week 5: interactivity & agency


Week 5: February 5
interactivity & agency

prepare Sicart, Miguel. “Against Procedurality.” Game Studies. 11.3. (December 2011). http://gamestudies.org/1103/articles/sicart_ap/.


Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art. Seven Stories Press, 2012.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Rethinking agency and immersion: video games as a means of consciousness-raising.” Digital Creativity. 12:3 (2001) 167-174.

Frasca agency 3

Play or watch play-through: The Stanley Parable (2011); Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015); a sandbox game (Grand Theft Auto V, Skyrim, Minecraft, etc.)

guest speaker

An Associate Professor in the Interactive Media Division of the School of Cinematic Arts, Richard Lemarchand is a game designer, a writer, a public speaker and a consultant. Between 2004 and 2012, Richard was a Lead Game Designer at Naughty Dog in Santa Monica, California. He led the design of all three games in the Uncharted series including Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, winner of ten AIAS Interactive Achievement Awards, five Game Developers Choice Awards, four BAFTAs and over 200 Game of the Year awards. Richard also worked on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing for Naughty Dog, and helped to create the successful game series Gex, Pandemonium and Soul Reaver at Crystal Dynamics in the San Francisco Bay Area. He got his game industry start at MicroProse in the UK, where he co-founded the company’s console game division. Richard has made storytelling action games the focus of his career, and he is interested in the way that narrative, aesthetics and gameplay work together to hold a player’s attention and facilitate the expression of their agency.


Iftin’s comment
6 Feb- Blog Post 2


14 thoughts on “week 5: interactivity & agency

  1. Sicart makes some interesting and understandable arguments against procedural rhetoric. However, the true strength I observed in his article lies with his ability to look at procedural rhetoric as flawed, but not without merit. Sicart values aspects of the theory, but notes the limitations as well. Yes, proceduralism can be useful, but it’s not the only thing that makes up a game. This aligns with my views on the theory’s positive aspects as well as its shortcomings.
    Approaching this from the view of a former student of time-based media, now studying interactive media I identify procedural rhetoric as a way to separate the two. Similar to how time-based media is separate from static media through the added dimension of time, requiring another aspect for the designer to help convey their message. When we add interactivity, in the form that the game is directly interacting with the player, we are required to design the rules as well. Unlike the thinking of procedural rhetoric, which places all the emphasis on rules, this thinking simply adds rules as another design need to the already existing design needs of non-interactive media. All the pieces must be designed together to help build the experience and convey the message to the player. The art, story, sound, animation, etc. work with the rules to create the game. This helps the player understand how the rules are filtered to convey a certain message. One example of this system in action is the game of Monopoly. Think about how dynamic aspects of real estate help provide the proper context to paint the game as a commentary on the negative aspects of monopolies. If you changed the story of the game, but kept the rules would you still be able to derive that meaning from the play?
    Another limitation of procedural rhetoric highlighted by Sicart is its inability to predict how players may vary in the ways they play games. Different players will want to play games in different ways, sometimes completely abandoning the goals of the game and making their own goals. There are tons of examples of games that offer the ability to ignore progression for the sake of exploring, causing havoc in the game, or just goofing around. In fact the whole “Open World” classifier of games seems to embrace this area of play, and has a lot of success because it allows players to set their own goals.
    Procedural rhetoric can be useful in gaming, but adhering strictly to the rules alone is unlikely to help you convey deeper meaning. Instead it feels like a starting off point to build around through the play centric approach.

  2. I really appreciated this article and I am struck by the stark parallels between conversations in game design theory and archaeological theory. Both fields follow a similar trajectory of theoretical development, and I wonder if it’s not because both are fundamentally concerned with the human experience, a complicated and messy thing to try to codify.

    Prior to the 1960s, archaeological endeavors primarily fell into either antiquarian or cultural-historical paradigms. Antiquarianism is basically stamp-collecting: the goal is to find beautiful or interesting art objects. Not good (ahem, Uncharted series). Culture history envisioned human history as groups of cultures, represented through very distinct (often artistic or technological) material norms, interacting in time and space. E.g. a pot with painted stripes represents one culture (i.e. group of people), and a pot with dots represents another. Also not good.

