Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics

By Ian Bogost

[Arguing against a stripe of neoconservatism in games that paints certain forms of design as aberrant and others as natural, academic and developer Ian Bogost examines the very nature of creativity and art and offers up an analysis of how the medium can move forward with a rich palette of choices.]

Every now and then someone objects to game design methods by arguing against "historical aberrance." This line of reasoning claims that a particular trend is undesirable on the grounds that it is new and abnormal, unshared by historical precedent. Let me share two examples.

First, a few years ago Raph Koster invoked this argument about single player games. As Koster put it, "the entire video game industry's history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. ... Historically speaking, single-player games are indeed an aberration."

And second, just recently Daniel Cook made the same argument about narrative games. Says Cook, "I deeply doubt that the best use of games is to tell stories. Narrative games are a historical anomaly. Multiplayer systems of economics, social grouping, and related culture are the past and present trend."

Anomalous Anomalies

I cite these designers not to start a debate about these two charged topics, but because their claims make me uncomfortable. The argument from historical aberrance seems like a very curious one to make about almost anything, let alone a category of creativity.

But nevertheless, when used it has a powerful effect: if games have certain deep properties whose undeniable truth is borne out over time, who are we to think we are right to declare millennia of history wrong?

But by that measure, myriad other phenomena also count as historical anomalies. Consider just a few cultural practices that are truly unusual when measured with history's hourglass: compulsory education, indoor sanitation, women's suffrage, the idea of childhood, and nighttime work and play thanks to electric light. Yet, few would lament these changes as retrograde, or if they would, it would be insufficient to do so simply by calling them "historical anomalies."

Still, the examples just cited are ripples driven by larger waves of cultural progress rather than by creative practices. What about art, then? What artistic practices could we count as historically anomalous? Well, representation instead of ritual practice, for one, but also commodification, conceptualism, abstraction, and self-referentialism. Or even more obviously, prose storytelling in general and the novel in particular, which stands as a historical anomaly against the millennia-old backdrop of poetry.

Indeed, it seems undeniable that artistic practice is often motivated largely by dissatisfaction with or downright hostility toward received ideas. Most successful trends in art seek to be historically anomalous. Thus the positions of Koster and Cook exemplify an unusual conservatism. Video games have a "true nature," a molten core established by accident among ancient folk games. Any attempt to extract, modify, or dispose of this core becomes a deluded perversion. Instead, the reasoning goes, we should seek to revisit and amplify the "natural" features of games.

Deviance and Deviation

Aberrance is deviance, freakishness, abnormality. When it is discussed in the context of history, it's usually meant to uncover the ideologies that underwrite a received pattern of behavior: the use of the term "caucasian", or banning interracial marriage, to cite but two examples.

Candidates for historical aberrance are sometimes hard to pinpoint in the present, so we often have to reflect on them after the fact. Current debates in the U.S. about gay marriage and tax policy offer good examples: conservative positions claim that everything has always been this way, while reformist positions argue that change itself creates progress. For the conservative position untested deviations count as aberrance, while for the reformist position unexamined traditions do.

But video games generally participate in the latter trend rather than the former, and not always in a good way. For games, progress usually implies technological progress. When Nintendo and Microsoft market their Wii and Kinect interfaces, they make appeals to historical aberrance -- but from the position of advancement rather than tradition.

Joysticks and game pads are cast as substandard, unintuitive, primitive, exclusionary tools that must be replaced with natural, intuitive, inclusive physical interfaces. The joystick becomes aberrant, the gestural interface progressive.

It's not too hard to find holes in this position. We could easily argue that simple tool-based interfaces that extend our bodies are more desirable because they are steeped in convention and adoption -- and therefore more "natural." Or likewise, it's not clear that the Wii remote or the Kinect sensor is really any more intuitive than the joystick, given the fact that we have to learn how to use them anew, make room for them in our homes, and so forth.


The argument from technological progress is invoked more often, but it's actually related to the argument from historical aberrance: in fact, it offers precisely the opposite position. The reformist aberrantist claims that games are what they will become; the conservative aberrantist claims that they are what they already were.

For the conservative aberrantist, the answers lie in the past, and we must remain true to them at the top of our designs in order to achieve the full potential of games. And for the reformist aberrantist, the answers lie in the future, and we must innovate at the infrastructural level in order to realize that potential.

Individually, both conservative arguments that invoke historical aberrance and reformist arguments that appeal to technological progress have an arresting force on creativity. Both claim that there is one true path, extending in opposite directions.

But worse yet, the conservative position on historical aberrance sometimes combines with the reformist position on technological progress to produce a kind of Janus looking forward and back, embodying two seemingly incompatible positions simultaneously.

Consider Cook and Koster's positions. On the one hand, they suggest that single-player and narrative games are undesirable or doomed because they diverge from what games "really are:" multi-party systems. But on the other hand, infrastructures like social networks and mobile devices act as correctives for these purported abnormalities.

Facebook forces games to become multiparty again, and iPhones force them to become leaner and more systemic. We get the progressivism of technological progress along with the conservatism of multiplayer systems.

Aesthetics

Instead of aberrance or progress, consider an alternative: games and their creators have different aesthetics. Not just different conceptions of what it means to create beauty or pleasure, but different underlying principles and styles that motivate the creation of specific works.

Let's consider an example that characterizes the complaints of historical aberration with which I began. I'll choose Heavy Rain, because it serves as a useful lens for both purported anomalies: narrativity and solitude.


Heavy Rain

First, following Cook's rejoinder, we could critique Heavy Rain for abandoning the power and magic of systems of behavior in order to create a simple, sometimes broken branching narrative story.

