The theorist Miguel Sicart, who’s based out of the IT University of Copenhagen, recently started something of a controversy in academic circles by publishing an article called Against Proceduralism, which takes a critical look at one of the more predominant frameworks for examining games in a scholarly context. Proceduralism is a framework that places the locus of meaning for a game in its design, in the structures of behavior produced by its rules. Sicart points out that this overlooks some very important factors that go into the playing of a game, specifically the players. If there is no place for players in proceduralism’s conception of games and their meaning, then how accurate or useful is the framework for analyzing and designing actual games?
This debate is not new, actually, and several years ago Jesper Juul pointed out that this sort of posturing, between those who study games and those who study players, had already been going on for a while. It remains to be seen whether Against Proceduralism will be the piece that sparks an actual row in the world of game studies and creates a lasting divide between scholars similar to what happened with the fabled non-debate between the ludologists and narratologists. However, if it does, then I have to say that for what it’s worth, and with some qualifications, I’m with Sicart.
Miguel tells a story of the development of proceduralism and offers a definition in his piece. As a concept it grew to some extent out of the work of Janet Murray, whose book Hamlet on the Holodeck first raised many of the issues and points that people still circle around when it comes to the subject of games and storytelling, or games and meaning. From there it proceeded through the ludologist Gonzalo Frasca’s work on simulation, and was finally mostly fleshed out by Ian Bogost, somewhat in his first book, Unit Operations, and more concretely in his second, Persuasive Games. In Persuasive Games, Bogost lays out the different questions to be asked when ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ pieces of procedural rhetoric (his quotes):
What are the rules of the system? What is the significance of these rules (over others)? What claims about the world do these rules make?
Traditionally, proceduralism as a framework is defined not so much by the content of these questions but by some of the things these questions take for granted. First, that one can describe all the rules of a given system. Second, that coherent claims about the world can be made in the form of rules. Third, that those claims could be unambiguously interpreted. Fourth, that rules alone are sufficient to make a claim. Putting aside some of the obvious problems with a framework of this type, such as the fact that it would only be sustainable for a system of extremely low complexity, we must decide if any framework that bases itself solely on rules and does not necessarily take into account the behavior of players is appropriate for the analysis of games, digital or not.
I first became skeptical of the proceduralist approach when reading Unit Operations, where Bogost spends some time describing the relationships between different classes in the now defunct MMO Star Wars Galaxies. When commenting on how some of the more menial tasks in SWG would be automated by players, especially the mechanics whereby combat classes would relieve their ‘battle fatigue’ in the game’s cantinas, Bogost mused that the game could be thought of as a commentary on certain low stakes social interactions in everyday life. While this is a smart analysis and it would certainly be entertaining to debate, I was immediately struck upon reading the section by the strangeness of an interpretation of a game based on events where there were no players present. Where, in fact, the players had automated themselves out of the system. Bogost was, in a sense, interpreting a piece of software rather than a game, but can, or should, a game be reduced to software?
One thing that Sicart skirts around but that I think is worth emphasizing is the seductive quality of proceduralism, which I think goes a long way to explaining its popularity. The promise that proceduralism holds is that games work much like the other media in our lives (indeed that games are media) and that they can be interpreted, their secrets revealed, through methods similar to those that everyone is taught in their high school English class.
This is much more pleasing for those that are indifferent or skeptical or hostile to games in general than an alternative view that presents each game as a sprawling social practice with fuzzy boundaries, featuring catechisms and shibboleths all its own. Additionally, it associates games primarily with software, a class of object with which many people feel they have a clearer and less distasteful picture. The cultural institutions in which many academics and artists operate, and about which many of us care deeply, are well positioned to accommodate an artform that produces things like operas or paintings or films. They are less able to understand an artform that produces artforms, like a music which produces instruments or a painting that creates colors.
