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Persuasive Games: Process Intensity and Social Experimentation

May 23, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

In 1987, game designer Chris Crawford introduced the concept of process intensity, "the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data." Process, Crawford explains, involves "algorithms, equations, and branches," while data refers to "tables, images, sounds, and texts." A process-intensive program "spends a lot of time crunching numbers; a data-intensive program spends a lot of time moving bytes around."

For Crawford, process intensity is not only a theoretical frame for understanding the difference between algorithms and information, but also an aesthetic principle. "Processing data is the very essence of what a computer does," contends Crawford, so using it just to store and move data around is a waste. For this reason, Crawford boldly claims that process intensity is "a useful criterion for evaluating the value of a piece of software."

From word processors to video games, works with a higher "crunch per bit ratio" -- that is, the ones that contain more processing than they do data -- are better and more virtuous examples of computational media than those with lower ratios, according to Crawford.

In his article, Crawford cites the famous 1983 laserdisc game Dragon's Lair as an example of low process intensity ("its crunch per bit ratio stank," he deadpans). The game displayed big chunks of animations, performing very little processing on the video data and user input.

Crawford refers to his own game Balance of Power as a contrasting, desirable, high process intensity specimen. The game simulates Cold War geopolitics by algorithmically analyzing data like insurgency, economics, might, and prestige across many nations in relation to user actions like sending aid, escalating conflict, and backing down.

In a book-length manual for the game, Crawford summarizes the four geopolitical processes he hoped the game would emphasize: insurgency, coups d'etat, Finlandization, and crises. Dragon's Lair focuses on one process, timing, and a lot of audiovisual instantial assets, whereas Balance of Power highlights many processes operating independently on abstract data sets.

In his 1984 book The Art of Computer Game Design, Crawford had described the same phemonenon as a dichotomy between instantiality and procedurality. Games are instantial when they rely on prerendered, invariable assets over dynamic processes.

This distinction was somewhat easier to grasp for a working game developer in the early 1980s, when a game might be limited to 4 to 64k in size. Given a choice, filling that space with code instead of data would allow for a larger, denser experience. Such concerns are not really relevant anymore, but the general idea of a relative distribution of processes and assets in a particular work remains a potentially useful perspective on a game's formal construction.

By the mid-2000s process intensity gained renewed attention. Channeling Crawford in a 2006 SIGGRAPH keynote, Greg Costikyan advocated for interactive processes over poly pushing and canned data on the grounds that instantial games were hobbling the medium. Costikyan lamented that "80+ percent of the man-hours (and cost) for a game is in the creation of art assets. ... In other words, we've spent the last three decades focusing on data intensity instead of process intensity."

Indeed, the cost of those man-hours was becoming impractical. Where aesthetic rationales for procedural approaches hadn't made much headway, economic imperatives did. The rising costs of AAA game production catalyzed a new interest in procedural methods in game design, most visibly the procedural authoring and gameplay tools of Will Wright's Spore.

But as Costikyan pointed out, procedural content doesn't necessarily change the process intensity of a game on the gameplay register. Or as the critic Noah Wardrip-Fruin has explained, the central issue is not how much total processing takes place in a computational work, but which works "exhibit a comparative intensity of behavioral processing".

Put differently, process intensity and instantial intensity look different depending on which part of a computational platform one works with. Like 3D game engines, procedural content generation methods just increase the process intensity of an already data intensive design paradigm. Compare computer animated films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Considerable effort goes into animating characters and generating environmental effects through procedural methods, but the end result is instantial rather than procedural: a series of still images meant for anamorphic projection.


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Comments


Ian Bogost
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Just a note that this article was written before the JS Joust cloning controversy, and it does not take a position on that matter.

That said, may be interesting to consider the relationship between very small system designs and cloning. A smaller system design is easier to copy, and when it is coupled with a small quantity of instantial assets as well (as is the case with JS Joust), it's even easier to copy. This isn't an ethical observation, but a formal one.

Clifton Jewett
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I think this one really goes off the rails when you interpret "crunch per bit ratio" in a way that makes process intensity an "artifact-specific measure". That might be Crawford's wording, but I feel that intensity also includes the totality of the processes that are available to the player's perception, so that "crunch per bit ratio" only measures relative process intensity between two games with the same number of bits. A game with one process and no other data is not process intense. The player's perception absolutely has to be taken into account, and this explains why visual coding is not as relevant to process intensity as Finlandization coding - our visual cortex helps our brain processes 50k of visual data in an image far faster than our brain can process 50k of text. This, I believe, is at the heart of our innate reluctance to admit shaders into the realm of process intensity. Ultimately, without bringing in the player's brain, a game with a billion unnecessary lines of code running in the background (that the player never sees any results from) has high process intensity, rendering the term vacuous or at least unhelpful. Furthermore, leaving out the player's brain keeps the social processing of games invisible, which you are right to shed light on.