    In the 1960s the very influential American archaeologist Lewis Binford (who was a total d**k, instead look up his wife, Sally, she’s amazing) proposed a New Archaeology in opposition to culture-history. Here is where the parallels with proceduralism emerge. What became known as Processual archaeology saw culture as a set of behavioral processes and traditions. Think Processual = processes. Processual archaeology is impartial, rational scientific investigation, but interpretations of archaeological data in this way depend on some seriously flawed assumptions: that an archaeologist is totally objective, that humans are entirely products of their cultures or other processes (e.g. environmental changes), and that humans are essentially “rational” automata whose behavior can be understood in terms of systems, etc. etc.

    In a way, processual archaeology is very much like proceduralism: “determinist…[denying] the importance of anything not determined in the system…an externally decided, predetermined, and rational outcome designed by others rather than the players.” In archaeology, according to this theoretical orientation, those “others” are systems like culture or environmental change, while the “players” are the people themselves who were merely reacting to these systems. Like with proceduralists in the game world, for processualist archaeologists, “Players are important, but only as activators of the process.” In essence, processual archaeology deprives past humans of their agency to behave in any way outside of the “system”.

    As Sicart in his article advocates for a theoretical adjustment, reactions to processual archaeology in the 1980s advocated for a new paradigm, now known as Post-Processual archaeology. This movement called for archaeologists to recognize their own biases and experiences that underlie their interpretations (which is an unavoidable problem the field still grapples with) and the result has been a plethora of investigation into the past that focuses on the individual, or “the player as a living, breathing, culturally embodied, ethically and politically engaged being that plays not only for an ulterior purpose, but for play’s sake.” In other words, post-processual thinking allows for humans in the past to be individuals with agency who have complex identities and behaviors.

    Good archaeological research today involves some combination of processual and post-processual thinking, and the results are higher resolution, more conscientious, and more responsible than either alone. Perhaps this bodes well for game design and procedural rhetoric – that more play with our procedures will yield better, more inclusive, and more meaningful work.

  3. In response to “Against Procedurality:”

    As someone who has taught and worked with children, play has always been an incredibly powerful tool for teaching and communicating a lesson plan. As an observer of play, it is incredibly revealing when young students are introduced to a game, given instructions on how to play, and then left to interpret those instructions in a way that not only makes sense to them but is also the most fun for them to execute. With that, as an instructor with a preconceived idea of how the game should be played and interpreted, it is often tempting to jump in and correct that play so students fully understand the intent and/or underlying message I am trying to convey as the facilitator of that experience.

    After reading the article “Against Procedurality” by Miguel Sicart, I appreciate the angle he takes when analyzing procedural rhetoric and arguing that it is missing a crucial aspect of what the interactive experience should embody and what the designer of that experience should consider – the thoughts, feelings, background, and life experience of the players who are participating. “Play is not only a performance. Play does not only include the logics of the game – it also includes the values of the player. Her politics. Her body. Her social being. Play is a part of her expression, guided through rules, but still free, productive, creative.” As an aspiring designer, I want to show my creativity and tell a unique story. With that, I also feel that it is my responsibility to provide an engaging experience for the player and allow them to experiment, tinker, and perhaps excuse themselves from the narrative or puzzle I’ve created for them.

    The argument that this article embodies brought me back to when I was a child. I went to a charter elementary school where we were exposed to a multitude of different teaching subjects and strategies. Three times a week, we’d break away from our regular curriculum and participate in an hour of unstructured play or what is better known today as Flow. Our Flow center had an assortment of games, toys, gadgets, and art supplies each with their own intended use and instructions. During this unstructured session, we were allowed to play and engage with these items however we liked as long as we didn’t distract each other in the process.

    Some students would play with these toys as intended by the manufacture while others would tinker, establish their own rules, and create their own stories. It was one of my most memorable experiences as a child growing up and was something I loved most about school. Towards the end of Sicart’s article, he says “Against procedurality an army of players stand and play, breaking the rules, misunderstanding the processes, appropriating the spaces of play and taking them somewhere else, where not even the designer can reach. Against proceduralism is a player who wants to play.”

