WEEK 4: generative games

Week 4: January 29

generative games: collaborative creativity / speculative making

prepare Motte, Warren. “Constraint on the Move.” Poetics Today. 30.4 (2009): 719–735.

Zweig, Janet. “Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer.” Art Journal. 56.3 (Fall 1997): 20–29.

activity / guest speaker The Film From the Future (Situation Lab)

Jeff Watson is an award-winning artist, designer, and Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Games at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. His work investigates how game design, pervasive computing, and social media can enable new forms of storytelling, civic engagement, and learning. He is a Director at the Situation Lab, a design research laboratory cross-sited at USC and Carnegie Mellon University, and an associate faculty member at the USC Game Innovation Lab.

9 thoughts on “WEEK 4: generative games

  1. Ars Combinatoria left me wanting. It’s little more than a 10 page survey of an interesting phenomenon — that humans have been obsessed with permutation and combination through time. While it is a worthwhile endeavor to chronicle this pattern, Zweig seems to skirt around a question and never answer it: Why? Why are humans obsessed with ‘seemingly endless possibilities’?

    There is an interesting parallel between the two articles: both refer to Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poème for its combinatorial properties. Cent mille is both the product of a rule of constraint (i.e. that every line had to be interchangeable), and something recombinant that would require 2 million centuries to read in total. Why does this matter?

    We might look to some of Dyer-Witherford’s ideas about individualism, or, the personal experience, to understand (even though he suggests these are fundamental to new media alone). It makes sense that one would want very many combinations when it comes to a tool for divination, like the I-Ching. The reason why no one relies on a magic 8 ball to really answer important questions is simple – its too few responses means your companion can easily get the same answer. Similarly, with Tarot –it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if there were not enough cards to suggest that there is a unique reading for you and you alone.

    But what about the other systems that aren’t for divination? Motte suggests that some of the importance of Cent revolves around what it says about literature, “suggesting, for instance, that all literature is fundamentally combinatoric.” (This in itself is a discussion worth having, and could probably be extended to other media.)

    But perhaps the more important output of Cent is the creation of a “’personal’” sonnet…among the 100 trillion on offer.” This suggests that, among other reasons, Cent is special because it can provide you with a personal experience, which seems to be an important thread weaving throughout the combinatorial/permutable experiences explored in the two articles. But what about the other end – for the creator? The very process of creating is a choosing and ordering of things from a larger number of choices. Is this not also a form of combination? It seems that the generative process, experience, AND constraint are all part of ars combinatoria (and, more broadly, human history). Now we come back to new media: if a computer is capable of an infinite number of combinations of 1s and 0s, that can be ordered to create individual experiences, how do you begin to create order? You must impose some constraints.

  2. Motte’s analysis on constraint seems to prove that although the design is seen as restrictive, it brings liberating possibilities to authors willing to embrace it. The Five Obstructions is an obvious comparable to the article, it’s appears likely Lars von Trier was inspired by the Oulipian movement. Like the selections discussed by Motte, von Trier attempted to elicit emancipation for Leth through his semi-sadistic rules.

    Of the three texts discussed, La Disparition has the greatest obstruction, and brought me the most delight to read about. The restraint is simple enough to understand, don’t use the letter “e”, but the execution of it must have been and extremely taxing endeavor. Perec’s ability to dance around the loss of the most common character is impressive in and of itself, but drawing attention to its absence in the story is what truly blew my mind. The peak of my interest in this piece came from Perec’s murdering of his characters to prevent them from uttering an “e”. I caught myself laughing out loud imagining the dark comedy scenario these deaths play out in.

    Unfortunately the only comparable I can give in the language of pop culture I so frequently speak is a bit from the Simpsons. Billionaire power tycoon and villain Montgomery Burns requires one of his employees to defend his job without using the letter “e”. I can’t be certain this is in direct correlation to La Dispiration, but it was during the early years of the show, which tended to have more intelligent writing.

    Zweig’s Ars Combinatoria builds upon the recombinant qualities of the Oulipian sonnet “Cent Mille Milliards de Poémes” by Ramond Queneau, offering both pre and post digital examples, and showing how each influenced one another. Early examples such as the “Sefer Yetzirah” show how systematic thinking about permutations helped lead our species to the digital technology we utilize today. While more modern solutions such as “Rolywholyover A Circus” shows how we can have a new outlook on previously created work through digitally generating the recombination of the layout.