Mike Treanor is my favorite proceduralist and one of my favorite people working in game studies. I’ve described Mike’s modus operandi as a scholar as “calling bluffs”, because his gift is to take people’s claims about the world seriously and draw them to their inevitable conclusions, with predictably interesting results. Many people have responded to Sicart’s essay by saying it’s attacking a ‘straw man’ and criticizing a position that no one actually holds. It might be the case that no one person holds the position that he defines as proceduralism, however Sicart’s argument can be read in another way. From another perspective he is addressing a range of positions that are not united in a single individual or school of thought, but rather all share a similar logical end point.
In his paper Kaboom is a Many Splendored Thing, Treanor looks at the meanings of rules and their relationship to the visual (and one would suppose aural) elements in a game, or what is sometimes called the ‘representational layer’. Through a thorough analysis of the early Activision game Kaboom, which features a madman throwing bombs down the screen that the player must catch, he shows that by explicating certain truths about the behavior of this relatively simple game, such as how the elements move and the states that are brought about by certain collisions, one can narrow the range of possible or defensible general meanings that could be created by layering different representations on top of the mechanics. Standard Kaboom might fall into the meaning category “protect”, since the player is catching ‘bombs’ which would otherwise fall onto the Activision logo at the bottom of the screen. However, if the visuals were altered so that the madman were throwing money that would burn up in fire at the bottom of the screen we might say the game fell into the category of “save”. What is important is that the meaning of the game can change drastically even when the mechanics of the game haven’t changed at all. In this case, the rich traditions of visual language trump any embedded meaning there might be in rules.
Treanor’s position is what might be considered the most contemporary form of proceduralism. The assumption is no longer that the meaning of games should be interpreted exclusively from the rules, but rather that it is formed by a complex interplay between the mechanics of a game and its more obviously thematic elements. In this way it is closer to my understanding of Wark and Galloway’s idea of a game’s allegorithm, where algorithmically manipulated thematic elements interact with their allegorical references in popular culture. This is a position that, in my opinion, is far more persuasive, yet it still has its weaknesses.
Some time after reading Treanor’s Kaboom paper I had the pleasure of watching my friend Jesse Fuchs actually play Kaboom on an Atari 2600 for charity marathon at the NYU Game Center. What I saw when Jesse played gave me the same sense I had when reading Unit Operations. Played at a high level Kaboom is mostly a dizzying display of reflexes. At the higher levels of difficulty the madman is dropping the bombs so quickly that the player must always be moving, and perfectly match the semi-random pattern in which the bombs are falling. This means steering the ‘bucket’ from one side of the screen to the other, making micro adjustments, small pauses and reserves in direction, to meet each bomb as it reaches the level of the bucket, never waiting in anticipation of its arrival. It was immediately clear to me that there was story that wasn’t told in Mike’s paper, and that no matter how Kaboom might be skinned its intended meaning would be obliterated by this kind of play. In the face of Jesse’s play it could never matter what the game was about, it was a game of reflexes, concentration, and memorization. These were not the meaning categories that the ‘text’ of the game could possibly fall into, they were the psycho-kinetic realities of that game as an event. Once Jesse put down the controller, after having earned about $80 dollars for our charity, the game ceased to exist, leaving only hardware and software instruments for another player to pick up and begin the game again.
In his follow-up piece Mike writes an interpretation of BurgerTime that expressly relies on the behavior of ‘high level’ players. Once again I find it to be far more compelling and persuasive than many other proceduralist arguments , however I can’t help but feel that the horse is out of the barn, and we’re never going to get it back in again. After all, it seems likely that high level play is not the result of the interpretation of BurgerTime‘s potential symbolic value on the part of the player, so what does it mean that the symbolic value is the result? What was the meaning of the game before the highest level of play was reached? Will the meaning change if new strategies are generated by the player base and a higher level is accomplished?
The answer to all of this might be simply that the meaning changes, and that the game changes with its players and therefore its possible interpretations change as well. I would be comfortable with this, though I’m not sure about how many of proceduralism’s casual and professional practitioners would feel about the compromise (not to mention the folks who review their grant proposals). It still leaves me with the feeling though that in the long run, ‘meaning’ in this sense is beside the point when it comes to games. Perhaps, in games, far more important than the messages are the realities and ambiguities of performance; it is ultimately less interesting when a game is ‘about’ something than when it is ‘of’ something.