  4. Several years ago, a fellow intern complained to me that game studies and games theory ruins the spirit of the thing itself. Games should be fun, and fun isn’t something tangible, something quantifiable, or even something worthy of analysis. I disagreed, and still do, but the idea haunted me, because I was concerned I would never be able to put my feelings to words, as I couldn’t to him. No, games should be examined and critiqued and analyzed like any art form. Yes, reducing art to scholarly labels and academic jargon ruins accessibility and strips it of color. No, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t perform scholarly work.

    Luckily, Sicart did all the heavy lifting for me, and I now have some compromises and responses handy, à l’esprit de l’escalier: Scholarly discourse provides useful terminology and perspectives for examining games, like procedurality and procedural rhetoric, but one cannot label games fitting nicely into these terms as “art” while ignoring those which do not. Or, the rules of a game should be understood as crucial to its nature and artistic intent, but we must remember that “[w]ithout the player there are no ethics or politics, no values and no messages.”

    I agree with Sicart that proceduralists like Bogost stress the rules and artistic messages over the people—the players—actually interacting with and interpreting these concepts. It’s all well and good for the team behind The Graveyard (Tale of Tales, 2008) to post an artistic statement on their website sneering at their players who found the game boring and missed the metaphor. Bogost might argue that the way this game’s mechanics create the meaning: the very, very slow pace at which players are forced to move, or the fact that dying and ending the game is a randomly generated event, both contribute to the game’s larger metaphor for end-of-life living. But Sicart, I believe, would argue that while The Graveyard manages to convey its message through its gameplay, the message was nevertheless unsuccessfully delivered. Games falling into the procedural category offer “a very limited space of possibility in which players can express themselves. In fact, these games often force players to reconfigure a particular set of actions in the way a designer has thought them, explicitly abolishing many possible instances of player creation and appropriation. The designer, in this case, plays the player.” In other words, the artist’s intent means little if the audience cannot respond to or challenge it.

    Sicart’s reminder that “[p]layers don’t need the designer – they need a game, an excuse and a frame for play” helps bridge the philosophical gap I felt with my peer (I’m sure he felt it at the time, too). On my end, scholarly explanations are necessary for the “whys and hows of how game technology operates.” On my fellow intern’s end, mechanics and formal analysis fall to the side were it not for “the way players engage with those rules, by the way players play.” Fortunately, neither of these statements are exclusive of each other.

  5. “Make America Nazi Free Again” should not be a controversial statement, yet that is exactly what it became as the tagline for the recently released Wolfenstein II. Many gamers perceived the slogan to be an attack against Trump supporters and/or encouraging the murder of white people despite the fact that the theme of the franchise has been consistent for twenty years (Wootson Jr., Washington Post). The disappointing but wholly unsurprising reaction of gamers in the Trump era demonstrates a detestable reality of agency in the gaming community: unchecked hate. After introducing the possibility that players would create mods of pedophile or neo-Nazi characters, Frasca writes that “since the goal of [The Sims of the oppressed] is to encourage critical thinking, [he] would not censor any opinion.” For this engagement, I will be focusing on the latter.

    To begin, Frasca’s framing of the hypothetical scenario is a classic example of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The idea that neo-Nazism is simply an opinion that deserves to be recognized “uncensored” is both trivializing and dangerous. First of all, neo-Nazism functions as a hate group whose primary principles are maintaining the systematic oppression of women, people of color, and LGBT individuals for the sake of maintaining white men’s comfort and societal rule–this is far beyond the scope of an opinion.

    Second of all, within the gaming world, hate and verbal abuse are commonplace. Look no further than the 2014 #GamerGate incident where Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian were forced out of their homes by doxxing and death/rape threats, or the daily experiences of women, people of color, and LGBT people playing online multiplayer games. During the #GamerGate incident, little to nothing was done to help the victims or punish the perpetrators; even the FBI failed to press charges against men who confessed to doxxing or threatening the women (Edwards, Business Insider). To this day, game companies have yet to develop a comprehensive way of managing abusive accounts in the online realm and suspensions and bans are scarce despite the ubiquitous nature of the problem. The fact that gamers are continually allowed to participate in vile, discriminatory behavior with little to no consequences makes the gaming community precisely the wrong place for any sort of critical discussion on Nazism, neo or otherwise.

