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Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style

January 21, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

['Games as art' is a tired conversation, says writer and designer Ian Bogost, who instead proposes 'proceduralism' as the new phrase to describe innovative indie titles from Braid to Passage and beyond.]

Are games art?

Last year, what Jim Preston wrote drove the nail into the coffin of this absurd and useless question:

To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether.

Preston sheds light on a fatal problem with the "games as art" conversation. Forget games -- "art" doesn't have any sort of stable meaning in contemporary culture anyway.

Movements in the History of Art

There are many reasons for such a development, perhaps the most important being that the avant garde changed art for good.

In the turbulent times of the first two decades of last century, localized movements in Europe gained attention by rejecting traditionalism. Futurism founder Filippo Marinetti spurned all things old and embraced youth, machine, violence.

Then when violence became reality in World War I, a handful of artists in Zurich concluded that if progress since the Enlightenment had lead to the destruction of the Great War, then such progress had to be rejected. They called their work Dada.

The Futurists called for a total reinvention of cultural and political life. Dada scorned artistic and social conventions in favor of absurdism and recontextualization. Tristan Tzara performed live poetry by choosing words randomly out of a hat. Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art by putting it in a gallery rather than a restroom.

Movements like these, which became known collectively as the avant garde, disrupted traditional notions of art's role and context. As the 20th century wore on, it became much harder to distinguish art by its form or function alone; context became the predominant factor, its arbitrariness exposed forever by Duchamp's urinal.

But even before the avant garde, the history of art lays strewn with the babes and corpses of movements that hoped to re-imagine or reinvent their predecessors, even if they did so less rapidly.

The Gothic style of of the 12th to 14th centuries preferred elongation, ornament, and angles in sculpture, architecture, and painting. The Renaissance perfected perspective. Realism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on portrayals of everyday life, itself spawning numerous movements of their own right such as Post-impressionism and the Pre-Raphaelites.

From the long perspective of history, the very idea that "art" means something monolithic and certain is simply absurd.

From Art Games to Art Movements in Games

What lessons can video games learn, even from a rudimentary understanding of art history? For one, there are no unified field theories of art. The pursuit of a pure, single account of art in any medium is a lost cause. Instead, the history of art has been one of disruption and reinvention, one of conflicting trends and ideas within each historical period, and since the 19th century even more so.

How then can we then understand the role of games in art? Unseating Roger Ebert's hubristic clutch on film as the apotheosis of contemporary art is not the way forward. Neither is the impassioned folly of appeals to video games' legal status as speech. Nor still is the repurposing of familiar game imagery as craft or as cake. Nor indeed granting game stills and concept art gallery status by hanging them in exhibitions at trade conventions.

Despite its lack of specificity, the idea of "games as art" or "artgames," to use Jason Rohrer's term, does offer some insight on its own. It suggests that games can be construed as art natively, within the communities of practice and even the industry of games. Its practitioners are game developers first, working artists second, if at all.

By contrast, "game art" describes a work prepared for exhibition in galleries or museums, still the "traditional" venues for art despite Duchamp. Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds, a hack of the NES cart that removes everything but the moving clouds, offers a good example of "game art." These are games that get exhibited, not games that get played.

Beyond such a distinction, however, and despite its rhetorical power, "artgame" is an insufficient name to be useful for players, creators, or critics. It is a stand-in for a yet unnamed set of movements or styles, akin to Realism or Futurism.

We must look deeper, toward the particularities of specific aesthetic trends in game development itself, with the hopes of identifying their positions in relation to games and art alike.

In other words, what we lack are discussions of the developing conventions, styles, movements through which games are participating in broader concept of art, both locally and historically.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Tom Newman
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With all due respect, this sounds kind of stuffy to me. Yes the "games as art" discussion is tired as stated, but this only continues the tired debate.

Even in the art world, the same exact type of art is re-classified based on the era or the artist's associates. What was DADA in 1915 was Fulxus in 1965, and what was Pop Art in 1965 is just plain contempory today.

