Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style

By Ian Bogost

['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.


Proceduralism

Consider Jason Rohrer, Jonathan Blow, and Rod Humble, three figures whose names have been frequently mentioned in recent discussions of games and art. The work of these designers embraces simplicity of representation bent neither toward the pixellated pang of nostalgia nor the formal austerity of abstract emergence.

I want to suggest the name "proceduralism" to characterize the style represented partly by these three and a few others. It is not a name for all games, nor all "artgames," nor perhaps even all games by the creators just mentioned. Instead, it is a name for a style they have embraced deliberately and successfully.

What are the common properties of Blow's Braid or Rohrer's Passage or Humble's The Marriage for example? Here are several, some related to desired effect, some related to method of creation, and some related to form:

Procedural Rhetoric. As the name implies, proceduralist games are process-intensive. In these games, expression is found in primarily in the player's experience as it results from interaction with the game's mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects.

These games lay bare the form, allowing meaning to emanate from a model.  

Elsewhere, I have given the name "procedural rhetoric" to an argument made by means of a computer model. A procedural rhetoric makes a claim about how something works by modeling its processes in the process-native environment of the computer rather than using description (writing) or depiction (images).

When it relates to serious games or what I have called "persuasive games," this term coheres well enough. But it has introduced some confusion in other contexts, probably due to the unpopularity of the term "rhetoric" in contemporary culture. For many, "rhetoric" is a synonym for "lies." But for the rhetorician, the term characterizes the process of expression much more broadly.

In artgames of the sort in question, the procedural rhetoric does not argue a position, but rather characterizes an idea. These games say something about how an experience of the world works, how it feels to experience or to be subjected to some sort of situation: marriage, mortality, regret, confusion, whatever. 

An important distinction: Marcel Duchamp is reported to have once resigned art for chess, saying that the game had "all the beauty of art and even more." Simplicity and emergence have long been features of beloved games like Go and Chess, and the abstract beauty of emergence is often thought to exemplify the videogame sublime.

But the beauty of emergence in a game like Chess or Go is not a dominant feature of proceduralism, largely because its coupling to worldly ideas is too loose or metaphorical.

Introspection. Proceduralist games are oriented toward introspection over both immediate gratification, as is usually the case in entertainment games, and external action, whether immediate or deferred, as is usually the case in serious games. The goal of the proceduralist designer is to cause the player to reflect on one or more themes during or after play, without a concern for resolution or effect.

Jason Rohrer's Passage

Passage, for example, is a game about life's choices, lessons, and inevitable end. Because it is abstract in its representation of partnership and the passage from youth to old age to death, it inspires, quite naturally, consideration of this process.

The Marriage is about the push and pull of maintaining a relationship, but the significance of that theme sits in the ambiguity between its title and the behaviors it implements. These game pose questions and simulate very specific experiences around those questions, but those experiences rarely point players to certain answers.


Abstraction of Instantial Assets. Their focus on meaning in mechanics notwithstanding, proceduralist games do not reject graphics, sound, text, or even story entirely. But when they do include such things, these games tend to reject verisimilitude in favor of abstraction.

Part of the reason for this is practical, as these games are often created by one or two people. But a more important reason is aesthetic: reducing the player's obsession with decoration underscores the experience of processes, while still allowing image, sound, and text to meaningfully clarify the fiction of the game's theme.

Although one common method for abstraction is two-dimensional rendering (as is the case in Braid, Passage, and The Marriage), not all proceduralist games adopt this perspective; an example of a 3D proceduralist work is Mike Treanor's Reflect, a game about the movement of creatures small and large. Treanor's low-poly 3D rendering style de-emphasizes the visual fidelity in favor of the experience of movement.

When it comes to story, procedural works tend to employ metaphor or vignette instead of narrative. Daniel Benmergui's The Storyteller offers an instructive example: a story is told by means of the causal relationships between different characters, at different times, in accordance with their position on a triptych-like stage. 