    Which brings me back to agency. Games have created dedicated spaces within and around them where players engage with each other. These spaces are rarely and/or poorly monitored, which frequently allow discriminatory thoughts and ideas to grow unchallenged and persist unpunished. Sicart argues that games and play should not ignore the “values, opinions, and cultural presence of the player[s]” and that developers should take this consideration into mind when designing games. I argue that player interaction is itself a form of play, regardless of location or medium, and that when possible, it is our responsibility as developers, designers, and theorists to innovate ways to mediate these interactions and snuff out hateful rhetoric before it can propagate throughout our community. Creating a safer, more welcoming environment is of paramount importance, regardless of what it does to gamers’ agency–especially if that agency continues to be abused.

  6. While I understand and appreciate Sicart’s critique and revision of procedural rhetoric, I can’t help but think that he misses what I see as one of the main problems of proceduralism: the fact of its perception of game space as being initially empty and untouched of discourse before the designer implements the rules. All that Sicart does in this article (and in an over-repetitious manner) is claim that the way the players play the game creates additional sources of meaning for the game, alongside the meaning produced by the designer’s implementation of the rules.
    Sicart is clear in saying that the point of the article isn’t to replace proceduralism with theories of play, but rather to add thoughts on play to proceduralism, “…for each procedural analysis there must be an orthogonal analysis of play that completes the arguments of meaning by means of accounting the play experience. Or, in other words, we need a theory of play that accounts for, and complements, the proceduralist discourse.”

    My issue with this reading then is that it doesn’t go far enough in its critique of proceduralism. Procedural rhetoric is something that should be replaced, rather than added onto. As I’ve said before in a different reading response comment, proceduralism sees digital space as “empty” and needing to have rules carved within it to make the proper constraints for the player. However, this space isn’t empty – it’s marked with constraints that related to differential access to the digital space, as well as unequal knowledge and education as to how that space can be manipulated. Sicart’s critique doesn’t seem to point to this problem at all.

    For the sake of space, I’ll bring my problems with this article into an analogy. In terms of literature: if proceduralism accounts for the author’s creation of meaning in a text, then Sicart is claiming that the reader brings in additional meanings outside of the texts intentions. But both don’t account for the fact that these meanings are only produced by literate populations and ignore the problems that produce illiteracy, a systemic obstacle that blocks people from a site of meaning making. I’ll bring the analogy to something a little deeper and closer to my own interests: colonialism. If proceduralism is a government’s intentions and value creation for a political/national space, then Sicart is claiming that the citizens of that political space/nation add on to the value creation. But neither accounts for the (violent) exclusion of the peoples and cultures indigenous to the space, producing their inability to engage in sites of national/political value creation. (And no, I don’t see all these things as disconnected. They are very much entangled with each other.)

  7. Agency and Immersion are the two features of Interactive Media that I am most interested about. In my opinion, these two features alone can determine the quality and the value of the media. I say this because those two features are most unique and well defined in interactive media, enough to separate it from other forms of media. You see, only in video games and interactive media you control over a character in a world or universe, and depending on how well the simulation is designed, the more immersed the player is going to be in that out of reality experience. Now, the question here is if these video games or interactive media are consciousness-raising, because as Gonzalo Frasca puts it, “we control over flat characters or cursors and never give it critical thoughts.”
    Gonzalo’s article usually explores a situation in regards to The Sims, and that game is unique based on Gonzalo’s suggestions, but I disagree with her argument of breaking the immersion or the fourth wall to create that means of consciousness-raising. She mainly focuses on Augusto Boal’s way of interactive theater, and suggests of introducing a community of modding Sims characters based on our real life experience and grow aware of our consciousness. Although without doubt her idea is incredibly interesting and unique, I do feel like there are better ways of doing it for the same purpose of consciousness-raising, without the need of breaking the immersion, and a couple of video games have been successfully designed to do exactly that.
    Those video games are Metal Gear Solid 2 and Dark Souls. They are my favorite video games and I cannot shut up about them, mainly because of how successful they are in raising consciousness and all the while also providing absolute agency and immersion. I can write pages upon pages on how those games do it, but I’ll try to summarize it for the sake of the comment space. (Warning: Brackets are Spoilers!) [[Metal Gear Solid 2 carries the player throughout a whole terrorist hunting operation, but by the end it is revealed that a computer was “giving orders” to you through misinformation to suppress those trying to end it’s authoritarian reign.]] Dark Souls has a phenomenal design of having every single action and decision of yours having an ultimatum consequence for the entire playthrough. In other words, the game constantly saves every moment of the game and doesn’t let you save one moment and replay an earlier save. For example, If you choose to kill an important friendly or non-friendly character, that character will forever be dead for your entire playthrough. You cannot revert to an earlier save. The only way is to start a whole new game. This design pushes you to dictate and completely think every action and decision you will make. These are a few examples, as there are numerous designs that make these games incredibly valuable. Both games excel in their ability to create an experience that has immersion, agency, and raises consciousness.
    In conclusion, I believe that interactive media and video games can create experiences through clever designs that will retain the immersion, the agency, and have a universal environment with a means of consciousness-raising. Metal Gear Solid 2 and Dark Souls are two prime examples of video games successfully attempting this and I highly recommend everyone playing them.