Things get back on track, then, when you correctly point out that Joust actually has high process intensity, and you match my thoughts further when you say it is because of Joust's encouragement of social processing. Wilson should consider distancing his games from Tales of Tales games, because when I read "game designs that smother players and reduce rather than expand their available creativity within a particular work" my mind bolts right to The Path.

The Path is one of the most frustratingly stifling "games" ever, because of the horrible lack of verbs available to player - there's nothing to do but walk, look, and listen. Yume 2kki is a similar game that rises above The Path because it gives the player a wide diversity of verbs to discover and play with - 2kki's core problem is how unlikely any one particular verb is to have an effect on a particular part of the environment - but at least you are allowed to try.

One last thought: I haven't been able to play Proteus yet, but it strikes me as having low process intensity (due to how I account visual processing). A Joust-like high process intensity version might be geocaching.

Ian Bogost
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We'll have to disagree about visual programming (why choose specific processes to qualify for process intensity?). I'm arguing pretty clearly against either designer intentionality or player perception as being relevant to process intensity... here Doug and I do agree: it's a formal matter. It's just that he doesn't seem to like formal analysis, which is his prerogative.

You might be right that ToT's work doesn't really best match to Wilson's aesthetic of openness, although I think Doug would point to the low goal/negotiable goals in those games as the source of their aesthetic similarities. Some would argue that The Path and Endless Forest offer more creativity by refusing to impose a designer's will on the player. But for my part, I tend to see this purported lack of imposition itself as an imposition.

Clifton Jewett
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The reason for choosing specific processes, I feel, is that when people are calling for more or less process intensity, they are calling for different player experiences - the heart of the contrast between StarCraft2/Balance of Power and Joust/ThePath/Proteus doesn't really have to do with a breakdown of their source codes, but with the intensity of demands the games' processing places on the players' brains.

Also, there's nothing negotiable about the King of the Hill goal of Joust and or the press-a-button goal of BUTTON - what is the negotiable is the means of accomplishing the goal. In The Path, there are a series of places to walk to and then an end place to walk to, and while the outdoor colliders can be triggered in any order, there is no meaning to any particular order. The Path takes away creativity but taking away opportunities. I can have a lot more fun wandering around in Just Cause 2, including in its creepy smoke-monster-infested forest, and any racing, story, exploration, and battle challenges are opportunities, not impositions. What games like the Path might offer is freedom from distraction, that might make certain players more likely to engage in wandering / non-goal-seeking behavior.

Lee Fieber
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Could you clarify how the social negotiation of BUTTON's goal is not a negotiation?

Clifton Jewett
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From my position, players are a formal element of game designs: every game design makes assumptions not only about how many players it is designed for, and what types of things they are capable of (do they have legs, hands, can they move objects, etc.), but also how much of a game's processes a player will have to keep track of, analyze, and respond to while playing. So, I think it is a formal matter, too, but I find it more of a floating concept if the load placed on the player is left out of the account.

Ian Bogost
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In response to this, you might find Jesper Juul and Staffan Björk's article on Zero Player Games of interest: http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/zeroplayergames/

As for me, I'd ask this: what does a game designer do when he or she designs? What are the materials he or she works with? Does a game designer design players?

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Clifton Jewett
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I feel that an analogous question to "does a game designer design players?" is "does a curriculum designer design students?", and that the answer is "no and yes" for the same reasons.

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Clifton Jewett
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And as someone who has spent many hours playing Game of Life and The Incredible Machine, calling them "zero-player games" strikes me as sacrificing accuracy for attention-grabbing.

Adam Gashlin
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The Zero Player Game analysis is interesting, it reminds me of the statement "the computer is having all the fun". My knee-jerk defensive reaction to it is that the setup-only games invite the player into the design process. Some of my favorite games (SpaceChem, TIM) fit in this category, so it is interesting to look more closely at why this works so well despite the inordinate amount of fun the computer is having :)

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Chris Zukowski
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Ian, to your last statement "While games that celebrate loose social experimentation with truly low process intensity designs might be possible, I doubt they are likely."

How would you consider Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) being classified in this spectrum? ARGs have high social experimentation with players chasing phone booths (in games such as I Love Bees) and running around, but the ultimate outcome is fairly linear and determined by the people making the ARG. On a side note, the ARGs are quite content intensive.

Lee Fieber
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Chris, could I ask you again to clarify your earlier statement about negotiation?

