week 5: Generative Games

Generative Games: collaborative creativity / digital-analog / speculative making

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


Pearce, Celia. “Communities of Play: The Social Construction of Identity in Persistent Online Game Worlds.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan, Eds. (MIT Press, 2006): 31-39.

Pearce Communities

Watch: The Five Obstructions (2001) Lars Von Trier 90 min.

Activity The Film From the Future (Situation Lab)
Speaker 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.


7 thoughts on “week 5: Generative Games

  1. I find Motte’s notion of constraint interesting because it is particular. We can think of constraints (or limitations or rules) as a broad concept that applies to basically everyone and every situation. It is through constraints that most people live their lives. For example, stay in between the lines on the highway, walk your dog but not in the street, don’t cheat on your partner, don’t curse in church or around children, don’t murder anyone—life is constraints. Further, constraints will mean different things to different people. To Georges Perec they might imply a challenging task, like the exclusion of the letter ‘e’ from a novel, however to someone in prison they might be more terrifying and ultimately more pernicious. The constraint of the first poem mentioned, Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poè, seems a great example of a single-minded set of constraint, the results are infinite but only in a specific fashion, in that it is virtually endless. Rather than being infinite in a more open, well-rounded fashion, i.e. open to actual growth and change, its growth is that of repetition and the previously calculated and planned. I wonder if by focusing on such a limited project are we are limiting the possibilities of our discussion of constraint?

    Motte seems to end “Constraint on the Move” with the notion that through a set of constraints we may be able to escape the more insidious and subconscious constraints that control us. This reminds me of Wendy Chun’s discussion of habit and the way it controls us through repetition, eventually becoming second nature. Further, that habit can be a mode of social control, determining how we go about our day, who we interact with, where we’re willing to go, etc. If you’ve never left your neighborhood or ventured into a particular one, you’re not likely to start. Through this interpretation, we can also think about habit as a cultural mode, a way sociocultural groups both manifest and maintain their specific traits and how each of us becomes who we are though habit—how those habits manifest both from within and via environmental determinants (family, friends, social treatment, location, etc.). We see this in “Communities of Play” as “individual persona [is] further articulated and differentiated over time through an emergent process of social feedback” (4). Player’s habits are formed through the habits of others and the constraints of the game, creating new constraints, new codes of conduct, and new cultures. We can see how constraints, both those placed on us and those we apply to ourselves (consciously or subconsciously), can help presently manifest and historically render a population’s culture, making it easier to see how each of us became who we are and to understand the differences between us.

    Considering this, I wonder if more can be asked of us than the literary and game like structures discussed in Motte’s piece? How might we use constraint to understand and empathize with the differences between us and the circumstances that created them. If constraint is a tool for movement, what is its true potential? And should we always remember to break through its walls as we create new ones?

  2. I am very interested in the idea of virtual ethnographies. There is, on the one hand, a humanist interpretation of the significance of such an ethnography. That perspective would go something like this, I think: what this ethnography shows is that some basic human behaviors (i.e. community building, intersubjective identity etc.) are reproduced in the virtual world. This might even be taken as evidence against many of the commonplace narratives about the alienation effects of internet culture, since the study seems to evidence strong feelings of group belonging and cultural cohesion. These effects are even amplified, according to the author, by the versatility of the avatar in There. The anti-humanist (or cyber-structuralist) reading would more closely scrutinize how the group was formed by a “beta tester” of the game, i.e. the game’s developer. So in effect, the group was an artificially assembled and led for the purposes of modifying the game itself: data was being collected on the users to shape their experience, and thus their behavior.

    I wonder, also, how the study has aged as games and the gaming industry has rapidly evolved in the last decade. The emergence of “indigenous” online cultures and their “migration” across platforms strikes me as, perhaps, a relic from when online life was siloed and partitioned. Wouldn’t gamers immediately have contact with other gaming communities immediately across message boards and social media now? Wouldn’t the cultural customs of a certain group have formed in those boards and media, so “migration” would be a somewhat meaningless term? If there is an example now, what games are still open enough to allow endogenous “cultural” innovation? I think, for example, that Second Life no longer exists…but I’m not sure if that’s true.

    1. Jon Rafman’s surrealist ethnography shot in Second Life complicates Pearce’s assumption of a real-virtual contiguity (what you describe as the humanist interpretation) but it’s not quite the ‘cyber-structuralist’ one you describe either. Instead he’s framing the virtual as a collective unconscious – a space in which repressed desires can be actualized. It shows its age, it’s a dated interpretation of cyberspace (‘the anarchic psyche of the internet’) – but cool for the time it’s coming from and does weird things with time. http://koolaidmaninsecondlife.com/

  3. Last week I was thinking about the differences between playing a game and playing with a game, largely because of Juul’s reference to how goal of Pac Man is not to “move in a pretty way.” This week’s readings lent an interesting other perspective on that same phenomenon. “Communities of Play: The Social Construction of Identity in Persistent Online Game Worlds” focuses on people who moved diasporically from one game to others within the same communities, and “Constraint on the Move,” discusses the opportunities for mobility that come from constraints.