From an intellectual perspective, I appreciate what the author is trying to say, but in general it seems a little tiny bit pretentious. Just my opinion.

Stevan Zivadinovic
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Dada and Fluxus are not the same, even though they come from a similar place. Likewise, the subversiveness of Pop Art can hardly be bundled into something "just plain contemporary". There is a lot of subtle stuff going around there relative to the historical context that cannot be summarized in thirty dismissive words.

I can't stand it when people throw around "pretentious" in the context of art and art discussion. It should be a corollary to Godwin's law in the context of art: call something pretentious and you forfeit any hope of being taken seriously.

Tom, you're not being a dick about it—in fact you're being refreshingly civil—but there are very passionate people out there who vehemently hate and mock whatever it is they deem pretentious. If they're talking about paintings they say something like, MY KID COULD PAINT THAT SHIT!—when talking about games it's, GAMES NEED TO BE FUN, FVCK ALL!—and, you know, that is fine, whatever, but there is no value to that kind of dismissiveness. It helps no one.

I don't really get it. It seems that they feel threatened by the conversation that they don't understand, or ... something, I dunno. Saying that they're simply "threatened" smacks of cheap Freudian bullshit but I lack an alternative way of describing the aggression. It makes me think of Sarah Palin and her Real American snowbilly glorification of stupidity and damnation of nuance and thinking in general. Pretentious is one of those magical show-stopper labels that camp relies on.

I don't think we need the opposite extreme either: purple academia and fruity bullshit that sees things that are not there. These things could be dubbed pretentious, but this article doesn't deserve that.

If Gamasutra isn't going to entertain some of these lines of conversation, I don't know who is. I do think "proceduralism" is not a good way of framing that unique something that games offer to the arts, but I have nothing better to suggest in its place.

David Sahlin
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I'd be surprised if that style of game didn't have much of a future. They provide wonderful stories and messages in their own right.

Having said that, I have to agree with Stevan. I'm not sure "Proceduralism" is going to stick. Personally, it doesn't fit right - I keep auto-defining it as 'a movement for general procedurally created content' or some such.

Ian Bogost
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While I like to think that my columns are generally free of unnecessary affectation, I'm also not sure that there's anything so wrong with a bit of complex noodling about our medium's aesthetic state. Perhaps, even, we could use a dose of highbrow snobbery.

@Stevan, David

I appreciate both of your comments; they give me things to think about.

I considered using the additionally complex "procedural expressionism" but felt it both overly complicated and perhaps too specific. As I was just saying in an email conversation, There are lots of things that are "real" but not Realist. There are lots of things that are expressions but not Expressionist. There are lots of things that are cuboid but not Cubist.

To Stevan's point specifically: I didn't intend to characterize this style as the *only* thing games might offer to the arts, but rather one, possibly one among many.

It's funny, I've had several conversations today about this article and all of them have focused on this term over any of the specific points. I'm not griping; it's just interesting.

Ian Schreiber
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I actually agree that procedure (I might call it "systemist" to include non-digital games of the same type) seems to fit the art-game movement as it is.

However, I'm not sure games are limited to simulating systems. If I'm reading the article right, there's an implication that all art-games have to be "about" something, that they must be "rhetoric", that they must communicate. I don't think that's necessarily a limitation of the medium or a requirement. A lot of early modern abstract art isn't "about" anything at all (such as the urinal you mention, or some of Kandinsky's or Mondrian's work, as I understand it). It shouldn't be impossible for a game to be considered artistic without it needing to inspire thought or reflection or to carry some kind of important message. After all, not all art fits that description.

Ian Bogost
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I'm actually trying to suggest just the opposite: that "artgame" is an overly generic category to be of much use. "Proceduralism" is one style of artgames; there are surely others (extant, but undefined), which might characterize abstract games or other sorts of games.

Roger Klado
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Immersive interactives are( will be ) the art.

games will be it's pornography.

