The MOO as Arcade: a minimalist, social, setting for interpretive gameplay

  1. 1. Steven Jones

    Loyola University, Chicago

  2. 2. Neil Fraistat

    Maryland Institute for Technology and Humanities (MITH) - University of Maryland, College Park

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In D. B. Weiss's recent comic novel, Lucky Wander Boy, classic video games from the arcade era act as interpretive texts, giving meaning to the first-person narrator's sadly funny geek life. The old-school arcade becomes in the novel a kind of utopian space, an alternate reality, a library of Babel, a realm of the imagination and the senses, and a source of sympathetic magic. Running behind this comic plot is a serious argument for the superiority of "cool" minimalism over "hot" realism in gameplay environments, which for us, raises the important question of whether graphical realism is a counter-immersive feature in games. At the very least, asking such questions may lead us to define different kinds of "immersion." As Weiss's protagonist remarks:

. . . graphic minimalism goes hand-in-hand with the absorptive, World Unto itself quality that makes these games special, and indeed, a measure of this quality extends to all the Classic games, however basic in conception. When we play these games, the sketchy visual detail forces us to fill in the blanks, and in so doing we bind ourselves to the game world. Even more, we participate in its creation, we are a linchpin, a cocreator, crucial to the existence of the game world as it is meant to be experienced. Without our participation the Classic game is nothing, it devolves into exactly what the gloss-junky detractors see . . (66)
We need not follow Weiss's hero all the way down the novel's metaphysical rabbit hole in order to gain some practical insight from his argument about graphic minimalism and immersion. It seems right to us that those classic video games are engaging and immersive for counter-intuitive reasons, precisely because they are schematic and iconic, because they require a collaborative act of imagination on the part of the player, and because playing them (even on today's PC emulators) is about being part of a shared arcade-based culture. This seems to us significantly different from the kind of immersion created by cinematic realism in games. And indeed, as we have found in our own experiments in the Romantic Circles WebMOO environment (, Weiss's kind of graphic minimalism is immersive less because it is universal than because it is minimal—and cognitively this forces us to maintain gameplay in a wider contextual setting. It's not just retro fashion that gives these games their continued appeal; and it's not that we are in touch with elemental forms when we play PacMan or encounter the MOO interface; it's that we are called on to make something of what is only sketchily suggested, and optimally we do so in a setting that is outside the frame of the screen, that widens to encompass the cabinet, the arcade (even if these features are only fictive constructs in today's emulation play), and other players. In this way any arcade is a social, RPG space. The RPG gameplay situation--like the social setting and the dice and text descriptions of Dungeons and Dragons, or like the theatrical setting occasion of a dramatic script—calls on us to perform the immersion. The gameplay's the thing. And gameplay of this kind is—or wants to be—social. The minimalist games were in the 70s and early 80s part of that greater complexity, the social and subcultural theatre of the arcade, row upon row of games flashing side by side, people playing alone or (often) in groups and moving among consoles and concessions, interacting within and across the various games.

This is the context in which we wish to theorize the MOO as a space for educational and interpretive gaming. First, we find the MOO to be a usefully primitive technology by today's standards. For us, its very limitations make the MOO an attractive platform—a way to avoid the "cinematic fallacy" and frame the gameplay in an open social setting. MOO gaming is, like its cousins the networked massively multiplayer persistent-world RPGs, but more like an old-school arcade, a social space containing an ever-changing array of games to play, worlds to enter, moves to perform. The setting, the lighting and decorated game cabinets, is like the image and text furniture of MOO rooms in the MOO and in the Network as a whole. Like the arcade, the cognitive space of interpretive gameplay is at its best when it's packed with other players. Through a detailed discussion of two MOO games in the Romantic Circles WebMOO, MOOzymandias and FrankenMOO, and with reference to such theorists of immersion and gaming as Ryan, Manovich, Aarseth, Murray, Heim, and McGann and Drucker, our paper will stage its argument for the minimalist, social, and arcade-like WebMOO as a key environment for literary gaming.

1. Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext:Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
2. Haynes, Cynthia and Jan Rune Holmevik, Highwired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
3. Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New YorK: Oxford University Press, 1998.
4. Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, rpt. 2002.
5. McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
6. Ryan, Marie Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
7. Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
8. Weiss, D.B. Lucky Wander Boy. New York: Plume, 2003.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None