maura @ 10:37 pm
Not too long ago for family movie night we watched Wreck-It Ralph again (we’d seen it in the theater last xmas). It’s a surprisingly good movie for a Disney not Pixar outing: contemporary enough for today’s videogame kids to find it fun and funny, with lots of nice touches for us old people who actually used to play games in arcades, too. Plus the extended meditation on homonyms duty and doody — what 11 year old (and his parents) wouldn’t find that hilarious?
Ever since then I’ve been thinking about one of the central features of the movie, in which the heroine, Vanellope van Schweetz, spends most of the movie as a “glitch” — a character who is literally unhooked from the main codebase of the game and hops around in the gamespace every time she glitches. Not to give too much away (spoiler alert!), but in the end she triumphs and regains her status as a fully-enmeshed game character (in fact she turns out to be the main character of her game, Sugar Rush). But she also decides to retain her glitch, pointing out that her glitch gives her power that the other characters don’t have, power she can use to her advantage as she races in the game.
I’m sure there are
millions dozens of academic papers being written on Wreck-It Ralph as we speak — it really was a fascinating movie on lots of levels, plus fun to watch. What I’ve found myself chewing over since we watched it again is this idea of the existence of a “glitch” in videogames. I hear Gus and his friends talk about glitches and glitching all the time, and the fact that Disney included the concept of glitch so prominently in a major movie suggests that videogame enthusiasts likely all know and understand the term.
What does a glitch mean to gamers? Usually when I hear Gus and pals discuss glitches they’re annoyed or even angry: something in the game hasn’t gone as they expected so they exclaim “ah, the game glitched!” In my observation the “glitch” is used to characterize both unexpected game behavior and the occasional player mistake — sometimes “it glitched!” really translates to “I didn’t mean to do that!” I’ve come to wonder whether the existence of glitches in videogames isn’t a bit like saying you didn’t get the email. It’s 2013 — really, most of the time the email goes through, I’d wager only a very small number of emails truly get lost in the ether.
The temptation to blame player error on glitching is strong, I know. Jonathan, my brother and I play Carcassonne on our phones, and of course you sometimes make a move you didn’t plan to, or forget to put a meeple on your tile before ending your turn. It’s easy to get distracted with a turn-based internet game played on a phone in the odd moments of the day, easy for a finger to slip or for the best place for a tile to elude you until it’s too late. Sometimes I too curse “glitch, glitch!”
I’ve been wondering whether the existence (and prominence) of glitch is a way for players to reconcile themselves with the distance between the player and the gamespace required of videogames. With a board, card, or other analog game it’s not only obvious to the other players when there’s a player error, it’s also recoverable: if all players agree to it, the error can be erased and the player can have a do-over. In turn-based multiplayer videogames a do-over is usually not possible, and it’s sometimes not possible in single-player games either (though you could consider the opportunity to play the game repeatedly as a do-over of sorts). The only do-over in a multiplayer videogame is a complete restart, which the other player(s) might not be willing to agree to. The barrier for do-overs is much lower in meatspace — there’s (potentially) not as much impact on the other players.
So maybe that’s the ultimate role of the glitch: a way for players to save face when they make a mistake in a game that they cannot correct or undo, to give themselves agency in the face of aspects of the game they can’t control?