I think the debate on pornography as art still going on as well?

Stephen Chin
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I agrree with Bogost - it's an overly broad catagory. To say that one artstyle is 'better' (or movie catagory for the matter) or more or less isn't really true. They're just different expressions of a basic form. For that matter, comic books can follow the same broad range of purely story to pure art to whatever else. Or cooking and wine - it can be functional, it can be attractive, it can be creative but not always all at once.

Games/interactive content are the same way like comics - a weird sort of 'new' media that, while having and sharing similar parts is in itself a something that needs to eventually be defined in context of itself.

Stephen Chin
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Appendium: One of the areas that I don't really see touched upon is the distinction between the technical art and the artsy art that occurs in games (and is perhaps more strongly divided in games than in other media). GTA may not be artsy art... but the technical aspects of it may indeed be something to be worthwhile of consideration as art. The movement of games like Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia, and Mirror's Edge may be great works of technical art that may be distinct from any artsy art that the games are themselves.

Stevan Zivadinovic
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"I do think "proceduralism" is not a good way of framing that unique something that games offer to the arts, but I have nothing better to suggest in its place."

"To Stevan's point specifically: I didn't intend to characterize this style as the *only* thing games might offer to the arts, but rather one, possibly one among many."

Well, I didn't mean to say that that specifically was the *only* thing games might offer to the arts, but that *only* games have these qualities. That is to say, not much of movies' and paintings' potency comes from the audience's or spectator's agency. Interactivity and didactic simulation, empirical understanding of synthetic truths (in the somewhat-antiquated Kantian sense) belong to games alone.

How's that for purple academic onanism? Where's my cake?

Victor Liu
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Thanks for the article. I think the focus on your terminology is due to the fact that the way we talk about this new breed of art is at the moment inadequate and mostly confusing. (The terms "art games" and "game art" are problematic, too.) But I do think "proceduralism" does get at something integral to the experience of these works. Unfortunately, "procedural" has a deterministic ring, and highlights the software underpinnings of the works, while these works instead strive to emphasize choice and open-endedness, and would rather you not focus on the "if ... then ..." constructs behind the curtains. I find the term "process" a better fit to the experiential and the evolutionary aspects of these works. (It also nicely links to Alfred North Whitehead's writings, as well as to the Process artists of the 70s, though the latter would most likely disdain any connections to the works being discussed. Is the cake on my side of the table now?)

But in the end I wonder if a new "ism" is even necessary. Looking over the common traits listed in the article, I see that they are and have been common concerns to artists working in more established media. Introspection, unslick presentation, the artist-object-subject trinary: these have been around, especially in works that set themselves outside of the mainstream entertainment industries.

Ian Bogost
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I get your clarification. However, I'd also clarify that the kinds of works I am calling proceduralist are, at least to an extent, minimalist in their procedurality -- which is not to say that they try to use the minimum processes possible, but rather that they aim to make the very distinction between media you are describing evident.


I don't think I agree that the works discussed above emphasize choice and open-endedness. In fact, they seem to go rather against the grain of many games' tendency to offer "openness" and "creativity." There is certainly openness in the interpretation, but that is a different type than I think you are referring to?

As for "process," is that concept not implied by "procedural," while also maintaining the linkages to computation?

And as for the "ism" question, I think that it can be rhetorically useful if nothing else. Framing our discussions of game art (or "artgames" or whatever) in more specific terms seems like a promising direction.

Jamie Roberts
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"In fact, they seem to go rather against the grain of many games' tendency to offer 'openness' and 'creativity.' There is certainly openness in the interpretation, but that is a different type than I think you are referring to?"

I would have to agree, especially considering it's the *limitations* in these games that define what they're about. You will eventually die in "The Passage" regardless of what you do. If you could circumvent death, the meaning would be lost.

