A Powerless Player

Recently, being the out-of-pocket student that I am, I took part in a four day, phase 1 medical trial. For those not in the know, a phase 1 medical try is one that usually takes place in very small groups (around 8 or 12) and examines the effects of a drug that has never been tested before on humans. I was no fool about this; I read the study outline carefully, considered the risks and benefits, and chose to enroll. After a day at the clinic we were woken in the early hours and handed a single pill and a prescribed amount of water to take with it. My body did not respond well to this. Thus ensued two horrible hours of nausea, vomitting, headaches, dizziness and fatigue inflicted upon my self as my temperature soared from a chilling cold to a burning fever and back again. Now, of course, I trusted the doctors completely, but that’s not to say that I didn’t feel scared, that I wasn’t worried, that I didn’t, in that moment, feel completely powerless.

But powerlessness is not necessarily a failure to control your own body (or even your own self). We’ve all been there; the horrible nervousness preceding those all-important A level results, the fear of seeing a loved one in illness, or perhaps empathetically when we see the homeless on the streets or witness heart-wrenching charity appeals. At times, being powerless is a fundamental part of being human. In light of the role of being powerless in daily life, and perhaps the human condition as a whole, you have to ask, can videogames ever capture the feeling of being powerless?

The question might seem an obtuse one at first; to suggest that a single emotion or aesthetic lies beyond the abilities of videogaming borders on the claims that our beloved medium is not an art form, that it is limited by its mechanics in a way that other, superior, artforms are not. Whilst I  reject the latter claim without apology, I’ll make the case that the former suggestion is not so farfetched.

Most videogames are built upon solving puzzles and overcoming challenges; whether that be by finding the solution to a cube based connundrum in Portal or shooting your way through a room of ever stronger enemies in Halo, any videogame can be reduced to undergoing an number of small trials that form a larger obstacle that must be dealt with.

However, not all games fall into this criteria; artisitic games often eschew the reliance on obstacles and, most importantly, difficulty to guide their player through a range of emotions. The Passage, The Road, The Unfinished Swan and, debatably, Journey all rely simply upon progression, getting from A to B, to engage with the player.

The problem is that all these mechanics empower the player; even giving the player the ability to move forward empowers him. To create the feeling of powerless in the player, any mechanic that empowers the player must be stripped from the game. If we were to do this, what would we be left with? Would it make sense to call the result a ‘game’ anymore? A game in which the player is deprived of interations, stripped of the ability to do anything meaningful, and made truly powerless, is no longer a ‘game’.

Videogaming can capture elements of the feeling of powerlessness. The absolute feeling, however, is well beyond our scope. Ultimately, videogaming, by its very nature as an interactive medium, cannot promote a feeling of being completely powerless without losing its status as a game; to talk of a game creating a feeling of powerless is paridoxical lunacy. Though this is not to say that any other medium is more succesful in this regard, and I’d be very interested to see some film or book buffs argue for, or against, their chosen medium in the arena of powerlessness.

Thomas Mackay

One Comment
  • Liam
    20 November 2012 at 16:03
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    Really interesting piece…Like you said, if a game were to really imitate powerlessness it wouldn’t really be a game anymore; more of an experience which we have no control over. As a gamer playing a game however, I often get frustrated in cut-scenes, or scripted events when something happens to my character which I potentially would not have done, or could have done differently. Obviously this is just to advance the plotline usually, and is overcome eventually. One thing I would say is that horror games are fairly good at promoting a sense of powerlessness, particularly Amnesia comes to mind; the player isn’t given a method with which to defend themselves, leading to the need to hide or evade the monsters (whatever they are). I think that’s probably one reason I don’t really find that game very entertaining/get bored of it fairly quickly, as there is no means to defend yourself or be on the offense in any way.

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