No matter the level of abstraction, proceduralist works don't mistake higher abstraction with lower production value.

Where image, sound, and text is present, it is carefully selected and incorporated into the system that forms the rest of the game -- the time-reversible background particles in Blow's Braid; the expressive six-pixel eyes in Benmergui's I Wish I Were the Moon); the logarithmically scaled distortion of past and future vision in Rohrer's Passage. Such assets are always tightly coupled to the gameplay itself.

Subjective Representation. Games like Go and Tetris are abstract; if they have any aboutness, it is limited to the experience of the system itself. One can make representational claims about these games (as Janet Murray did of Tetris in Hamlet on the Holodeck), but only in an overtly metaphorical way.

By contrast, games like SimCity and Madden are concrete; they deal very clearly with specific subjects and activities, in this case urban planning and American football. 

Proceduralist games sit between these two poles. Their systems characterize some aboutness that is not an accident of genre or convention, but one deliberately selected -- often from personal experience.  

At the same time, proceduralist works are not as clear about their representations as are other games. There is an ambiguity of both form and signification in these works.

Another example of the style, Bernard Schulenburg's Where is My Heart demonstrates both of these aspects. The game deals with "the complication of family life" by distributing success among three abstract characters and jumbling an intricate platformer world about the screen.

From the perspective of form, proceduralist artgames tend to combine concrete, identifiable situations with abstract tokens, objects, goals, or actions. Consider, for example, the blocks in Rohrer's Between (previously discussed in this column), which are abstract objects that also play a role in a concept or set of ideas about the gulf separating individuals.

From the perspective of signification, proceduralist works deploy a more poetic and less direct means of expressing the ideas or scenarios their processes represent. Braid poses questions about doubt, forgiveness, time, and regret, offering the player an opportunity to pursue the question, "what if I could go back," in different ways.

However, the answers to these questions are not presented as definitive solutions discovered automatically through mastery of the game's system.

In this sense, proceduralism shares some of the values of Expressionism in art, especially as both relate to the subjective interpretation of emotion.


Authorship. When we ponder the subjective themes of human experience, it is very hard to do so in relation to the nameless anonymity of corporate creation. Thus, the strong presence of a human author is prevalent in these sorts of games -- in this context, an "author" might mean an individual or individually identified members of a small group.

The concept of authorship incorporates another feature of art more broadly: the pursuit of a particular truth irrespective of the demands of reception or sales. The sense that the artifact has something to relate and will not relent until that thing is expressed, rather than an experience to be optimized, is at work here.

A warning: don't mistake authorship for intention. There is a longstanding concept in criticism known as the intentional fallacy, which rejects the idea that a work's meaning or value is related to the creator's intention.

Player agency in games of all kinds leads to unique interpretations of play experiences; in proceduralist works, such meaning generation is stimulated by the knowledge that a specific human being set the work's processes into motion.

Movements in Game Design

Artistic styles, movements, and traditions sometimes arrive via the declaration of a group of artists, as was the case with the manifestos of the early 20th century.

Indeed, The Graveyard developer Tale of Tales penned a Realtime Art Manifesto in 2006 to describe and rally interest around their style, which differs considerably from that of proceduralism: they reject rules and goals in favor of high-gloss, low-interaction 3D experiences and situations.


Tale of Tales' The Graveyard

In other cases, critics and historians describe the emergence and evolution of a style during or after the fact. Whether or not the creators mentioned above would embrace the title "proceduralist" is an open question, but such a matter need not undermine the usefulness of describing a style in the process of maturation.

As a style, proceduralism takes a stand contrary to conventional wisdom in game design. At a time when video games focus on the realistic simulation of experiences, proceduralism offers metaphorical treatments of ideas.

At a time when video games focus on player gratification, proceduralism invites player introspection. At a time when video games focus on facilitating user creativity, proceduralism lays bare the subjective truth of an individual creator.

Whether or not the style has a stable future in its own right, it issues a specific challenge to our conception of our medium from within. And that if nothing else is most certainly a feature of art.

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