Most mainstream games are about removing limitations. I think the greatest example of this is Oblivion. It is a go-anywhere, do-anything game where you can join every faction and max out every skill regardless of where you started from. And certainly every mainstream game refuses to present death as an obstacle. This is with good reason, as the game would be no longer entertaining. But it's a key difference that really exemplifies the difference in purpose.

Adam Smith
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Not that we need to name everything up front, if you adopt a particular factored description of games you can start to guess at what other styles of might emerge before it happens.

Consider Mark Nelson's split of abstract mechanics, concrete representation, thematic (real-world) references, and player input. I can imagine how a designer might choose any subset of these as the elements with which to make their point. "Proceduralist" style might be the one that focuses mostly on abstract mechancs and a bit on concrete representation, but abstracts thematic mappings and input.

There is another style of games that tries to cram all of its meaning into the thematic mappings (via provocative skinning) while importing the other element wholesale from other games. We don't really have a name for this common style, but it certainly exists.

Consider some new style that, instead, was all about making a point with the player input element. An example might be a rock-paper-scissors game played with hand-tracking cameras. The abstract mechanics, concrete representation, and thematic mappings would be smoothed over with abstraction or imported from some other game, leaving the audience with the focus on how they twist their hand to expressively out-paper the opponents paper gesture. We can snag some nifty name like "inputicist" or "controlular", but then we'd be competing with ourselves when we go to name the style that uses an intentionally synergistic combination of input _and_ mechanics to make its point.

Ian Bogost
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Indeed, the "do anything" concept has become increasingly popular, and I appreciate the counterpoint these games offer.


Very interesting comments, thanks for sharing them.

Aaron Knafla
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Video games should do two things: entertain and make a profit.

It's just that simple.

Tyler Doak
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If I see/hear 'artgame' again, I'm gonna lose it. Like the term 'art' itself, it has too much weight... worse than rhetoric! I know labels and definitions are useful, if not vital, to discussion and advancement, but such an eager push to do so seems hasty and risky. And honestly, I can't seem to draw a good use for it from the article, or in my own experience.

The article itself seems to want there to be proceduralism. One point that really bothered me was the mention of Sim City and Madden. Those are so far removed from defined 'proceduralist' games that they provide little discussion for comparison. How about Metal Gear Solid 2 or Civilization compared to the proceduralist games? Both provide systems that unveil truths about the player in and outside of what the article defined as "player gratification" as well as the narrative. What about Shadow of the Colossus or Katamari Damacy. These seem to lie on the edge of proceduralism... or perhaps bridge a gap. To better understand the view of the article. I'd like to know why the games I mentioned do or do not make the team for proceduralism.

It's my thought that most of them do. It's also my thought that proceduralism is wrong. The only stylistic (another lame word) emergence I notice is the return to pure or 'old school' game mechanics which in turn has shifted the focus TO game mechanics. Tons of games, lots of wacky new mechanics, FOR the sake of wacky new mechanics. I condone the broadening of horizons and smashing of boxes, but, like the term 'art,' 'wacky' or 'fresh' mechanics, do not a good game make nor an interesting message send. When a good game, like a piece of GOOD art, combines all the aspects-mechanics,message,experience,ect-into one unified body , it is then special. I think this is what the games have in common. I'd like to know what I'm missing from the article if I'm wrong in that respect--how Braid is different from Metal Gear or Katamari.

To finish up my rant on art...

@Aaron Knafla

If you're not being facetious,

You're just stating the obvious, except that I'd give you the dirtiest look you've ever seen for the 'profit' comment.

Video GAMES are about entertainment. You're dang right they better entertain. But don't hold games back! Like movies, you may just want to go see Shoot 'Em Up or Die Hard, but good movies exist, as with games, that provide the thrills and also the message. The great even have the two work for a unified purpose.

Jamie Roberts
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Tyler, your mention of Shadow of the Colossus and Katamari ties in nicely with a previous comment:

"There is another style of games that tries to cram all of its meaning into the thematic mappings (via provocative skinning) while importing the other element wholesale from other games. We don't really have a name for this common style, but it certainly exists."

