choose whatever interpretations are the most acceptable they establish a status quo. A common interpretation gains hegemony and divergent voices are silenced or met with resistance or even outrage. Over time, satisfying those readers in power—whose interpretations are the standard—becomes paramount. Anybody remember what happened when Mass Effect 3 didn’t end the right way? That’s what I see happening with videogames in the obsession over player-driven experiences.
One of the points to come out of The Assassination Of The Player By The Critic Mattie Brice was that “With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.” (“Death of the Player.” Alternate Ending. Oct 29 2013.). The foundational challenge with any form of fiction is making fabricated people in fabricated circumstances important enough for a real human being to care about (AVB. “Analysis: When Morality Doesn’t Matter.” Game Set Watch. Jul 7 2011.). Games have the magical power of communicating unfamiliar experiences to real human audiences. It isn’t a power unique to games, even if its methods are, but in the pursuit of player-driven experiences, the voices that need to be heard the most are muted. And in the interest of communicating a sense of power to those that have power in their real lives.
The author and their history, culture and philosophy are all baked into creating a text. Reading and criticism is the process of understanding this or that element of the text and applying it to the reader’s contemporary (and presumably different) culture. The consequence of putting the author on the pedestal is that it limits what the reader can get from a text, but ignoring where the author(s) come from entirely gives the reader room to confirm their biases. It exchanges the author’s biases for the reader’s.
In different essay, Barthes made the distinction between a “work” and a “text” which is more elegantly summarized outside of his own writing: “A ‘work’…gives us a stronger sense of the author’s involvement: Shakespeare worked on a play, writing it to communicate a certain thing. The word ‘text’ has a connotation that emphasizes the interpreter(s).” (Wheeldon, Jeff. “Video Games, Texts, and Interpretation.” Push Select. Nov 10 2013.). I think it’s useful to understand the similar difference between “game” and “play” (as obnoxious as more and more terminology can become) because a lot of the recurring arguments in game criticism—are games art? what is a game? who authors a game?—amounts to “whose perspective do we value?”
I believe in the reader’s power in a text—after all, Barthes was trying to defy tradition, and my opinion is that he succeeded in many ways—but books and films and video games don’t just appear, they come from people with values. The history and culture behind a game’s design have an impact on what it says. Furthermore, a reader’s interpretation only deepens when related to the author, even (or especially) if intention and interpretation are antithetical. I don’t want this to come across as a plea for compromise, because it isn’t, but more voices are better than less voices. Anna Anthropy may not give a damn about what I think about Dys4ia because she was creating it from a specific perspective for an audience that doesn’t include me (Baribeau, Tami. “Dys4ia: A game about hormone replacement therapy.” The Border House. Mar 18 2012.). But I’m still enriched by having it in my life. Even moreso because of who she is.
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Further reading: Hamilton, Mary. “Every Player is an Author.” Metamedia. Sep 1 2013.
Elise, Trinh. “Who is the Author of a Game?” Gamasutra. Nov 26 2013.
Jaarsma, Rainier. “TES V: Skyrim and the Death of the Author.” Aporia. Jan 17 2011.
2 thoughts on “From Game to Play: Roland Barthes, Videogames and Criticism”
I love the image reference to Final Fantasy 5!