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Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style
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Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style

January 21, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next


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.

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