While SotC didn't import its gameplay wholesale, its thematic depth definitely lies in the presentation that creates moral ambiguity. I think another game that fits into this category is BioShock--the story does help explain the genetic modifications, but the gameplay itself is not what furthers the story.

As for Katamari, I think that game is another beast entirely. Neither its gameplay nor presentation attempt to evoke anything beyond entertainment. This isn't a judgment of the game as "shallow", just as the drive for "artgames" isn't about being pretentious or overly-serious. It's about finding a new purpose for the gaming experience, a realm of expression beyond what has been done before. It isn't a difference in importance, it's a difference in purpose.

In my opinion, the statement "video games are about entertainment" is as limiting as the old-school idea of what art was about before Realism. The typical reaction to a new movement is ridicule and disbelief. The Realists were scoffed at, the Impressionists laughed at. That's the typical human reaction to change.

What defines "good" art or games? What is good to you might do nothing for someone else. I like seeing movies that have neither thrills nor a direct message (some indie films do this well). Why do you think this conversation has made you react so strongly?

Steven An
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Hmm I wonder what would be the video game equivalent of Duchamp's urinal...

...Daikatana? LOLOLOLOLOL.

Mr. Romero, your Doom and Quake levels were awesome, but Daikatana's first level was completely anti-fun. And as a result, I never bothered playing the other levels.

Steven An
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But in all seriousness, enough about games as "art." How about we solve a much more concrete and practical problem: Are games even at the level of prime-time TV? Can anyone point to a game as clever or entertaining as House M.D. or Weeds or Flight of the Conchords?

Or how about games as documentary? There have been bold strides in this direction (Peacemaker, World Conflicts, etc.), but none have quite cracked the mainstream consciousness to fulfill their potential as works of mass-enrichment. This seems like low-hanging, but very important, fruit.

Art-games or whatever you want to call them can and will exist, and people who enjoy that stuff can talk about them and make them and that's fine. If someone one day decides to pay Rod Humble $2 million for a signed copy of The Marriage...well, that's one way to steal from the rich. But c'mon. There are other much more concrete and practical issues to discuss.

So, Mr. Bogost, I'd like to see more articles about games that lie somewhere between pure-thrills and high-art abstraction.

Jacob Corum
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Actually the reason I enjoy referring to games as art is BECAUSE the definition is so broad. Do you think when Michelangelo first sculpted David he first decided which method he would continue to do all of his art in? The beauty of art is how shapeless it is.

I think the reason we're all struggling with this so much is because like Mr. Bogost said, we're game designers first artists second.

Let games be what they are. Don't try to define them. They will do it themselves.

Jamie Roberts
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Steven, I think the Daikatana comparison would only fit if Duchamp had expected nobody to figure out his piece was "just a toilet" ;)

Lee Thompson
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Okay, I'm going to meta- for a second.

The fact that this much debate about "games as art", "artgames", etc. itself proves that games *are* art.

I propose the only consistent thing about art (and thus the best way to define it) is that over time it gets seen differently by different people. No one is going to have this sort of epic debate over the various solutions to an algebra problem, and if video games were that cut and dry, then they would *not* be art.

But we are having this discussion (ad nauseam, I might add), so therefore they are.

(As a corollary, you could say that people caring about something being art makes it art. No one debates algebra problems as art because no one cares about algebra problems as art. But everything that eventually became "art" was because a bunch of people cared about it being "art" to the point they influenced the populace to think it was "art".)

Lorenzo Wang
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Six Easy Steps to Acceptance of Games as Art

Step 1: Declare games as art.

Step 2: Mention FF7, Rez, or Braid.

Step 3: Demand "art" be defined.

Step 4: Point out that all media can be art some day.

Step 5: ??????

Step 6: Profit.

