Often overlooked by other NES staples—the Super Mario
3s and the Legend of Zeldas—Duck Hunt is an underrated gem of the late 80’s
that simultaneously upholds and challenges traditional game definitions, as
argued by game theorists Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois and (the appropriately named)
Bernard Suits. Not only was it one of the first games that effectively sucked
me in for hours at a time, but its gameplay was one that was (for its time)
somewhat novel; it is these same mechanics that can serve as a lens through
which these traditional definitions can be reread and reinterpreted in a digital
There are two main aspects of DH on which I want to
place emphasis; the first of which is the gun peripheral— the NES Zapper—with which it came. Besides looking freakin’
sweet, the gun itself is a way to contemporize Huizinga’s infamous (and,
frankly, a little overplayed [pun sort of intended]) concept of the magic
circle. A cornerstone of the game studies realm, the magic circle refers to “a
closed space” that is closed out for the game itself, “either materially of
ideally [...] inside this space the play proceeds, inside it the rules obtain”
(Huizinga 113). That is to say, there is a spatial element to playing games. Written
in 1938, this is of course an anachronistic application of the concept, but nevertheless,
DH was the first game that really problematized Huizinga’s concept. On the one
hand, there is a ‘real’ game space that exists insofar as the peripheral
distances the player from the screen/game. While the same thing occurs with a standard
controller, the mimetic quality of the Zapper (i.e. in that it mirrors firing a
‘real’ gun) creates the illusion of space. As the player fires the gun at the
screen, distance is needed, just like shooting a ‘real’ weapon. To one degree,
the magic circle plays out very directly insofar as the player sets up a
makeshift play ‘arena.’
Similarly, Huizinga states that the magic circle is the “marking out of some sacred spot” (ibid, my emphasis). A key memory of DH—both for me and, undoubtedly, for other DH players my age—was the intense concentration that went into the playing of the game. In living rooms worldwide, children stood at the ready, arm poised, gun loaded, reflexes at the ready—until someone walked in front of the screen. In spite of my protests, my own mother had no grasp of how dire this situation was; the magic circle, and thus the game, was interrupted. In this way, it wasn’t only disrupted via physical invasion (which was really more of a mild annoyance), but rather a disruption of what Huizinga refers to as the “play-mood:” “At any moment ‘ordinary life’ may reassert its rights [...] by an impact from without, which interrupts the game” (Huizinga 114). There are multiple facets to the magic circle, including both the physical, spatial element, as well as the intellectual, conceptual one (i.e. the play-mood).
With that, this introduces the second element of DH: that damned dog. While DH was a multiplayer game, as an only child, it was usually played solo. In spite of this, DH was probably one of the only games that truly inspired a spirit of competition in my younger self, though not against another player, but the game itself. Whenever I failed a stage, that damned dog (henceforth referred to as “TDD”) would appear to taunt me, thus becoming my natural rival. Caillois’ notion of the agon focuses on the establishment of a level playing field: “the adversaries divide the elements into equal parts and value” (Caillois 131). Of course, TDD wasn’t a ‘real’ adversary insofar as it didn’t actually play the game. Rather, it is TDD’s symbolic significance (i.e. to rub in my face how much I suck) that is key here.
Wanting to avoid reminders of my own digital shortcomings,
I tried to play the game to the best of my ability, ultimately giving up and simply
playing with the NES Zapper right up against my television screen. This is
important in two ways: while it proves Caillois’ argument—in that there exist “inevitable
imbalances”—it also goes to show that agon is not only limited to other players,
but also constructed rivals (or the player competing against him or herself).
More significantly, this plays into Suits’ discussion of game rules and, in
particular, how they relate to the purpose of the game: “If the rules are
broken the original end becomes impossible of attainment” (Suits 175). It is
debatable whether or not the up-against-the-screen strategy constitutes ‘cheating’
in the context of DH. Suits discusses this with his notion of lusory goals,
which are vaguely described as “means which are permitted (are legal or
legitimate) in the attempt to achieve prelusory goals” (Suits 187). Assuming the
goal is to shoot the ducks using the Zapper, it is ambiguous as to what the “legitimate”
set distance is between the player and the screen. Rather than criticize Suits,
however, this only strengthens his argument in that the ambiguity highlights
the flexibility of game rules. Even though the rules are permanently
established in video games (i.e. through binary code), there is still room for
the player to interpret and ‘play with’ (pun totally intended) the
preprogrammed rules of the game.
As it pertains to DH, its status as a game proper is not one that can be legitimately contested. It has a clear purpose, a game space exists, there is some sense of competition, etc. The game-ness of the game is highlighted through how these rules are enforced and effectively interpreted by the player. Suits would argue that I didn’t “really” win at DH because the means by which I ‘won’ are arguably kind of sketchy (Suits 175). The question to ask is what win condition I was ultimately trying to achieve. If I was playing by the ‘actual’ rules of the game, then I wasn’t “really” playing... but if my goal was to shut TDD up and play my game with dignity intact—did I win? Hell yeah.
Huizinga, Johan. "Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. Boston: MIT, 2006. 96-119.
Caillois, Roger. "The definition of play and the classification of games." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. 122-155.
Suits, Bernard. "Construction of a Definition." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. 173-191.