The irony of all this is Sicart has engaged in proceduralist thinking himself. In a post I wrote some time ago called In Praise of Spoilsports I criticized Sicart for suggesting that ethics could be embedded in the potential of game objects. To be fair, Sicart’s theory of ethics in games places emphasis on ethical play and games in actio (in action), but there was enough proceduralism in his position at the time that it seemed logical for me to put him together with Bogost and Brenda Brathewaite, two of the people that he cites as proceduralist thinkers.
Before ending then I feel it’s worth pointing out that there are several aspects of Sicart’s paper with which I find fault.
First, superficially, I disagree with Miguel’s decision not to bring in an editor! He tends to make the same points several times, spread across only slightly different contexts, and there are numerous typos. However, it may be that Game Studies, the journal that published his paper, is more to blame for this than Miguel. Beyond that, Sicart also brings Adorno and Horkheimer into the mix of his argument, which I think adds unnecessary drama to his points.
More substantively, Sicart seems to suggest that the root of the problem is in the formalism of the proceduralists. As I said to Doug Wilson recently, who has made complaints similar to Sicart’s about how games are typically discussed and analyzed, the root of the problem is bad formalism. A good formalist would look closely at the operation of rules in games (and not just digital games) and see what a large part players have in the shaping of games through their independent generation of goals. Good formalists understand the fluid nature of games in performance, and the transient property of goals and many rules.
Finally, and most importantly, I think that in some sense Sicart makes his point a bit too strongly when at times he seems to put ‘games’ in opposition to ‘play’. This would be a fundamental mistake, tantamount to the mistake that the proceduralists make. From his section titled Instrumental Play:
Games structure play, facilitate it by means of rules. This is not to say that rules determine play: they focus it, they frame it, but they are still subject to the very act of play. Play, again, is an act of appropriation of the game by players.
By Miguel’s telling, play and games are almost different realms of human activity, with irrational, virtuous play being co-opted and structured by tyrannically rational games, or vice versa. My view, as should be obvious at this point, is that games and play are not in opposition because there is no game without play and players. Indeed, games should be seen as a subset of all playful activities, and a particular subset – one in which joy and meaning is derived from placing oneself under the focusing, quantifying, and instrumentalist function of rules. Isn’t this why the Association Football player devotes their energy and sometimes their life to the perfect pass, the perfect goal, rather than frolicking in a stream or dancing in the streets? It would be more accurate to say, then, that games are the appropriation of rules by play.
The nature of this inextricable relationship between rules and play in games proves false the claim that a game’s meaning can reside in its rules alone, but also proves that the rules, and what Sicart refers to as ‘instrumental’ play, are of paramount interest to players in games. After all, just as when Bogost talks of games without players and play he is really talking about software, when we talk about games without rules and goals we are really talking about ‘playful activities’. While interesting points may be made in light of either of these subjects, in neither case are we really talking about games. This view, though, is probably what makes me a formalist, or worse, an essentialist!
Thankfully, in the end, most of this doesn’t matter. The value of disagreements (beyond signaling) is that, every once in a while, people change their mind, and though conflict might not always lead us to the ‘truth’ it can sometimes do just as much good by revealing certain inadequacies in our thought processes. The final word of the debate that never happened between the ludologists and narratologists was not a settled conclusion on the role of stories in games, but rather an acknowledgment that no theory of games could be complete without an account of their procedural nature. In the same spirit, what ever the validity of Sicart’s individual points turns out to be, hopefully it is his larger point that is taken to heart: no theory of games is complete without an account of the spontaneous, creative, and expressive potentials of players.
NOTE: If you’re interested in hearing more about Mike Treanor and his work then you might want to check out an interview I conducted with him on the podcast Another Castle here.