Michael Baker
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First, @Lorenzo

LMAO. I think Step 5 is 'invent a new religion'


While I generally agree with the article, I find the term 'proceduralist' to be problematic. First, there is the issue of Will Wright using the word (or its base) repeatedly in describing Spore. Second, there is the problem of the word (or its base) connoting mathematics. Third, the term just doesn't capture the subtly of experience claimed by its defining characteristics as a game 'style'.

To me, All Games provide the possibility of richly poetic reflective experience. And I believe that they deliver this experience most of the time - just not to all players all the time. Games can be fantastically sublime for many, many different reasons. Narrowly defining causal relationships between "artistic" expressions in game-like shrouds is indeed the REASON the debate is tired. Art history (20th century western flavor at least) has taught us not that a continuous replacement cycle of 'styles' is relevant, but that the variation of art practice justifies the system as a whole. There are no winners, just players...

Stephen Chin
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As someone said, there is a broad definition of art but more importantly, the way in which we're talking about art. There is art in the sense of a creative work and process (film is art, painting is art, whether derivative or clever) but there is also art in the sense of an innovative avant-garde sort of museum piece (as well as, conversely, more low brow art). One, is more of abroad title for a form of media, the other a specific idea.

I don't think anyone would disagree on the former - game development and games as a creative piece and process are definitely artistic and require artistic ability. In this regard, I think the debate is silly - you would no more say that film is not an artform. It's the latter definition that gets swept into the form that I find silly as well - you wouldn't say that Pirates of the Carribean is any sort of masterwork of art - entertaining and pleasing but certainly not the sort of thought provoking movie of say... Shawshank Redemption. I think then we need to really try to avoid making games an all or nothing thing. The bad shouldn't be Are games art? but rather Is -this- game art or is it more simply jsut entertainment and enjoyable?

Shawn Yates
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This has been something that has been debated for ages and there is no final say on what the real verdict will be. Time will tell but until then Lorenzo kind of hits this nail on the head with the steps he so humorously outlined.

Ian Bellomy
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“For one, there are no unified field theories of art.”

Correct, art is not a physics, it is metaphysics – or more accurately – Aesthetics.

“From the long perspective of history, the very idea that "art" means something monolithic and certain is simply absurd.”

If by monolithic and certain you mean empirical. In which case this is also true as the defining art is philosophical not a scientific pursuit.

The conversations on art and games as presented here (on Gamasutra) have me particularly confused. There is an entire field in philosophy devoted to this topic, Aesthetics. However even some of its fundamental issues are just now being brought up in popular discourse. For example the difference between an evaluative and descriptive definition of Art. While evaluative definitions are commonly accepted as being at best problematic, acknowledging even that position allows for the conversation to move forward. The question “are games art” _is_ rather tiresome, not because it’s meaningless, but because 1.) it has _does_ have pretty definitive answers when using the right tools, answers which or not so much definitive as... 2.) unmask other more interesting questions like “As an artform, do games posses qualities that exist in – a less exemplified manner – in other art forms?”

I’m in the process of going through other conversations on other articles but I figured asking here would be just as helpful. Have I missed something?

To reference Cryptonomiconm, it seems like there are a number of very smart people running very fast while a well developed speeding train is coasting along beside them.

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Great article.

I'd just argue against limiting this "proceduralist" approach to interactive experiences. Something can be procedural and NOT interactive.

For example, to watch a (static, linear) movie is different than to look at a dynamic procedurally generated (non interactive) image/animation. In the second case, the thing is "alive". (not necessarily better or more expressive - just different)

Of course interactivity expands on this (and gives the viewer direct access or agency to the "living world" created by the author). I'm just saying it is not essential (and not even the most fundamental aspect of that experience - as suggested by authors like Michael Mateas and Janet Murray).

Unless, of course, the term "interactivity" in the article could mean ANY kind of interaction, even pure observation of something (but that goes against what most people understand by the term, which is direct interaction with the system - the "exogenous" interactivity, according to Edmond Couchot).

PS: sorry I'm late to the discussion (I was caught in traffic)