    On a bit of a side note, I noticed an interesting connection between the designs created in the examples of Ars Combinatoria and a popular movie recently released. Marvel’s Dr. Strange seems to borrow heavily from these diagrams when creating its visual representations of spells. This can be seen as both an exploitive aspect of big budget Hollywood movies, as well as solid research being done by the design team. In a way to tether the mystic nature of the film to the real world, the story attempts to work within the constraints of explaining magic through science. Since these diagrams represent how permutations help create a spiritual diagram it seems natural to borrow heavily from them.

  3. Janet Zweig’s “Ars Combinatoria” is a fascinating survey of how combinatorial systems was born, evolved and implemented through different subjects in a wide scale of time.
    The idea of permutation first reminds me of the famous Turing machine and the Infinite Monkey Theorem. As the article introduced, since computer ever faced the world for the first time, using its power to make combinatorial calculations becomes a much easier task than before. Computer, after all, is an advanced Turing machine itself.
    What I haven’t realized is that the ancient mystical systems such as the Sefer Yetzirah and I Ching utilize combinatorial mechanisms as well. Sefer Yetzirah uses letters and numbers as the basic element to perform “creative magic”. The article describes the story of two rabbis using Sefer Yetzirah to create a small calf. Although from the present perspective, using a book to create a living thing is clearly not realistic, we can perceive the meaning of this story in a different way. A calf, like all other things in the world, is made of atoms, if Sefer Yetzirah is a device that can propose infinite combination of atoms, it can of course create a calf. What makes Sefer Yetzirah interesting is the mechanism it invented, and as technology becomes more advanced, this mechanism becomes more tenable. Modern chemists can synthesize almost every natural substance by manipulating elements and atoms. Biologists can analyze and copy the DNA of most living organisms. It seems like everything in this world is made up of the same set of basic “building blocks”, and once we own the knowledge to manipulate these blocks, we can create anything.
    Another ancient combinatorial system, the I Ching, explores another system of permutation, which only uses a binary system instead of letters. The binary thinking provides modern computer scientists and artist like John Cage pools of inspiration. As John Cage’s said “the answer come from the mechanism, not the wisdom, of I Ching”, what the system was designed for is no longer important. The binary combinatorial system of “Ying” and “Yang” uses only two elements to explain the profoundness of the universe. The same theory model can be found on every computer at present. “Tao gave birth to the one, one gave birth to the two, two gave birth to the three, and the three gave birth to all things.” This quote form Tao T’e Ching can also be revised as “0 gave birth to the 1, 1 gave birth to the combination of 0s and 1s, and the mechanism of combination gave birth to the computer world.”
    When modern people look back to the ancient “Ars Combinatoria”, it is no longer a device for performing fortune telling or mystical rituals. Its true power lies in the mechanism of permutation. After all, we human beings are all products of combination, so is everything around us and the vast universe.

  4. Responding to the Motte reading:

    The idea of placing constraints upon writing to produce an enhanced or new kind of mobility for the author and reader is definitely an interesting proposition. For some of us, it might even be an idea that our personal experiences with writing or creation could speak to. However, I feel that this idea (argument of the text) of constrained writing producing mobility should be qualified.

    When thinking about how this piece might relate to games, we would no doubt come to the idea of procedural rhetoric. A concept articulated by Ian Bogost (though it was certainly implicitly present in games writing before Bogost), procedural rhetoric claims that the rules of a game (or the “constraints” of the medium) create spaces of possibility (or “mobility” as the Motte reading puts it) for the player to explore. Based on the actions that the constraints make possible, the game uses the constraints to make an argument about the process of something, or about how something in the world does or should work. This is ultimately meant to provide the player and author with a new kind of mobility, in which both agents can interact with processes that don’t solely exist in digital space.

    However, this is where I feel the need to qualify the “benefits” of constrained writing. To place constraints on digital or literary space suggests that those spaces are initially empty, and that constraints can be freely written upon those spaces. Yet, depending on what kind of “writing” is being done, this supposed emptiness of the space is simply not the case. Digital and literary spaces already have “constraints” written upon them: the constraint of differential access. In the case of games, that digital space is already marked by unequal access to digital authoring tools and knowledge of how that space can be manipulated. Something similar could be said of literary space, in that the space is marked by unequal access to literacy. To simply “write over” those spaces with constraints for new works strikes me as discursively dangerous – it’s a “covering up” of the fact of inequity and immobility. It is a creation of mobility on the fact of others’ immobility.