    In particular, the last of the examples in “Constraint on the Move” made me think about the many varied ways that people engage creatively with terrains that have become familiar to them. There are speedruns, where players aim solely to move through games as quickly as possible, usually with the aid of exploits and glitches. There are challenges, like completing The Legend of Zelda with just 3 hearts, or without even using a sword (the most extreme version of the challenge is here: http://neschallenge.blogspot.ca/2014/12/zelda-extreme-challenge-one-preparation.html). In larger, open-world games like Skyrim, players (particularly relentless min/maxers) add stipulations to their runs to make them harder — things like no bows, no sneaking, and/or no enchanting so that the game that they have roughly solved through optimization becomes more difficult again. Similar to exploring the superhighway, players who play a game with constraints are, oftentimes, looking to make a familiar terrain new and interesting again by way of artificial constraints.

    The question that creates for me, then, is where is the line between playing with and playing a game? In both speed and constrained runs, the goal is still to finish/beat the game, just with additional requirements. Playing There or Second Life to recreate Uru fit well within the parameters of the play encouraged in those games (though there may be some question about their status as games as opposed to simulators by Juul’s definition) — doubly so when considered to be a sort of meta-play of Uru in that players are restoring a lost culture themselves. But in each of those situations, the gameplay is not, first and foremost, to play the game as the creator ostensibly intended. Instead, the goal of the game is created by the players within the constraints created by the designer.

    To me, that points to a sort of primacy of agency and intention when considering what it is to play a game or to play with a game — or at minimum, an ongoing dialogue of what types of play is possible. The willingness to self-impose constraints really pushes at the boundaries of what it means to play vs play with a game, and hints at the ways that creativity and agency/freedom can coexist with limitation.

    It really makes me want to read a new book called Metagaming by Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, which argues that the real work of games is to create games about games. As they put it, “although videogames conflate the creativity, criticality, and craft of play with the act of consumption, we don’t simply play videogames—we make metagames.”

    And on that note, I’m off to start a new game of Divinity: Original Sin with a friend across the country — let’s see what constraints we decide to impose on ourselves this time.

  4. I am very interested by the findings regarding the use of the avatar in the “Communities of Play” reading. The “customizable identity and a sense of embodiment” that resulted from the creation and use of an avatar as opposed to the “anonymous” feel in the first person “virtual reality” immersion, allowed people to move and interact uniquely in the game world, and thus feel themselves within the game world. With a trend toward virtual reality play and experiences, I find this to be an interesting perspective.
    I think Dylan raises a good point regarding the role social media and message boards would probably play in the communities of gamers, as many would probably reach out via these resources. Further, some social media and communication services now have options to use and communicate with their own avatars. Snapchat and iMessage for example have introduced avatars that are used for communication. Further, in conversation with another user, the avatars can be featured together in pictures that relay thought and feeling in conversation. Snapchat avatars track movements and activities of the user on a map. While there are clear differences between this and the game world, as it tracks real world movement and activity, and there are no clear objectives, the use of the avatar is primarily communicative, still allowing for interaction and feelings of connectedness. Users can even select from two different avatar designs, one that looks more realistic, and one that has more cartoon like features. As the look, movement and feel of the avatars that differed based on game/designer had great importance to gamers in the article, users of this form of social media can choose which design they want to use thus allowing for expression via avatar creation, but still considering the role of the designer. This is an interesting article that highlights community, connection and identity within the game wold.

  5. This week’s readings on constraints brought up a few questions: How do constraints open up new aesthetic and creative possibilities (Motte) or social possibilities (Pearce)? With Motte’s literary analysis, we see how setting up constraints at the beginning of a literary project allows the writer to make new aesthetic choices and to move literature around in both time and space. In Pearce’s social analysis of multiplayer online games, we see not only how the constraints of certain games shape player experiences and behaviors but also how these behaviors move in and out of different game spaces as players do.

    I liked how Pearce’s piece shows us how certain human behaviors are easily mapped onto virtual game worlds. This, as Dylan notes in his comment above, challenges some of the readings of digital culture and technology as inherently alienating and isolating and characterizations of online game players as solitary creatures. Pearce also reminds us of the technical constraints of games in both design and infrastructure when she discusses the strain on the computer processors that huge influxes of players cause (p. 4). This article made me a bit nostalgic for my own days of playing MMOs, where the social elements of play stand out in my memories more than the gameplay or narrative.

