If two people each play a certain game, then can they meaningfully be said to have played the same game? Or, if we want to tell the whole story, are we obligated further to mention how they played it, what they felt while playing it, and the various ways in which they reacted to their similar-but-separate experiences?
Whoa, let me back up just a tad there. I recently began working at a local grocery market, and it turns out that one of my coworkers is a big strategy games junkie, just as I am. I asked him what sorts of games he likes, and he mentioned the Civilization series, X-Com, Space Empires III, and a couple of other such titles. I immediately thought to myself, "Aha! I know the sort of gamer this person is; he is not unlike me." But can I be so certain that we have anything noteworthy in common? I propose not; for it is hardly noteworthy at all when any two people share an appreciation for the same object. If my coworker tells me, "I like Civ 2," and I say, "So do I!", we have exchanged as little information as had we agreed upon the creamy goodness of root beer (which, I might add, cannot be denied any more readily than the illustriousness of Civ 2). We should ask of both parties the further questions of why they like the things that they do; how their preferences are borne out in practice; and how their practice shapes their lives. I shall argue toward this point via an analogy between literature and games, with the underlying premise being that the rules that govern our interpretation of the one will apply to the other -- at least insofar as is necessary to support my thesis.
In literary circles, there is what is known as reader response theory, which holds that the meaning of a text is subjective, depending largely upon the attributes and attitudes of the person doing the reading. Quoting one of my own professors:
Reader response theory begins from the premise that the reader's role in bringing meaning to a literary work has traditionally been ignored. Traditionally, the text has been seen as containing some meaning or message (hidden or otherwise) that is objectively there for the reader to extract. While there are important differences among them, reader response theorists want to remove the myth of objective meaning from the reading process. Rather, they agree, meaning emerges from some relationship between text and reader, and from neither independently.
Response theory resists any kind of discussion broken down into categories of the reader, the text, and meaning since these three elements are woven together in the process called reading. [...] The reader does not merely internalize the various positions in the text, but rather is "induced to make them act upon and so transform each other as a result of which the aesthetic object begins to emerge." This makes literary text somewhat distinct from other aesthetic objects, which Iser labels "given" objects. Whereas one always stands outside the given object and experiences it qua object, a literary text requires the participation of the subject inside of the object in order to constitute the aesthetic experience.
(Jill Gordon. Turning Toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato's Dialogues. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999; pages 44-45, footnotes and page references removed.)
I propose that what holds true of literature in regard to reader response theory must hold doubly true of games, since in many cases the "text" of the game is not even objectively identifiable! For example, every game of Civilization begins with a randomized world map, such that no two players are ever subjected to the same broadly deterministic framework (unless they play set scenarios or multiplayer games). Indeed, I can think of no greater confirmation of reader response theory (as it applies to narrative in general, and therefore games in particular) than the markedly different experiences that each gamer necessarily undergoes, even though they may be playing the same game. One gamer's Half-Life will be very different than any other's, depending even upon such seemingly minor factors as rate of ammo expenditure or whether or not the default key bindings are employed. And who can forget the incomparable Planescape: Torment, which, more than any other game to date, insists that every player devise their own meaning? If gamer response theory is undeniably (or even trivially) true, then reader response theory is likewise confirmed, at least insofar as games and literature have something important in common.
If Tom reads Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Jerry also reads Hamlet, then it will of course be correct to say that they have read the same work; their eyes crossed over precisely the same words, and their fingers turned the same pages. But as mentioned above, I am interested not only in what is true, but also in what happens to be noteworthy. If Tom detects certain instances of rhyme, meter, irony, metaphor, etc., and derives a meaning from the text, and emerges from the text changed in some fashion -- and Jerry detects different literary devices, derives a different meaning, and emerges in some other manner than Tom -- then it is clear that although the text is the same, the acts of reading are so significantly diversified that the continuity of the text between persons is completely overshadowed by the disparity of readings among them. Substitute "Fallout" for "Hamlet" and "play" for "read" above, and you'll see where I'm going with this.
Some critics of reader response theory -- and presumably, too, of its subset, gamer response theory -- argue that it is but post-modernism in a different guise. The response to this is twofold:
1. It is not necessarily true that reader response theorists are post-modernists. For as Gordon notes, "To reject objective meaning is not to reject the possibility of meaning altogether." (44)
2. Aesthetic criticism is the one area where the post-modernist approach retains traction in the face of counterarguments. Insofar as reader response theory and post-modernism are allies, their alliance is stable.
The critic may also respond, "So what? What's it matter if gamer response theory is right? Is anything changed?"
It matters a lot, although the meaning will vary significantly from person to person. (That was a lame attempt at a recursive joke, in case you missed it.) Seriously though, if gamers were to adopt the gamer response theorist's position as a matter of habit, the effect on the gaming landscape would be enormous. For example, the very idea of "reviewing" a game might come under threat, since the worth of any particular game would no longer be thought to be determined in whole by its developer, but also, and perhaps even moreso by the observer/customer/gamer. This seemingly straightforward notion flies in the face of the way we normally treat of games; think of the all-too typical review model, which seeks to determine only what the game itself contributes, and which ignores the things that the game permits, suggests, and even encourages the player to bring to bear. Game reviews would be reduced in stature to mere opinions of individuals -- which is in fact all that they are. I've noticed that many GWJ'ers already shy away from big-name reviews in favor of the personal testimony more in keeping with gamer response theory. Now imagine where IGN would be if everyone felt the same way. The GWJ'ers of whom I speak do not say to themselves, "Oh, that sounds like a neat game, I must have it!" Instead, they say "Wow, that sounds like a neat experience; I'd like to duplicate it!"
To illustrate the same point in a different manner: M.U.S.C.L.E. for the NES is by most accounts a terrible game. But it's one of my favorites, because DrunkenSleipnir and I have a great time drinking liquor and beating each other to death with our blocky little avatars while shouting obscenities at the screen. The non-gamer response theorist may say that M.U.S.C.L.E. is still a terrible game, but that I sometimes enjoy terrible games, depending on my level of inebriation and my proximity to DrunkenSleipnir. On the other hand, the gamer response theorist seeks to avoid the strange paradox of "enjoying terrible games" by saying that it is not games per se that are enjoyable or unenjoyable; rather, it is the experience of gameplay itself, which may vacillate wildly in quality depending upon the status of the gamer.
And should we be so lucky as to emerge from these dark ages of creative paucity and critical depravity within our lifetimes, we gamers will find that we are no longer concerned merely with the enjoyability of games, but also with their overt and covert significance in our lives. When that day comes, gamer response theory will prove an important means with which to assess the games that mold our culture anew.