In part 1 I explained how metaphors and analogies work and why they are double-edged tools for conveying ideas. In literature, metaphors are clear statements composed of words. With video games figuring out how metaphors are expressed is much more complex.
Metaphors in Game Design
Finding metaphors, analogies, and other creative figurative-language-like expression in video games is easy because video games house many types of passive media within themselves from text, to music, to film. Games can simply borrow the same techniques from these forms. All you have to do is find a subject that's exaggerated or compared to something else or personified and you're done. While this potential exists and there's certainly nothing wrong with using the techniques of passive media, when I say "metaphors in game design" I specifically mean conveying ideas using, at least in part, interactive systems and gameplay scenarios.
Scratch off to play. You'd understand by interacting.
Integrating metaphors and other creative techniques with interactivity and gameplay presents entirely new ways to draw comparisons. The curious fission that game designers face stems from the half-real experience that is playing games. Interactivity and the passive media elements creates two contrasting ways ideas are communicated. This fission is so odd, so new, yet familiar and simple, that many have a hard time understanding how video games convey ideas through gameplay.
Unlike consuming books, music, or film, the physical act of playing a video game is a core part of the experience. Controller design and mechanics design determines how players interact with the interactive medium. So physically manipulating the controller and understanding the rules of the interactive systems present two huge new considerations for conveying ideas on top of the more passive methods well established by other media.
Because video games are half-real figuring out how to balance the conveyance of real ideas and fictional ideas presents problems that most other mediums don't have. As I explained above, metaphors and other figures of speech are great for conveying ideas by explaining what ideas are like, or more broadly, by going beyond the literal meaning. So the question is, is it effective to create a metaphor to describe an experience the audience literally experiences first hand?
Have you ever played this Chopin etude before? If not, I'll tell you it's like gently stretching one's arms on a cool summer day; such tiny, natural movements that radiate warmth. But if you have played this song before, then there's less reason for me to work at drawing an apt metaphorical comparison. In many ways, the real part of games where real players interact in real systems with real consequences is the foundation of the player experience. For real interactions and real consequences tend to be more strongly felt and convincing than purely fictional elements. And what players do and feel playing games is obvious to players. We don't need any help relating to such experiences in this regard.
We do need help understanding the other half of the half-real experiences of video games; the fictional half. On some level we can think of playing games as cold, mechanical, exercises. Given A stimulus manipulate the controller by pressing B then C, the result, will follow; repeat until D victory screen is displayed. But this is not how we understand and experience games. We see in forms, actions, and reactions; we see game worlds not polygonal models. We experience games on the level of ideas, not the binary level of computer code. This is where the abstractions come into play.
Many abstractions in video games, in this case simplified interactive video game systems, are like metaphors bringing into sharp focus a comparison between the real player and the fictional game. Experiencing these abstractions is like listening to a voice that says, "you know this feeling that you have as you try to work through this puzzle, well that feeling, in many ways, is like the experience that the wizard is having in the fantasy world on the screen." In this way, even the most basic video game abstractions can work as metaphors. Yet, video game abstractions are odd because they draw comparisons to help players relate to something that they are "half experiencing." In other words, there's a interpreative and fictionally coherent way to look at many abstractions, and then there's the real, interactive way to look at it. These views exist simultaneously.
Putting It Together
It's clear that metaphors and other creative techniques for communicating ideas are simple and varied. Just for metaphors there are many types such as allegory, catachresis, parable, dead, mixed, cognitive, and conceptual. Many of these are easy to create in text based mediums because of their reliance on using symbols and building meaning out of less concrete tools. It may be harder to create or recognize equivalent metaphors in films because of the more literal, direct, and visual ways films convey ideas. Likewise, video games use visuals and interactivity, which places games even further on the scale of difficulty.
Yes, it may be odd figuring out how games create metaphors and provide intellectual depth. But I think this is mainly due to the fact that video games house so many different types of media and just using the analysis methods of one of those mediums simply doesn't cover all the possible angles. In other words, if you just analyze video games as you do literature or film, you'll bound to miss very important details. Developing a more comprehensive method to analyze video games is complicated.
Video games are very complicated because they're made up of many parts, many possibilities, and many sub-media. Consider a piece of text here, a melody there, an image, and a gameplay challenge and you have quite a task on your hands. Yet, I believe we often understand all the rich and interesting ways video games convey ideas naturally. We just don't know that this is the result of video games working through design; we don't yet know how to recognize this fact; and we don't know how to uphold what's great about the art that is video games.
If you're still cautious about categories and labels like metaphors, then don't use them. What's most important in our analysis, understanding, and enjoyment of video games is if we understand the ideas conveyed, however they're conveyed. But perhaps examples would be more instructive at this point.
In part 3, I'll present lots of specific video game examples.