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Persuasive Games: Process Intensity and Social Experimentation
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Persuasive Games: Process Intensity and Social Experimentation

May 23, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Doug Wilson's "Low Process Intensity" Aesthetics

Despite appealing to the "true nature" of computers, Chris Crawford's process intensity is an aesthetic category, and therefore it can be opposed or rejected on the grounds of style instead of virtue. The game designer Doug Wilson has done just that, calling for a celebration of "low process intensity".

Speaking recently at Indie Connect, Wilson cited games like The Graveyard, Proteus, and Dear Esther as examples of games that focus primarily -- perhaps almost exclusively -- on audiovisual design over game mechanical design. Indeed, all three games offer different versions of modest gameplay experiences. Graveyard creator Tale of Tales has previously embraced the terms realtime art and nongame to clarify this distinction.

There's no question that all three games offer limited means of interaction, and both Crawford and Costikyan have suggested low interactivity as a litmus test for low process intensity. In each of the games just mentioned, the player navigates through a 3D environment in pursuit of a lightweight, easily accessible, or even non-existent goal.

Even titles meant for a more general market have begun embracing low-interaction designs. As Wilson points out, That Game Company's titles Flower and Journey offer only basic control and limited action -- it's certainly possible to play those games just by wandering around, refusing to follow the progression of the levels.

But for Wilson, the real problem with games is structure rather than interactivity. For him, Flower fails to take its initial gambit seriously when it adds additional goals, mechanics, and challenges over the course of the game. In so doing, Wilson argues, the game's emphasis on audiovisual experience wanes.

In a more formal version of this argument, Wilson further clarifies the aesthetic and even political undesirability of process intensity, citing designers like Rod Humble and Brenda Brathwaite as adversaries. Both designers have embraced philosophies that locate a work's meaning in its system behavior (whether a computer is involved or not) rather than in its audiovisual presentation.

Humble's abstract, experimental artgame The Marriage is a far more extreme example of this practice than is Brathwaite's Train, whose visual elements include boxcars and a vintage SS typewriter. Wilson makes note of this ambiguity, calling Train "as much a sculpture as a game system". Wilson proceeds from here, wondering if system design amounts to arbitrary aesthetic essentialism that marginalizes other aspects of a work.


In response to such concern, Wilson endorses an approach to design "beyond formalized systems and computational algorithms -- a space where players are rallied to improvise their own gameplay and appropriate games to their own purposes". He cites two of his own games, B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now) and Johann Sebastian Joust as examples of this new style.

The former is a party game in which players respond to computer-selected invitations to behave in silly or surprising ways while competing to reach an Xbox controller button, and the latter is a physical game that uses PlayStation Move controllers to operate a kind of musical version of the folk game King of the Hill.

B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now)

In B.U.T.T.O.N., players must perform acts like posing like a ninja or lying down on the floor while racing to the controller button. As the title suggests, players can choose to do so by any method, even "brutally unfair" ones. In J.S. Joust players must maintain a specific accelerometer threshold in their Move controller, which is modulated by cyclical changes in the tempo of music from the Brandenburg Concertos that emanates from the computer that operates the game.

As it turns out, Wilson has two gripes with the design patterns he groups under the name "process intensity". First, he suggests that low process intensity is related to a celebration of audiovisual experience over the experience of rules and systems. And second, he objects to high process intensity on the grounds that such games offer narrow player experimentation within the constraints of their rules. According to Wilson, his own games offer signals for an alternate design strategy.

Given these objections, a question presents itself: do games like B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust really exhibit the low process intensity Wilson claims they do?

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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