    One problem I had with Motte’s description of Cortazar and Dunlop’s travels along one of France’s superhighway is their obliviousness to the fact that while the highway seems unfurnished, “empty and unsignifying no-places,” (p. 730) it is never truly empty. They are always populated by people in transit and people who live along the way. After all, someone is working at the rest stops they stay in and the road-workers must live somewhere. The writers need constraints to unmoor themselves from the usual way of seeing these spaces yet do not take into account the constraints of life that might keep someone in these “non places,” to borrow Marc Augé’s term.

    This type of ethnographic constraint reminds me of an episode of the NPR podcast, Invisibilia (“Bubble-hopping, Reality Part 2”), where the hosts interview a man, Max, who developed an app that propelled him to random public Facebook events in order to break out his perceived “filter bubble.” The constraints of the app, social media, geography, and his personal goals all shaped the outcome of this project, yet, similar to Cortazar and Dunlop’s travelogue, some of the constraints are never critically examined.

    Like Alex, I’m also interested in Wendy Chun’s observation of habit as a form of social control. This leads me to the questions: Where do constraints come from? How are Cortazar, Dunlop, and Max’s attempts to break habituation (one type of constraint) with a new set of constraints historically and culturally situated? How are constraints differentially distributed among people, players, viewers, etc based on existing social formations? How are constraints imbricated in practices of social control?

  6. Warren Motte’s article extends our discussion from the past several weeks about the creative potential of rules, this time with respect to writing. Like him, I have found that imposing additional rules on the linguistic process can be enabling. For example, I find the word ‘problematic’ to be completely useless because it can be used to describe everything without modifying anything in a meaningful way. Abstaining from this word and instead describing what is problematic about something with greater precision enables more effective communication and more productive thinking. (On a related note, I would like to submit that we boycott the word cohort because it’s gross and homogenizing and we’re not in the military.) This strategy of abstaining from ‘problematic’ corresponds to the cutely named Jacques Jouet’s formulation: “the constraint is the problem; the text is the solution” (720).
    Georges Perec’s novel La disparition sounds really cool, though I think the process of writing it would feel more maddening than playful. Motte observes that the “omnipresence of absence” (725) in the novel becomes a metaphor for the absence of Perec’s parents from his life, so that “one constraint stands for another” (728). Motte uses this example to argue that “creative freedom can be obtained through constraint” (728). I don’t find this convincing, because for Perec the constraint is only enabling a specific type of creative freedom that is reflecting upon the very nature of constraint. I’m not sure this constitutes an “indisputable liberty” as Motte describes it so much as a capacity to self-reflexively express something of the hardship of absence. Why didn’t Motte impose any arbitrary constraints upon his writing of this essay? Wouldn’t it underscore the point he was making? Perhaps because it doesn’t actually afford an “indisputable liberty.”
    I do find Motte’s point about the metaphorical resonances between these types of constraints compelling. They evoke Katherine Hayles’ discussion of the structural similarities between code and trauma; both lurk in a subterranean space below language and consciousness although they are expressed in conscious and linguistic realms, and they affect those surfaces they haunt. In Perec’s novel, code and trauma are constraint. He adopts a code—no E’s—that is suppressed, invisible, yet “inscribed all over each page” (725): the text’s unconscious.
    This sort of abstract comparative thinking (code as trauma) risks being insensitive to the realities of trauma (would be curious to hear people’s thoughts about this). My impulse is to defend this type of inquiry so long as we are self-reflexive about it, especially because computational metaphors based on the logic of software have become dominant models of understanding the world from genetics to the “free” market, from ideology to culture, from ecosystems to trauma. Hayles defends this abstraction of trauma by arguing that code can be a helpful resource for understanding, articulating, and intervening in trauma. Such reflexivity is alarmingly absent from Pearce’s text. To use the language of “refugees,” “diaspora,” and “shared trauma” in reference to online avatars when tens of millions of refugees inhabiting reality have been violently displaced from their homes and are denied access to basic human rights on a daily basis is irresponsible at best. Pearce deploys these metaphors throughout the article, describing the group’s loss of their avatars as the “shared trauma” of the “Uru diaspora” whose migration “placed a significant burden on the [host] system” thereby “festering resentments among the ‘indigenous’ Thereians.” These obvious metaphors are never accounted for beyond the occasional use of scare quotes, though they express a great deal by suggesting the stakes of the narrative and endowing it with a dramatic flare. This is problematic. Just kidding. But for real – the uncritical use of such language evacuates words like ‘refugee’ and ‘trauma’ of their severity in a manner that I find indefensible.

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