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Players Not Included

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

14 Comments

  1. Mark N. wrote:

    The part that’s skeptical about viewing digital games as a kind of medium seems odd to me, because it rests on an assumption that certain kind of software, once you it becomes “playable” so it becomes a “videogame”, somehow becomes not-media. How can hypertext literature, cybernetic sculpture, digital installations, interactive cinema, and story-generation systems all be various kinds of “media”, but “a videogame” loses its media-ness?

    Noah Wardrip-Fruin pointed out somewhere the strangeness of the academic debates on this point, which seem to take “is this a game?” as a question that has automatic and strong implications for study, like if we decide it’s not a game, then we don’t have to study it in game studies, because it’s something else, and conversely, if we decide it is a game, then it’s not digital media anymore, but a game.

    Of course, you can foreground or background different kinds of analyses, which I think is the most useful way to read Sicart’s piece. But I don’t think there’s a clean solution; foregrounding the “play” aspect and de-emphasizing the “media” aspect gains some things and loses others, emphasizing the ways a videogame is similar to, say, sports, while de-emphasizing the ways it’s similar to say, cybernetic art.

    A related reason is why I also don’t think it’s particularly useful to think of “procedurality” or “procedural rhetoric” as originating in game studies, since it’s an idea dating back at least to the 1960s. It’s arguably been adapted and transformed when applied to digital games, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But I’ve written more on that elsewhere. (And again, Wardrip-Fruin is good on that point, with his book Expressive Processing doing an analysis of proceduralist expression that de-emphasizes the game/not-game boundary.)

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  2. While reading your account of the charity marathon Kaboom section, all I could think of was “man, I’d love to see an academic take on the evolution of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.” I’m fascinated by activities that completely bypass the notion of “game” and skip directly to “sport.”

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Ian Bogost wrote:

    Even though I don’t think “proceduralism” actually exists (I’ve only used the term as a hypothetical name for a ‘school’ of artgame design), only one of the four principles of of proceduralism you describe (“coherent claims about the world can be made in the form of rules”) actually describe positions I have taken (let alone all the other, unnamed “proceduralists,” most notably Michael Mateas and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, not to mention the earlier sources Mark mentions in the link above). This is where the straw man accusation arises.

    The problem with the ludology-narratology debate was that the latter allowed the former to put words in their mouths, to define their position as one they themselves didn’t actually believe. I’m not going to let that mistake happen again.

    For example, I talk about players all over the place in both of the books you mention–even in the Star Wars example, admittedly at a more abstract level.

    What’s really going on is more subtle, which also makes it less prone to spawn the sort of high-stakes argument that gets people off: you and Sicart want to emphasize player behavior over the apparatuses that inspire it. That’s fine, and probably even interesting. But it’s not a game vs. player problem. It’s a matter of attention and aesthetics.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Jesse F wrote:

    Thanks for the shout—out; my basal ganglia appreciate the compliment. I think there’s a better, more abstract proceduralist argument to make than Treanor’s parodic strawman, though. The rules of the game, though simple, have subtleties Treanor never addresses–it’s the rare game that organically gets more difficult as you lose your lives (something Bit Pilot nicely inverted,) and for expert play, you have to do a weird thing with your brain/eyes where you’re simultaneously achieving Zenlike focus on the buckets while trying to sneak a glance at your score and see if you’re approaching a multiple of 1000—which, if you are and you still have all three lives, you probably should intentionally take a dive so you can slow the game back down (shades of Canabalt!) while regaining your third bucket.

    I’d say these aspects are way more important in conveying some sort of relatively objective procedural meaning than the stuff Treanor focuses on, which is basically Lakoff as rendered by Bruce Tinsley.

    Kaboom!, like most games, implicitly encourages a certain type of neural rerouting—something that, however abstract it may be, strikes me as meaningful and possibly even ideological. I’d say that interpreting this meaning, however, is way more like interpreting a Mondrian painting or Terry Riley composition than any of the books I read in high school English class.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  5. Dan K wrote:

    I’ve long noticed players playing games in multiple ways, as you note in Jesse’s play of Kaboom!. I’ve been working on categorizing them. So far, I’ve identified 4:

    1) The “Rollercoaster” mode exemplified in Uncharted 3, where setting and theme present a message to the player (“What do I do?”, “Why am I doing it?”),
    2) the “Experiment” mode where players discover systems and explore how they work (“What happens when X happens?”, “Can I get X to happen?”),
    3) the “Mastery” mode where players practice optimizing those systems (“Can I be the best?”, see American Football, for example), and lastly,
    4) the “Application” mode, where players take mastered knowledge and apply it in creative or artistic ways: Play-as-performance, Creature creating in Spore, player-defined achievements in Nethack, Narrativism (from GNS theory) in indie pnp RPGs.

