GAMBIT's own Lead Game Designer Matthew Weise has a new feature article up at Game Career Guide, "Press the 'Action' Button, Snake! The Art of Self-Reference in Video Games". In it, Weise writes:
When a game is self-referential, when it acknowledges the technological apparatus of the computer, it can have a profound effect on player experience. As far as game designer Ernest Adams is concerned, this effect is negative, inevitably shattering the fictional reality of the game and rendering it impossible to take seriously.
I don't agree with this position. Self-reference in games is not an inherently destructive act. As game scholar Rune Klevjer asserts, "game fictions are not delineated by a 'fourth wall' as they are in film or literature." The fourth wall is, of course, a term from theater that has become shorthand for the boundary between fiction and audience in a variety of media. But applying this term to video games, Klevjer would argue, is a mistake because the line between reality and fiction in games does not function as it does in traditional media.
It is useful to think about the boundary between player and fiction as an elastic membrane -- a threshold -- rather than a wall, like Adams does. Drawing attention to how this threshold functions through self-reference can actually enhance fiction rather than destroy it. It can draw the player and game fiction together rather than driving them apart.
Check out the piece, and then the (frequently heated) discussion the piece generated at Slashdot.