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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 4 of 4

Process Intensity vs. Player Experimentation

Now let's take up Wilson's second complaint with process intensive game design: that it limits player experimentation and self-definition, focusing on the designed object too much and the player experience too little.

On first blush, this seems like a strange objection. After all, highly systemic games like the strategy titles Crawford and Costikyan design demand more numerous and more meaningful player decisions than rail shooters or narrative adventure games. What seems to bother Wilson is that those choices themselves are constrained by particular rule-sets. A strategy game like Balance of Power only allows the player to make the choices allowed by the system.

Unlike Thatgamecompany and Tale of Tales, Wilson is clearly in favor of goals and competition in games, and both B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust are far more brutally competitive than many so-called "proceduralist" games, including those of Humble, Brathwaite, and Crawford.

From Wilson's perspective, his games are "low process intensive" because they encourage players to negotiate "house rules" by which to manage the experience of play.

Since the system responds to a small fraction of player acts -- pressing a button, or exceeding an accelerometer threshold -- Wilson concludes that these games encourage and even demand personal and social negotiation: "J.S. Joust requires it players to gauge an appropriate intensity of physical play. How hard can I push my opponent? Will they mind if I try to kick them?"

This kind of experience may or may not be up your alley, but certainly Wilson and his collaborators have found an aesthetic that is unique and appealing to many. B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust offer small, simple designs that operate on a relatively small, even if aesthetically important, textual, graphical, and sonic instantial assets.

But, both games create their unique open social-code driven play experiences by means of very small system designs, using just enough multimedia materials to glue the whole thing together. They are neither multimedia games nor are they games without system design. Johann Sebastian Joust in particular exhibits this sort of high process intensity.

Even so, such a conclusion doesn't offer sufficient explanation for these games' considerable aesthetic appeal, which is related to Wilson's preference for a more open player experience. Instead of the ratio of process to instance, instead of the rejection of process as structure, it's the ratio of computer process to social process that makes these games unique. They offer a tiny system design that affords significant freedom for player behavior.

We might call such works games of social experimentation, for their primary aesthetic force arises from social behavior inspired by a specific system. Wilson's games offer an even more specific take on that invitation: they couple tiny systems which respond very selectively to player input to a hybrid play space that is nevertheless mediated by a recontextualized game interface (the Xbox or Move controller). Spontaneity, surprise, confusion, and disruption often result from plays of these games -- results that can be truly delightful for players and spectators who are not alienated by the particular social taste such experiences demand.

Wilson's games exemplify one type of social experimentation in games, but other styles also exist. For example, games like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Spore also offer weird spaces for individual and collective social experimentation.

Minecraft and Spore do so through tools for social creation. The construction system in Minecraft and the editing systems in Spore allow players to create environments and objects that operate within each game's larger simulation, but which also exceed the system's capacity for understanding player input, just as J.S. Joust does, albeit in a different manner.

A Spore creature that looks like Homer Simpson or a Minecraft shelter that doubles as an analog computer -- these player activities exceed the game system's capacity for understanding, even as that system can respond to the aspects of those creations that are captured in its simulation. They function in the players' social space in addition to the games' simulation space.

Likewise, Grand Theft Auto and its open-world kin provide a simulated virtual environment in which players can devise their own activities within the confines of the simulation. An early example of this kind of social experimentation is documented in Jim Munroe's machinima film My Trip To Liberty City a video travelogue of his effort to behave like a Canadian tourist in GTA III's Liberty City. In any case, everyone who has played GTA or Crackdown or Skyrim has experimented with wandering around the city and watching the sunset.

What of the game systems that facilitate such weird experiences? Open world games contain considerable quantities of instantial assets in the form of 3D models and animations, but they also contain a great deal of computation necessary to simulate a weirdly credible if incomplete virtual world. There are a lot of assets in GTA, but there are a lot processes as well -- that's what creates the experience of a reasonably credible, lived-in environment. If J.S. Joust exemplifies a high process intensity social experimentation game in the one style, then perhaps Grand Theft Auto offers an example in another style, at least when played in that fashion and shared among a community.

Still, such a distinction is necessary but not sufficient to characterize the social experimentation design space. J.S. Joust also plays with video game conventions themselves, repurposing controllers in unexpected ways, and it focuses on extra-computer, physical activity rather than computationally-mediated exploration or creation. Many factors are at play, not just process intensity and social design.

A social experimentation perspective might also partly explain the appeal of games like The Graveyard, Endless Forest, and Proteus: they dare to offer the open-world experience without any of the missions or goals that would ally them with the less flexible adventure games that bother Crawford and Wilson alike. Still, all three of those games make fewer invitations for social experimentation than does J.S. Joust, and in that respect it's possible that a low- or no-goal environmental game may offer less purchase on the aesthetics of social experimentation than a competitive or collaborative game that seeds it with a specific -- if loose and open -- invitation.

Computer Games Have Computers In Them

When advocates of process intensity advance procedurality as the defining feature of computation, they do so because computers are programmable, electronic machines that process information. There are many ways to make use of or ignore the data storage or the data processing capacity of computers, but fundamentally, at some level, every computer game has a computer in it somewhere.

That computer might be conducting very little procedural work from the perspective of the player, but it might still be processing intensely at a deeper level, for example through real-time 3D rendering (Dear Esther) or sensor transmission and reception (J.S. Joust). When push comes to shove, there's just no avoiding procedurality when we make things for computers.

When creating specific works of computational media with specific tools and specific goals, the creator can choose how procedural or instantial an experience to create. There are low and high process intensive games by design and by accident. But the creation of a small system at the level of game design -- for example, the system of behaviors in games like J.S. Joust or Proteus -- does not involve a rejection of rules, processes, or systems so much as the tight and deliberate construction of a system that fashions a loose play space open to a variety of player actions.

Games create play by setting up situations bounded by constraints; the exact combinations of these ingredients, both formally and aesthetically speaking, vary widely. It's possible for one designer to create a small, tight system that advances an argument, idea, or representation, and for another designer to create a small, open system that invites unexpected player negotiation with it.

Johann Sebastian Joust is a superb example of high process intensity, high social experimentation game design. Surely there are other such games waiting to be made, many of which will have been inspired by Wilson's model. But rather than offering an antidote to process intensity, J.S. Joust demonstrates the surprisingly diverse power of process intensity.

Wilson takes the "abdication of authorship" positions advocated by Doug Church, Clint Hocking, and others to their logical extreme: for him, limiting player behavior to pre-determined moves is unappealing. Yet, all games limit player behavior in some way -- that's part of what makes them playable. J.S. Joust demands that players negotiate social interaction as a part of play. Such a demand is just as empowering (or repressive) as any other. But that's what games demand, that players submit themselves to the experience of a foreign system.

It's not process intensity that really bothers Wilson, but the inflexibility of certain tightly-designed rule systems: game designs that smother players and reduce rather than expand their available creativity within a particular work. But this aesthetic position isn't just compatible with procedurality -- it also relies on it. In fact, the greatest irony in Wilson's rejection of procedurality is how central the concept is to his particular brand of social game design.

A lightweight system structure is primarily responsible for the aesthetic outcome he celebrates. That system sports a large ratio of assets to processes, which facilitate the social negotiation Wilson values aesthetically. Indeed, it's possible that the most socially experimental games, from J.S. Joust to Minecraft embrace smaller system designs that tend toward higher process intensity. While games that celebrate loose social experimentation with truly low process intensity designs might be possible, I doubt they are likely.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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