    There is a clear sequence here, where players focus primarily on one aspect of the game, then (potentially) move on to the next. Players seem to always walk through these stages every time they play. Players start in rollercoaster mode, doing things like playing a tutorial, learning who they represent and why they are playing. Sometimes they stay in this mode – they find the designer-driven message compelling. Other times they move into system comprehension (“experiment”) and then on to system perfection (“mastery”) and creative “application”. Note the player absolutely controls which mode they are in, but it is in the designer’s best interest to guide them down the path!

    I started studying this because I noticed players approaching games in these really fundamentally different ways. We would talk about “story games” and “game-y games”, and different players gravitated to different kinds of games at different times, but I couldn’t find anyone who had explored why. Note that most modern games include multiple modes, but take place at different times and on different time scales, because the player is focused on one mode at a time.

    Interestingly, these modes are often at odds with each other, and I-as-designer have to make design sacrifices in one mode’s experience to improve another. Dialogue trees are great for presenting narrative and setting, but undermine experimentation. Experiment-focused games (such as Nethack) demand a wide variety of shallow systems and should be easy to explore, while mastery-focused games (like Counter-Strike) have relatively few systems and narrative, but they are very deep and need to be capable of being very challenging. These design tensions are pervasive throughout the different forms of game-play and deserve deep study.

    Knowing which mode you are designing to is paramount to being successful. They often seem to determine the difference between popular success and failure. If a player comes in expecting to be swept up in a grand epic, and get a few shallow systems with no story, they aren’t going to continue. I-as-designer need to facilitate my desired play mode as quickly as possible, to guide player expectations. This appears to me the initial foundation of all player-designer game-communication – the guidance of player movement through this mode sequence to the desired mode.

    I’ve been meaning to write this all up, and this finally encouraged me to do so. Thanks. I may have to cross-post this, if you’ll forgive me. The mode names are the best descriptors I’ve come up with, and I’d appreciate any feedback on fleshing them or the theory out.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  6. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    First off, I want to thank everyone for the wonderful comments and feedback.

    Mark – As I suggested on Twitter, I think there is a more fundamental difference in perspectives between what I talk about when I talk about games, and what you and maybe even Sicart are talking about. For me, as a rule, I try not to say anything about games that isn’t true of all games, digital and non-digital. In this sense, if we decided that something isn’t a game it does have have strong implications for me, because the sheer range of games that exist and their history means that while many interesting things might be happening at the margins, exploring there has a very high opportunity cost. The cost/benefit analysis is very different, of course, if your perspective is that your subject of study is only a few decades old and something that is fundamentally new, or something that is fundamentally connected to electronic computing (not to suggest that this is exactly your position).

    None of this is to suggest that one area of study is more important than the other, or that they don’t have things to learn from each other. Again, I want to emphasize the difference in perspectives, because I think it is greater than it might seem. From my point of view we have, in many ways, not even begun to study games!

    The Simplicity – For me the line between sport and game seems like it might be a little blurrier than it is for you. There are two definitions of sport that I’m comfortable with. 1) A sport is a multi-player game where physical skill is involved (this is I think the definition most people use). 2) A sport is any game for which governing institutional bodies have developed. In other words, skill at the game has reached a level and importance where comparability between different individual instances of the game must be certified by the third party (I stole this definition from Frank Lantz).

    Hot Dog Eating would obviously fall under both these definitions, and I agree with you. I would be very interested in a scholarly examination of the the game!

    Ian – I do think that proceduralism exists, as I said, at least at the level of a set of assumptions that lead to similar logical conclusions. Some people have some of these assumptions and some people have others. Some, for instance I would venture to say you and Sicart, have certain proceduralist beliefs as part of your outlook even if they don’t encompass the whole (I’m sure I do as well). However, if this is a mistake then I would be glad to stand corrected!

    I talk about your two books not to suggest that you belong to some specific school of thought, though I should have made that clear in the piece, but because they are the examples I am most familiar with along with Mike’s work, so they sprung most readily to mind. I refer to Mike as a proceduralist because if memory serves he refers to himself as one. If I’m misremembering then I owe him an apology.

    There’s a chance that in an effort to be clever I was instead inarticulate. To clarify, the last bit of my critique of Sicart’s piece was meant to point out that I specifically don’t agree with the juxtaposition between game and player. Mostly because I don’t think that you can have one without the other. Furthermore, my conclusion was meant to suggest that my interest in a fight was because I was interested in the resolution that we need to look at both rules and players if we are going to be thorough. I do believe that if we have one without the other we are at best, not really talking about games, and at worst, only getting half a warped picture.