Many critiques of the title amount to the usual gripe about story in games: the tale Heavy Rain tells is a rigid structure unsusceptible to the numerous reasonable alternatives that may occur to a player, but which the game disallows or makes unavailable. If you were looking for an experience in any medium about either the structure of family life after a tragedy or about the logical process of criminal investigation, I bet Heavy Rain wouldn't be your first choice.

From the perspective of a folk-games system-design purist, Heavy Rain zooms in too far, giving the player control only over a specific set of choices made by a particular cast of characters in a single situation. A more systemic design would perhaps focus on the various tactics a father or a journalist or a criminal or a detective might employ given a variety of different personal investments, demons, conflicts, and resources. By some measures, that would be a better ludic rendition of the themes of Heavy Rain. A better game, as it were, one that doesn't fall into the trap of cinema envy.

The problem is, that's not what Heavy Rain is. The game is not an attempt to find the most efficient means to produce the largest combinatorial possibility space for strategic resolution.

If you ask me, it's not even primarily a cinematic game about detective work or parental tragedy; instead, as I've argued before in this column, it's a game that rejects the cinematic tradition of editing in favor of duration, producing dramatic, lingering moments that prolong sensations and emotions. The zoomed-in detail and fine-grain control emphasize these moments by "mimicking the attitude of characters' actions," as Stephen Totilo puts it.

More simply put, Heavy Rain has a particular aesthetic, a set of creative principles and effects that make it the sort of game it is.

Second, following Koster's retort, we could fault Heavy Rain for replacing human storytellers and listeners -- who are good at making rapid judgments and improvisations based on different actions and their possible outcomes -- and replacing them with a much coarser narrative simulation system that operates only according to the limited interpretations possible by a computer.

Why play a narrative that promises to react to different choices, only to be faced with massive limitations on the choices the game provides and on the game's possible reactions to those choices? By this reasoning, games like Heavy Rain and LA Noire are always doomed to be less interesting than their theatrical, filmic, or literary brethren, which would allow real people to characterize and perform human relationships.

Cook neatly summarizes this objection: "I think it may be the silent assumption that authored AI agents are more meaningful than two kids and a ball. For me, the humans win out."


As it happens, Jason Rohrer's game Sleep is Death adopts precisely this objection as its primary design value. In creating that work, Rohrer rejected "clockwork" approaches to simulated characters and dramatic arcs, those common in games like Heavy Rain, Mateas and Stern's interactive drama Façade, or Chris Crawford's interactive storytelling system Storytron. In their place, Rohrer built an improvisational platform for fast-paced two-player story-­performances -- more kids with a ball than authored AI agents.

But such arguments overlook the unique narrative aesthetic in these games. Heavy Rain has its own characteristic way of making a story playable -- through interactive vignettes that telegraph the sensation of particular emotions within a relatively static story structure. Façade has its own aesthetic, that of the AI agents and narrative intelligence systems that give Cook and Rohrer pause. And for that matter, Rorhrer's own response to games like these reveals its own aesthetic character, drawing from improvisational theater and the role playing dungeon master.

Who is right about the role of players and of narrative in games? Raph Koster? Dan Cook? Michael Mateas? David Cage? Jason Rohrer? Someone else? It's not a very interesting question, even if we could answer it definitively.

Instead, each of these creators offers his own particular take on these and other challenges in game design and engineering. Their individual works are appealing not because they show us the one way forward, nor because they lead us out of the sins of historical aberrance, nor because they show that a method generally considered anomalous is poised to become emancipatory.

Instead, they are appealing because they offer unique, singular, and definitive takes on what it means to conceive of a video game and to execute on that conception in concrete form. And each such conception has its own charms and blemishes. Heavy Rain is both lovely and terrible, and Sleep is Death is too.

Like arguments from technological progress, arguments from historical aberrance attempt to maintain the sanctity of games. But just as an obsession with technology can blind us to the weird pleasures of the devices and methods we have cast aside as obsolete, so an obsession with traditionalism can blind us to the strange beauty of the new methods we have collectively discovered.


Sleep is Death

Video games aren't science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation. We need to stop looking for answers, whether those answers would come from a technical innovation whose arrival only renews obsession with the next breakthrough, or from the final exploitation of the true nature of our medium by means of a historical discovery so obvious that it will become indisputable. The answers lie not in the past or the future, but in the present, which is all we will ever get in any case.

Not all design principles are aesthetic ones, and some styles of games warrant lamentation. And a designer can certainly argue for or against a particular style. But when one finds a game that does manage to deliver a detectable aesthetic -- a set of creative principles and effects that make it the sort of game it is -- that alone is a triumph.

To object to such a work on the grounds that it is not another kind of game, or because it wasn't designed in a different way -- these are judgments of taste rather than value. And as the aphorism goes, there's no accounting for taste. But to mistake a work or a creator with a unique aesthetic for an anomaly, a perversion that can be excised from history as aberrant -- that's as boring a response as it is blinkered.

Enough pronouncements and posturings about game design as problem-solving, of finding the most effective solution, or the most powerful trump card, and wielding it in the air like an autistic Achilles. Let's make games. Let's make good ones. Let's try to figure out what that means for each of us. Let's help our colleagues and our players and our critics understand it.

As the early twentieth century art critic Clive Bell put it, to those who have and hold a sense of the significance of form, what does it matter whether the forms that move them were created in Paris the day before yesterday or in Babylon fifty centuries ago? The forms of art are inexhaustible.

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