When Do Bugs Actually Work and Why?

What’s the first thing when you think about the word “bug”? Is it something that your guild ran into while trying to down a raid boss back in the first days of vanilla WoW? Or is it one of the exploitative bugs that lets you launch yourself off a specific rock at DeGroot keep in Team Fortress 2? Regardless of which example you think of, there’s a likely chance that as a gamer you’re intimately familiar with the idea of bugs. Their history, their origins, their legendary status in certain games, bugs are an almost inevitable part of the video game scheme, in part because, as many recent writers have pointed out, the act of computer coding is in so many ways a Lovecraftian nightmare. 

Fallout New Vegas glitch image from Fallout Wiki. 

Fallout New Vegas glitch image from Fallout Wiki. 

But as bugs have become a fixed part of our culture, it might be worth examining -- why do bugs still hold this power over our gaming experience, and why is it that some bugs will go so far as to actually lower a game’s Metacritic score, like Fallout New Vegas, and others will become a part of a game’s folklore like Red Dead Redemption or Dwarf Fortress? Why is it that some bugs will render a game to be broken, but others are celebrated and hunted by players?

To examine this theory, it’s worth going back to the popular source of so-called “computer bugs,” During computer pioneer Grace Hopper’s work on the Harvard Mark II in 1947, she told the story of a moth trapped in the machine, which the engineers removed and taped into a logbook that’s now housed in the Smithsonian. Her account, as follows, is almost a pinnacle example of engineering sense of humor:

“Operators traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay, coining the term bug. This bug was carefully removed and taped to the log book. Stemming from the first bug, today we call errors or glitches in a program a bug.”

But in reality, the word “bug” has been traced back to before 1947, from Thomas Edison’s writings to uses of the word in military engineering during World War II. So, like bugs themselves, we've created a mythical relationship with the word “bug,” a strange response to what sometimes feels like a universal or unexplainable error that affects our experience.

It might be useful then, to re-examine our definition of a bug. While writing about Dear Esther over at Gamasutra, Adam Bishop writes this on his struggle with the game’s technical and design bugs:

“While many people think of bugs as ‘broken code’, one studio I used to work at described a bug as ‘anything which negatively impacts the user experience’ and I think that's a more useful (though admittedly ambiguous) way of thinking about it.”

By using this lens, we begin to think about bugs in a larger fashion -- instead of just human error, when do bugs become a part of the experience that game designers are constructing, and if so, is that a positive contribution to the experience, or a negative one?

Currently, the default status quo on bugs is to view them as aberrations, which from a design perspective, is probably a good idea. QA testers save us every day from bugs that could crash our games, overpower our enemies or generally ruin an entire experience. But bugs still slip through, and when they do, they become part of the design, intended or not. 

But there must be a time and a place when bugs in some fashion, make sense. When instead of being aberrations, they become a natural part of a game’s flow. Which bugs would show this -- and why?

The oldest, strongest example of this is most likely Street Fighter II’s “cancel.” Cancelling allowed players to input their future attacks while their current attack was initiated, which enabled a serious beat-down of seamless combos against an unknowing opponent. What began as a glitch in the system manifested into an essential fighting game mechanic, seen now in everything from Persona 4 Arena to Super Smash Bros. 

Let’s also think about the bugs of Red Dead Redemption. Obviously, not all of Red Dead’s bugs carry a similar legendary status. Some are annoying and frustrating, but two notable bugs, like the bird lady or cougarman bugs, would drive you into a mixture of panic, horror, laughter and utter fascination when you watched them on YouTube. If they don’t kill you in-game, of course. 

These bugs don’t break the game, but they do interrupt the designer’s original intention. If we look at the overall Red Dead Redemption experience as a spaghetti western, we understand why this bug might still be part of the game’s core experience.

As a western, Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just draw on a tradition of gunslingers and train robberies, but a weird, idiosyncratic cinematic style influenced by everything from southwest American folklore to the production economics of shooting in the Spanish desert. Therefore, the western’s themes regarding the clash of civilization and the wilderness isn’t just tied to the conflicts of human beings, it’s drawn from the weird encounters that can happen far away from the city. 

Red Dead Redemption already acknowledges these tropes through mechanics ranging from “The Man In Black” to its nightmare fueled “Undead Nightmare” DLC, but those moments are by explicit design. But because of the genre and aesthetics of the world, when the game breaks, in its weird and lonely way, that breaking echoes the weird and wild situations that also give birth to characters like Whiskey Jack and the Snake Oil Salesman. Because just as these characters have roots in the genre’s origins, so too, in fact, do these bugs. 

Invisible head glitch from Skyrim Wiki. 

Invisible head glitch from Skyrim Wiki. 

The list of similar games with “good bugs” can be extrapolated from this. Skyrim’s undead dragons or horse glitches aren’t far away from what you might encounter in a fantasy world. The DeGroot Keep rock glitch from Team Fortress 2 plays into the game’s comedy as an army of screaming Demopans can come falling from the sky. Heck, the MissingNo glitch from the original Pokemon games not only plays into the discovery mechanic of finding new Pokemon, it also takes advantage of Lavender Town’s horror elements and the game’s social multiplayer components since its told-through-storytelling nature is the kind of experience kids would talk about while trading Pokemon over the link cable.

Which then begs the question, if we’re using Bishop’s definition of a bug, are these bugs really bugs? If they don’t interrupt the player’s experience, but rather enhance it, by speaking to gamers through the strange language of code and simulation, are they not part of the experience?

This question is critical to gaming theory because in the commercial side of games, bugs affect Metascores, and Metascores affect bonuses, sequel development, and other variables. And in our comprehension of this strange metaphysical system, we must ask ourselves, when is a bug a bug -- and when is it not?