    Jesse – I think I’ll take this opportunity to come out against interpreting Mondrian. Beyond that, we can talk.

    Dan – Interesting! I saw your posted your thoughts on your blog and I’ll comment there as soon as I have chance!

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  7. Dan K wrote:

    I’m remiss in not mentioning this work of Ben Smith’s, which is exploring similar space as well in the indie pnp rpg space.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNS_Theory

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Mark N. wrote:

    Charles: That’s a reasonable perspective. I suppose I do think that digital games just don’t as comfortably fit into the history of non-digital games, and do fit more closely into the history of non-game digitality, when it comes to what makes them tick. But it depends on which games you look at, and which aspects you find interesting.

    For example, a proceduralist style of (game) design, which I think is really proceduralist (unlike Bogost, who I see as only-sort-of proceduralist), is just to try to build interesting interactive artifacts that people will like to play with. This happens in games like Black & White, where Richard Evans spent a lot of energy trying to figure out how to produce an “interesting” creature that players would get something out of playing with; and was also one of the driving forces behind The Sims game design. But it also happens in non-games, like in Edward Ihnatowicz’s Senster, a robot installation the audience would play with; or most recently electronic toys like the Pleo, or virtual pets Tamagotchi (which heavily influenced The Sims). I guess I see a lot of commonality between designing those non-game-things-that-support-play and designing digital games, or at least a large subset of digital games.

    To further complicate the landscape, I think that’s where where the ludologists don’t align well with the proceduralists, so there are probably more than two camps. Someone like Jesper Juul clearly wants to foreground game rules and even define what constitutes a “game”, whereas many proceduralists would like to foreground “play” and “procedures”, and make weaker distinctions between various kinds of “playable media” (to use UCSC’s umbrella term).

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Mark – Haha, oh yeah, we definitely disagree about digital games then! I think there are definitely digital games that are probably more fruitfully looked at in the context of digital media, but for the most part I find that even most single player games fit very comfortably in the game tradition. I think I said to Simon Ferrari at some point that I feel like most digital games are just variants of either Tag, obstacle courses, or a scavenger hunts.

    Another wrinkle is that from my perspective its not constructive to divide objects into those that count as games and those that don’t. Games can often feature the appropriation of objects for ludic purposes. In other words, I wouldn’t say, like some do, that The Sims and Minecraft are not games because they don’t feature stated goals. Rather, I would say that they are instruments for a variety of activities, some of which are games and some of which aren’t. As you might imagine, I’m more interested in the ones that are games!

    Finally, that’s an interesting history that I hadn’t considered. I’ll have to think on this a little more!

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  10. Mark N. wrote:

    Charles: I like your view in the second paragraph there. Perhaps the difference of interest is that I’m mainly interested in the objects and how they support various activities, rather than the games that are played within them per se. Questions like: how are The Sims and Minecraft different from, say, Microsoft Word, a rock, FIFA 2012, or World of Warcraft? The answer seems to have at least in part to do with “how they work”, i.e. the code/processes/procedures of The Sims are different from those of FIFA 2012, and then this has implications for structuring the kinds of play that take place with each.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  11. Thanks for the kind words Charles!

    (I do call myself a proceduralist, though I we may not agree about that that means. To me as a creator, it means I focus on authoring processes. As an interpreter, it means I perform deep readings that emphasize a game’s processes.)

    To be clear, I do not think that processes are “the most important” part of a game. And I think you would be hard pressed to find someone (who has thought about this stuff seriously) who would defend that position. It’s funny that Bogost gets targeted, because I consider him (and Mateas/Lantz) to be the people who drained whatever essentialism was left in me after art school. I mean, read this (http://www.bogost.com/writing/videogames_are_a_mess.shtml) and then ask yourself seriously if you think it is reasonable to say the things said about Ian’s ideas in “against proceduralism”.

    Here are some reactions/clarifications about what you said about my work:

    To say that Fuchs’ experience of Kaboom didn’t have much to do with what the pictures on the screen were of is fine. However, I do not believe it is possible or proper to exclude this from interpretation. By proper I mean that the pictures are there. In front of the player. Same goes for the game’s processes. They are there too. They happen and the player learns about them.

    If we want to talk about Kaboom as a thing, even as a thing that people play with, how do we choose which aspects are appropriate to consider during interpretation? Maybe players are in a weird tripped out personal space of abstract reflexes. That’s cool. It’s a thing. We ought to take that into consideration. But how can we stop there? There are other things too. How can we sleep at night (only sorta joking) if we omit the reality that there are pictures of a prisoner and bombs? Seems to me an interpreter at least has the responsibility to explain it away. And what about the fact that whenever one of them collides with the other it disappears from the screen? Rules are there too!

