Special Effectivities

Prefacing a video essay on computer games with a citation from Merleau-Ponty sets both a tone and expectations. But don’t let that scare you off: this piece by Ian Bryce Jones never talks down to the viewer and it fulfills all expectations. In fact, the opening citation perfectly sums up the central argument of this thought-provoking piece. Ian Bryce Jones (who writes about and teaches film and videogame analysis) looks at how the experience of playing a video game is shaped by the options afforded by the game’s virtual environment on the one hand and the avatar’s capabilities on the other.


“Affordances” and “effectivities” are the theoretical terms this video essay revolves around. “Affordances” are the properties of objects (in a video game) that determine how they can be used. This potentiality defines if and how a player can actively engage with them. But that engagement is also limited by the player’s “effectivities”: the specific capacities of the avatar the player is using. A broken bridge invites jumping over it (an affordance) but whether or not a player successfully completes the jump is dependent on the avatar’s effectivities.


Using an impressive array of gameplay examples (from dozens and dozens of videogames), Ian Bryce Jones illustrates the importance of these theoretical terms. He shows how they can help us understand and characterize players’ experiences within the virtual game environment. The video essay touches upon diverse issues: from agency to embodiment, from the character’s movements to their implied knowledge. In his creator statement (written for academic journal [in]Transition, where this video essay was first published), Ian Bryce Jones addresses his motivation for making this piece and the reasoning behind his approach.


This is also a great example of how to wield the audiovisual potential of the video essay. Both audio and video are used in several smart and creative ways. For example, Ian Bryce Jones does not spell out all of those insights himself in the video’s narration, but recruited eight additional people to contribute their voices. They articulate questions and thoughts that clarify the theoretical concepts. It’s an almost playful approach that makes the video more accessible: the play-acted musings help the viewer digest the theory. One of the many nice visual touches is the use of the Gamepad Viewer tool to simultaneously show a bit of gameplay and the actual control buttons being pushed.