Pottermore – The Name of the Game

We play videogames everyday, but only a few of us actually realise it. 

J.K. Rowling has helped develop what has been dubbed a ‘website’, an ‘interactive reading experience’ and – most ambiguously of all – a ‘project’. It’s called Pottermore and it give you a chance to relive the Harry Potter experience again by going through a visual representation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (with the later books being added some time in the future). The ‘project’ presents you with a selection of multi-layered visual images allowing you to examine them at depth or remove and activate or pick up objects shown on the image, triggering an event or adding them to your ‘trunk’.

I hope some of you have had the chance to play Pottermore before reading this article. If you have, I hope you will agree that while it is still in Beta testing mode, it’s a lot of fun and an intriguing prospect for the future of interactive entertainment. I hope you will also agree that while it is an ‘interactive textual experience’ it is also, very clearly, a videogame (‘computer game’ if you’re European or just a bit old fashioned). If you have ever played Myst you will feel right at home with Pottermore – just don’t tell J.K. Rowling that. You see, Rowling has used just about every other word available to her to describe this… thing… other than the most suitable – videogame. This is something that is not exclusive to Pottermore, however. It’s a phenomenon that’s really coming to a head right now in publications related to the videogames industry – while the medium continues to advance in terms of interesting new intellectual properties and modes of play, the term ‘videogame’ still seems like a dirty word.

The reality is more people are playing videogames now than ever. If you don’t think you play videogames, chances are, you’re not wholly correct. The internet is intrinsically linked with the kind of algorithms that make up videogames – in a sense, the integration of social media into web browsers (the stupid ‘like’ button seemingly somewhere on every web page these days) has turned web browsing into a type of videogame. There are clearly defined ‘rules’ to this digital interaction and working within those, you attempt to ‘affect an outcome’. Sets of rules determining an outcome is a typical definition of videogames used by the ludologist, Dr. Jesper Juul (yeah, ludologist is actually a thing now…)

It seems, however, the marketing boffins at the helm of S.S. Potter are savvy. While I could talk until I’m blue in the face about how every man and his dog (or bearded dragon – look it up) plays video games, the fact is, people still don’t think they do. The majority of consumers in the UK and the US (I’m less certain about this elsewhere) would not think of themselves as ‘gamers’ or in any way related to the culture of videogames. The rise of the Wii, iPhone gaming and those Zynga cash farm things have ensured that the most profitable target demographic for a games company is middle-aged stay at home wives (Source: The ESA). These consumers dedicate a considerable amount of time to gaming but do not classify it as their favourite activity. They certainly do not identify with the so called ‘gamer culture’.

Yet this seemingly harmless gaming without gaming has the potential to do more damage to the industry than is apparent on the surface. A recent Endowment from the NEA (American National Endowment for the Arts) had handed out just under $300,000 dollars to various companies to stimulate the creation of games that teach users ‘about the arts or social issues’. Now, that’s great, and congratulations to the companies who received the money – I’m sure their new climate change videogames will be just as good, if not better, than the several already created by the prolific game scholar Professor Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute for Technology.  But the question must be asked, what is it about existing games that they think is lacking this quality? The recent Playstation Network Okabu couldn’t have been trying any harder to teach its users about climate change. The 14 year old Final Fantasy VII was pretty heavy handed in its ‘industrialisation is killing the planet’ allegory.

The fact is videogames are full of cultural relevance. They are imbued with meaning through our interactions with them – that’s the point. There isn’t anything to World of Warcraft bar an extremely loose reading of Tolkien recalled from memory, made into code. But players dedicate hundreds of hours a year to its world, making it into something with its own unique histories and events that are almost entirely unknown to the outside world. You cannot make a game with a huge amount of cultural relevance because games are an ‘emergent’ or ‘procedural’ medium. They evolve out of player interaction and turn into something incredible – that’s what makes them incredible. The healthy attitude to take to games is one which has only recently come to light and which is born out of the groan inducing question ‘are video games art?’ The question cannot be answered, of course, but an opinion has been offered from Richard Terrel: ‘If videogames are not art, then they are something better’. This, I believe is the correct attitude to take to videogames. If we stop viewing them as the medium on crutches, the one that needs start up grants because it’s ‘not quite there yet’ and just accept that what has been produced is something as incredible as you’ve heard it is, we might begin to have a healthier attitude towards their existence. At the very least we might start using their name.

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