    Of course, an interpretation will necessarily omit some things, and emphasize others. To avoid the “essentialist!” accusation, I refer to my set of considerations as “proceduralist”. I perform “proceduralist readings”. My rule for choosing what considerations are important to consider has to do with whether I can tie the consideration to the some notion of the game’s materiality (and maybe I trip out on processes/dynamics a little hard).

    (Further clarification: I am not saying that we need to consider electrons moving around and such – those are there too, man!!! – I don’t think that. The way electrons move do not contribute to the playable experience in a way that the player has access to. Access to those things would require a particle accelerator or something.)

    A few more thoughts. It almost sounds like the “against” stance isn’t interested in interpretation at all, and wants to make sure no one else is either (“against proceduralism is a player who wants to play”). Also, I feel like a player centric approach is predicated on cultural assumptions about how games have been (insignificant representation, commercial/”fun” motives). Also, I like and learn from hearing about player-centric discussion about games.

    Finally, I’m not sure I agree that “most of this doesn’t matter”. My interest in videogames is closely tied to my thoughts about the “meaning of life”. Thinking about what a system does (with all the crazy complexity that comes from interaction – maybe even play), being able to say comprehensive, informed things about it, helps me understand my life and what tends to happiness, and what to unhappiness. But that isn’t really game studies anymore.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  12. Dan K wrote:

    Mark N: To help tie things together, this (proceduralist?) “virtual reality creation” being first over “pure games” is an interesting tension. It’s what Ben Smith titled Gamist vs. Simulationist structure. (In REMA work these are closest to the Experiment and Mastery modes). Ben believes there is inherent friction between them. B&W and the Sims are good examples of why – it’s not that you can’t design for both, it’s that they don’t sustain interest as both “game” and “sim” simultaneously over time. This is a classic, classic Maxis problem. The more “object” you add, the more the players scrutinize it as object and less as abstract rules.

    There’s a design article by Dirk Knemeyer about this subject in practice that I found very descriptive. He calls the design process “abstraction”:
    http://flashofsteel.com/index.php/2012/01/03/holiday-game-blog-5-dirk-knemeyer-theme-and-mechanics/

    (Quotes are because I’m not precise with the accepted terminology, not to create a definition argument.)

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  13. Miguel S. wrote:

    Great comments here. I’m happy that the piece has started some fruitful debates.
    I just wanted to clarify three things (mostly with my position, rather than the paper):
    @Mark: I think UCSC’s “playable media” term is the most interesting way of framing things right now. I also think the work done over there is really interesting, despite being proceduralists (it’s a joke, it’s a joke!).
    @Mike: See, the funny thing about Ian’s work is that I find the later stuff more interesting and nuanced than the early stuff. The Bogost references in “AP” are from 2006 and 2007. Alien Phenomenology and How to do things … are different beasts, closer to that 2009 keynote. But those 2 early works have been massively influential, particularly in the field of serious games and in parts of game design thinking, and thus my close reading.
    And finally, I have an agenda with this paper: to bring back the need to think and clearly express what play is in any analysis or design. I have a (very romantic/folksy) theory of play in the making (early drafts are floating around for feedback), and there are others that might work, even play theories that are coherent with procedural analysis (I think Simon Ferrari’s Master Thesis is a really good example of that).
    My agenda is to call for more coherent understandings of play in game (and playful media) studies, that’s all. Oh, and write a book about play, but that’s another story.

    Friday, January 13, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  14. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hey all, this is a great discussion and I probably don’t need to add much to it, so I’m going to try to answer you all as succinctly as possible!

    Mark – As a game designer I’m also really interested in the props of games and the design of rules. I just think that when we do theory we should be specific about the fact that all our conclusions which are based purely on props are may or may not apply to the games in the way we think they do.

    Mike – Thanks for the detailed reply! The question of what to do with pictures is important, but you can think about them outside the realm of interpretation. In my view, the role that representation has in play is usually either to signal or hide the state of the system, and attract players to both the game itself and the goals the designers had in mind. There are big conversations that can be had about how games do this that don’t involve ‘aboutness’, or rather, involve aboutness but not exlcusively in the sense of mining out ‘meaning’.

    Also, when I said “this doesn’t matter” I meant the specifics the present argument point for point. What is important is that argument is being had, and I hope that it makes us all smarter as a result, or at least smarter about what we don’t know.

    Miguel – Looking forward to the book! If we’re laying out agendas then I suppose I would have to say that mine is to convince folks that we have more to learn from placing digital games in the tradition of all games than we do by sequestering them off. My interest in bring play more into the conversation is based mostly on this goal.

    “…the need to think and clearly express what play is in any analysis or design.”

    I agree very much with this statement!

    Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

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