    So then, I suppose the resulting thought experiment is to think about other kinds of writing in which the formulation of constraint = mobility may or may not be the case, and to what extents.

  5. Week 4- Critical Comment #1
    Throughout Warren Motte’s article, “Constraint on the Move,” I was struck by a few reoccurring thoughts, but one persistent question kept nagging at me- what is constraint? While Motte writes that he will explain the meaning of constraint, he never fully or explicitly explains the concept. Instead he describes various things constraint does and does not do. And this left me wondering if constraint was a good thing or is it really a problem? On hand, I was left to consider if constraint was actually able to enhance one’s creativity by forcing a new approach to the project. As Motte writes, “how can constraint open possibilities for the writer rather than foreclose them…? How can it exercise a liberating force, granted the obvious restriction that it imposes?” (721). When looking at the constraint in this matter we can begin to see the possibilities associated with the use of constraint within an artistic endeavor. In this light we can look back at Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions. By giving Jørgen Leth a series of constraints he had to use while remaking The Perfect Human, von Trier was actually pushing him to rediscover the material in a new way. While I was skeptical during the film as to weather Leth would be able to comply and also make a compelling film, I ended up being quite impressed with the results. In particular, in the first challenge, among other constraints such as the film being shot in Cuba, von Trier stipulated that no shot in the film should be over twelve frames long. For Leth, this was the obstacle about which he was most worried and didn’t quite know how to accomplish. However, the end result was actually something quite striking and dynamic. As Jacques Jouet is quoted by Motte, “the constraint is the problem; the text is the solution” (720). In this instance, the constraint in editing each shot to only twelve frames was a challenge for Leth. However, as Jouet said, the solution was discovered through the finished project as Leth found creative ways to work around the constraint in order to create something new and dynamic.
    Using constraint to spark creativity is discussed in more detail as Motte continues his article by discussing Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poéms. This is an interesting example of constraint because unlike Leth who was constrained by what he could not do, Queneau was constrained by the vastness of the project. While on one hand it would appear that a poem as all encompassing as Queneau’s would constitute the opposite effect of constraint, in fact composing a poem that can be reconfigured in a way that still conveys meaning takes great discipline and foresight while writing. Motte describes the endeavor by saying, “cent mille milliards de poéms is not so much about being as it is about becoming” (722). The poem becomes something entirely new with each reading depending on the way the lines are organized. In fact, the interactivity of the poem reminds me slightly of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book especially when Motte discussed the online program which generates an individualized poem for the user based on the 100 trillion possible poems. It fascinated me how the use of such constraint while writing could lead to such unbridled possibility in the finished form.
    Finally, I was struck by the thought of missing something that we didn’t know was there in the first place with the omission of the letter “e” in Georges Perec’s novel, La disparition. In this example we see the ultimate exercise in constraint leading to creativity. While the novel sounds fascinating enough on its own, it is the concept of loss and the inability to articulate this loss that most speaks to me both emotionally and intellectually. I don’t as of yet have a fully formulated notion of why this intrigues me so much except to say the idea of using the absence of something in order to describe its presence is at the same time both haunting and oddly fulfilling. So while Motte may never have explicitly laid out the definition of constraint, in a way, his discussion of Queneau, Perec, and Cortázar and Dunlop allowed us to see constraint in action and this was even more enlightening than any dictionary definition ever could be.

  6. “Art Combinatoria” written by Janet Zweig is really appealing to read. The idea of permutation, combination and variation were previous complicated when being explained in mathematic terms, but Zweig makes it easier to be understood by bringing in a lot of examples from different territory. “Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value….the relationships of words are based on their numeric values”, using linguistic as an interpretation of numeric systems is interesting but logical. If alphabetical languages can be explained in system, what about symbolic languages such as traditional Mandarin? If the language itself is not composed by fixed figures like alphabet, can it still be numeric or data driven?
    Besides languages, I am fascinated by the explanation on music. I think of Chinese traditional music when I was reading this part of the article. I play Gu-Zheng, which is an ancient musical instrument. Ancient Chinese music is mainly composed of five notes: Gong, Shang, Jue, Chi, Yu, which is transferrable to Western music’s do, re, mi, so, la. The lack of “fa” and “si” makes it unique to compose songs for Gu-Zheng due to its limitation. This limitation makes it harder using this instrument to play many songs that have more variation on notes, but it also makes Gu-Zheng’s songs really iconic, and when it comes to the 5-note composition, the songs will be easily considered having ancient Chinese vibe.
    Furthermore, the connection between I-Ching and bi-numerical system of computer is also interesting. I-Ching was written to explain how the world functions and how people and things react with each other, representing ancient people’s philosophy. It was mainly used for fortune telling or weather observation. John Cage and Andrew Culver’s application of it on different territory also explains Zweig’s conclusion of once the finite starts, the examples, coincidences and possibilities seem endless and inexhaustible. This also links back to the movie we watched on Monday that whether limitation is limiting the showing of potential and imagination, or another way to motivate one’s creativity.

