As with most things, interaction with games can be distilled into three layers: Physical (pressing buttons, moving mouse or joysticks), Virtual (moving within the game space, in a shooter this would be shooting guns), and Experiential. The third is, of course, the most difficult to put into words. Simply put, it’s that phenomenological sense of being there. This third realm is often ignored, but I think it is the most important. It is where the unique poetic power of the medium resides.
In high school, I had a math teacher who once told my class about learning how to use a computer mouse for the first time. A friend was helping him learn, and had him play solitaire. At first, he focused entirely on using the mouse. Synchronizing your hand movement to the movement of the mouse on the screen, clicking and letting go of the buttons at the correct times: to most of us this is second nature, but for an older person who had never used such a device, it was rather difficult. My teacher kept talking to his friend about using the mouse while learning. Slowly, without thinking about it, he started talking more and more about the game of solitaire he was playing. Eventually that was all he talked about it. At this point, his friend told him: you have learned how to use a mouse.
It’s a simple anecdote, but it perfectly explains the processes one must go through while playing a game, whilst simultaneously explaining the first (physical) layer of interaction. At this first layer, we learn what buttons we need to press and develop the muscle memory of where they are. For someone who has played many First Person Shooters, pressing WASD, spacebar, shift, F, R, E, etc, is second nature. The slight differences in games–maybe ctrl is run instead of shift–will force players to re-learn at the beginning, but they quickly adjust. To someone who has never played an FPS this is difficult, and requires a much longer learning period.
The important thing here is that the goal is not to focus on pressing buttons and moving the mouse. Learning how to use a mouse is certainly engaging, but the goal is to play a game of solitaire.
The second layer, virtual interaction, is the realm that developers commonly focus almost all of their energies on. Like physical interaction, this is also a learning process. The player must learn how to interact with the virtual world. Rather than focusing on pressing the buttons, the player learns what game elements are most effective where, and how to utilize the game mechanics. In the traditional FPS example, the player focuses on what guns work best on what enemies, and methods of taking enemies down. My current line of thought (which may change) is that this is the realm of both intellectual and emotional content (update: see the comments for more thoughts about this). The player learns his or her place in the game world, which can provoke various mental attitudes.
Virtual interaction is obviously very important, but the problem is that the supposed rules of “good game design” that people are attempting to set in stone revolve entirely around this second layer. “Good games” focus on extending the virtual learning, turning it into an addictive cycle. The player slowly gains new means of interacting with the world, or simply new ways of using the initial interactions.
Learning how to use a computer mouse is engaging, but it is not the goal. The goal is to play a game of solitaire. Similarly, assuming we want to move beyond escapist entertainment, the goal should not be to learn how to interact with a game world. The goal should be to experience.
Experiential interaction goes beyond provoking intellect and emotion. It is memory at the instant before. It is the game reaching out and directly provoking not the mind, but the spirit. This is not at all a new concept. It is a familiar concept in poetry, and this is what Andrei Tarkovsky strove to achieve in his films, and Iancu Dumitrescu in his music. This is by no means unique to games, nor are games superior in any way. The medium simply proffers new and differing means by which to generate, and directly manipulate, phenomenological experience. In a sense, it is a marriage of the physical and virtual layers. Where the physical focuses on the player, and the virtual on the game world, the experiential focuses on the player within the game world. All games tap into this, intentionally or not. This is why games like Ico and Home are so powerful, and why games like, say, Gears of War are so flaccid. Gears of War still provides a phenomenological experience, but it is an empty one.
My point here is not that all games must strive to achieve a meaningful and intentional phenomenology. There is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing on the second layer, with focusing on learning, with focusing on intellect and emotion. A lot of meaningful content can and does reside there. All I want to say for now is that this third layer exists, and that it is critical to any game every step of the way. This is a topic that I definitely plan to think/write much more about.