Ian Bogost
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Chris, interesting suggestion!

John Mawhorter
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The key here is not the complexity of the game system, but how much of it is accessible to the player. Oftentimes I think when game designers talk about meaningful choices they are touching on a similar point. Sometimes the player has limited points/places of interaction with the system, sometimes the player physically/mentally does not have the resources to interact with the system in a deeper way. I am in favor of complex game systems that challenge a player physically and mentally. One can imagine a flight simulator in which everything but the throttle was controlled by an AI. It would have the exact same process intensity as an identical game in which everything was controlled by the player, but the experience would be utterly constrained and unfun (although it might be fun as a gimmicky challenge, it would not hold player attention for long). So, in my mind, what really matters is not the depth of the simulation (although this is certainly important), but how much of it is exposed to the player, and how the simulation interacts with peoples innate physical/mental abilities.

Ian Bogost
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Actually, the AI controlled version could be construed as "higher" process intensity because more bits are being crunched! And indeed, the more process intensive an artifact is doesn't necessarily mean it's more "fun" -- and this is where the question of different intersecting aesthetics becomes interesting (and why I think Crawford and Costikyan sometimes eyeball process intensity by interaction). In any case, as a formal system description, we still find high process intensity in a game like JS Joust. I think part of Doug's position is that process intensity isn't a sufficient condition, and indeed we could ask ourselves if anyone really holds that position, or if it's a caricature/strawman.

John Mawhorter
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It's actually possible, now that I think about it, that Crawford's position was influenced by the relatively low hardware power of the day, and how important it was to get as much processing out of the machine as possible (coding in Assembly, etc.). Wasting precious resources on things not directly related to player interaction/fun may have seemed more egregious at the time for this reason.

John Mawhorter
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It's interesting to note that one of the easiest ways to add fun to an otherwise simple experience is to cram a lot of easily accessible and complex interaction into it by adding physical control (JS Joust, Wii/Kinect games) or social play (JS Joust, BUTTON), or even better, both.

John Mawhorter
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A coin flip simulator with realistic physics is a better absurd example. Complexity/process intensity are often not very evenly distributed in a game system. Some games focus on depth in a single mechanic/system, others on variety, etc. Most importantly, chaining together lots of simple systems that all interact with each other can make for surprisingly deep interactions. Lots of "simple" games that are fun are the result of this.

John Mawhorter
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Also I think it's important to think about the boundaries between interactive narrative, games, and unstructured (or less structured) play. These sorts of ambient "games" like Dear Esther seem to be more about encountering/exploring a world than anything truly gamelike, and probably merit another category like virtual worlds (non-narrative interactive non-games).

John Mawhorter
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Game rules can be interpreted and reinterpreted toward preferred meanings and purposes, selectively invoked or ignored, challenged or defended, changed or enforced to suit the collective goals of different groups of players. In short, players can take the same game and collectively make of it strikingly different experiences.
(Hughes, 1999, p. 94)

Yet, the essence of a game is rooted in its interactive nature, and there is no game without a player.
(Ermi and Mäyrä 2005)

Games are created through the act of gameplay, which is contingent on player acts.
(Consalvo 2009, p. 408)

Most importantly, a game becomes a game when it is played; until then it is only a set of rules and game props awaiting human engagement.
(Calleja 2011)

If there is an exceptionalist argument to make about games, an argument that justifies that games as aesthetic form are different than others, [it] is that games belong to players - at most, games belong to the designer if she wants to establish a dialogue with the player through the game - but play, the performative, expressive act of engaging with a game, contradicts the very meaning of authorship in games.
(Sicart 2011)

I agree with all of these statements, basically, and find Jesper Juul's argument against them rather weak. It is obviously important to analyze games as designed objects, much like any discussion of architecture should include critique of the plans for the building, but the actual building/game as it is played are much more important in my mind. His idea of zero-player games may actually be exploded by considering the designers of AI to be the players at one step of removal. With a game there is always interaction, though the same obviously applies to a book, movie, sculpture, or painting, although in an extreme case a painter could paint blindfolded and never show his work to anyone, we can discard this case as unworthy of analysis (imo).

Clifton - "but also how much of a game's processes a player will have (be able) to keep track of, analyze, and respond to while playing."

me - " sometimes the player physically/mentally does not have the resources to interact with the system in a deeper way."
Clifton your argument here fits into my comment above, with the change I suggest in parenthesis.

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John Mawhorter
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Actually there's only perception.

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John Mawhorter
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actually i'm trying to influence other people's perceptions to coincide with mine, since I think mine are quite clear and accurate.

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