  7. The readings for this week address the role of contingency and permutation in the creation of art. Though we may typically think of permutation as something a computer does, both Janet Zweig and Warren Motte guide us through a series of artworks formed by various mechanisms of chance and permutation, or forms of constraint placed on the “human” making the work, all of which harken towards an infinity or potentiality that might not be present in a closed work. Indeed, these two readings made me think of Umberto Eco’s essay, “The Poetics of the Open Work,” in which he writes, “A work of art … is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterable specificity” (4). Similarly, Motte’s essay is prompted by the question, “How can constraint open possibilities for the writer rather than foreclose them?” (721). In the case of Georges Perec, his novel La disparition is closed or constrained (and, as Eco says, complete) in that he chooses a rigid form that does not permit the use of the letter e; however, that constraint also creates an opening – a new way of understanding something old.
    Similarly, the authors point to play as a type of heuristic or methodology. Play allows for the creation of new forms, but it also offers an alternative lens through which to see the world. I am particularly drawn to Ross Chambers’ term “Loiterature,” which suggests that play and idleness (we might also think of this as deliberately choosing to do useless things) provides a social critique, particularly of the capitalistic belief that work is always and necessarily a good thing. This will lead us, I suspect, to a political reading of play as something that is not just a distraction from work, but a criticism of it, or a reminder that monotonous labor detracts from the passive (and I’m thinking passivity here as, like play, a critique of labor) pleasure of simply existing in space amongst others.
    Of course, play, particularly play that is structured by rigid forms and calculations, has its downsides, which are left unaddressed in these readings. Shouldn’t we question John Cage’s use of the I Ching? Is playing with objects from other cultures always Okay, or is it fraught with power dynamics (I suspect the latter)? Who gets to borrow these religious and mystical objects from the past (the British Museum?) without paying attention to the roles of colonial plunder and orientalism in our understandings of those objects?
    Following these questions, we might also reflect on the ethics of play, or what the ethics of play ought to be. I’ve also been thinking of the character Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, a character who lives according to a strict code of contingency and chance. In the famous coin toss scene, Chigurh asks a gas station clerk to flip a coin, the outcome of which will presumably determine whether or not Chigurh kills him. To me, this is a type of play, but one that we ought to condemn. If the use of permutational logic permits one to avoid responsibility (the algorithm made me do it! – google), then we ought to seriously question what types of constraints for play actually benefit all of us, humans and nonhumans alike, while remembering that algorithmic/computational/ludic logic never completely erases the role of fleshy human actions.

    Eco, Umberto. “The Poetics of the Open Work.” The Open Work, translated by Anna Cancogni, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 1 – 23.

    “No Country for Old Men” scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLCL6OYbSTw

  8. Before I pursued a life as a perpetual graduate student I taught middle school mathematics. Despite the rift my instructional style caused between me and my administration, I insisted on teaching mathematics through the visual arts. Of all of the eight grade constant as determined by the common core, I always looked forward to both geometry, and of course, probability. They were the branches of math of that hold inherent beauty in how they work, and enabled students to understand an alternate (or at least additional) way that mathematics is ingrained in our world, and not just something to learn in preparations for tests.

    After reading Zweig’s article I found myself relating to her identification and appreciation for the way probabilistic properties are frequently explicit elements of creative practice, and more commonly implicit elements or creative process. In the introduction Janet asks a series of questions that generally ask how combinatorics can lead to “mystical experiences” and driven systems. Initially I was lost during her discussion of language and number. Yes, lots of letter leads to lots of arrangements, theoretically an infinite amount until cultures assign parameter, such as consecutive characters or length. However, not only does the cited factorial consider the quantity of the letters as the calculator, therefore the longest word could only be a strand as many characters as there are options for letters, or that many of those arrangements would never be words (e.g. abcdefghijklmnop), but it is not informative in a novel way. We know languages yield lots of words, and that there is touch of beauty to that aspect of language, but an obvious facet. But there are other attributes to language that influence the meaning of words in addition to the variety of arrangements. In the English language for example is heavily driven by Greek and Latin roots, which informs the etymology and allows to understand their meanings, rather than generating words in a procedural manner.

    Following this discussion drew stronger connections between the mentions of I Ching or the Book of a Million Poems. These particular examples, I felt, show how combinatorics holds and presents a beauty in a variety of implementations. The procedural aspects of computational combinatorics are not artistic in it’s own right, but how procedural and computational structures are engineered. Software, scripting, code, whatever, is a mathematical phenomenon because of the relationships between the programming languages and the mathematics, they simply work. In the early years of computer science programming was even considered a branch of mathematics and a specialty of many academics who worked in the field of mathematics. Implementing a mechanism like combinatorics allows us to explore a variety of fields like writing and art not because it can just generate a number of different things to see or read, but that some arrangements align with each other in beautiful ways. When such phenomena like perspective shifts or fractal art occur we can see the ways that adjustments to the variations can yield a result that qualitatively different in significance and meaning.

  9. I couldn’t read this week’s articles without the thought of certain games bubbling up to meet these ideas of constraint and ars combinatoria– games which require a conscious self-constraint to move them forward, a synthesis of units from a set, or a transformation of the mundane by placing a “Loiterature”-esque lens of gameplay over our usual scope of the world. The one that embodies the first two ideas is Pyre, by Supergiant Games. The last is none other than Niantic’s AR phenomenon: Pokemon Go.

    To begin with Pyre: Pyre is a game set in a fantastical wasteland world, where the player joins a caravan of traveling exiles who must perform rites in order to regain entry to the society they once knew. The gameplay itself is somewhat sports-like, though all wrapped in mysterious and religious trappings that evoke something more akin to divination of worthiness than anything else; an ancient Greek approach to sportsmanship, whereupon it was perceived as something to be favored or not by the gods. The divination aspect of patterns (from the set of your party members, you must create teams that act “as one”, much as recombinant elements are pieces taken from a whole to create singular entities) to tell us some sort of fate already evokes the I Ching and Sefirot as mentioned in the Zweig article, but what really struck me is the synthesis of both recombination and constraint embodied in this game. As you progress, you must give up members of your party so they can rejoin society– and considering that each party member brings distinctive and helpful skillsets to the table, it makes performing the Rites an exercise in working with loss as a restriction. The composition of teams you may put together thus dwindles in options as the game itself gets harder and harder, your set of possibilities to combine growing ever more limited with the freedom you give to individual characters. Furthermore, based on the characters you have, your story of the game changes in flavor– much of the game is spent in the caravan traveling along the path of the rites, and the characters interact through the course of this road trip and provide different pieces of story about the civilized world they came from, and the barren world the exiles now inhabit.

    On that topic, Pyre also has distinct echoes of Les autonautes de la cosmoroute, ou un voyage atemporel Paris-Marseille. There is a degree of “loiterature” present in the meandering of the player character and their cohort of exiles along places that are usually mere ruins of battles that once took place, now and forever left to the wilds that have overgrown them. Much like the “witch hats” of the traffic cones in a parking lot, the magic of these abandoned sites comes with both having a context for what they once were, but also for imagining what they could be: ideas give life to the desolate, imbue the derelict with new potential. The image of the red volkswagen putting along the superhighway thus evoked in my mind the rambling of the caravan in Pyre.

    To shift focuses, however, I think what struck me about the Les autonautes piece most was how much it plays into some of the central theses of what makes AR and ARG games compelling as a genre. When Pokemon Go came out in 2016, I remember distinctly walking around the neighborhood of my apartment with phone in hand, glancing up to find points of interest marked as Pokestops. I had been living in my apartment for quite a few months at that point, and though I generally knew the area I hadn’t thought much of what the landmarks around me meant. It took milling about with my game in-hand to open my eyes to what street art, what historic locations, what hidden gems existed right outside my door. That is what AR does as a genre: it paints a game into being using our own world as a canvas, thus inspiring a different kind of relation to our real-life environment than what we knew before. If that doesn’t scream the ideological aesthetics of “Loiterature”, then I don’t know what does.

    To put a cap on my thoughts, I think these topics as they apply to games (in a more specific way than general interactive media) make for both a useful framework upon which to examine mechanics as they exist, and a foundation upon which to try and build new content. Perhaps, in this way, the ideas of Ars Combinatoria and Constraint conceptually embody the tools they present us with.

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