  8. Since I am not a student from Game Design, my knowledge about game designing is really limited. Therefore, when I first read this article, I was fascinated by the author using procedurality to explain messages that being conveyed by game designers through the games (I do not know why I just ever connect this theory with game design).

    I partly agreed with Sicart’s viewpoint on procedurality cannot fully interpret how ethics, politics, and serious messages are transferred via game to players. I remembered reading an article about a VR game designer used a game to educate middle school German descendent kids on learning German in VR environment of Germany. The kids have never been to Germany physically, so the designer was hoping that this game can not only help students to learn the language, but also generate more identity recognition towards the German culture. The purpose was clear and logical; however, the students felt no significant influenced on their attitude towards German, also the language learning is not so effective. Instead, the students feel no excitement when they first played the game and they found out the strong sense of “educating”. Using merely proceduality to explain message conveying process can sometimes be problematic because the players’ participation is also relevant and can alter the way how the message is delivered.

    However, to determine how a game convey serious message by merely using the idea of proceduality is also risky. Players are individuals with their own thoughts, but the way they can play the games are still somehow being limited by the design, which still allows the designers to package their ideology into the game by setting rules and limitation. The effects of proceduality will never be 100% effective, analysts should always take both players’ participation and proceduality into consideration when they want to define however the message is constructed and delivered.

  9. In many ways, “Against Procedurality” links with our previous discussion on generative games/art that use specific constraints. Sicart argues, at least in part, against the notion of procedurality, which suggests that the meaning of games, or the political and ethical potentials of games, can be understood primarily, if not entirely, in the game’s rules. This gives substantial agency to the designer of the game, but precludes or ignores the role of the player in meaning-making. Sicart proposes a different way of understanding how meaning is generated in the relationships between player, other players, and the game itself.
    I was surprised to see that Sicart did not really offer a specific example or reading of his preferred mode of analysis of games. For this blog post, then, I’d like to reflect a bit on the sandbox games that were suggested pairings with this week’s readings. It has been a while since I’ve played Grand Theft Auto V, or really any sandbox game, but from my memory of playing those games I recall exploring the worlds of the games more clearly than the constructed narratives meant to guide me through the game’s spaces. I wonder to what extent the term “game designer” is relevant for a game like GTA V, which required a huge team of various designers working on different components of the game. This fact that the game does not have a clear authorship suggests that a procedural approach to the game would not be very fruitful – there is no unilateral transmission of meaning from a single designer to a single player.
    Additionally, while games like these do have rules, much of the fun from playing seems to come from bending those rules, or seeing how far one can push against the game. Indeed, going against the rules, or against the narrative, is built into games like GTA and Skyrim. These games are “open worlds,” and as players we’re invited to both examine and play in those worlds on our own terms and with those set out by the game designers.
    I was not a huge fan of the story in GTA V, so instead I chose to spend most of my time simply driving through the game’s painstakingly detailed simulation of Los Angeles. This experience of the game was more like looking at a visual art piece than playing a game, as the “rules” were not relevant to my experience of the game’s spatial design. While I agree with Sicart that the procedural approach cannot encompass the entire meaning-making process of games, I think we might also consider that games contain more modes of experience than just play. Those might include criticism on ethical or political grounds, or just a reinterpretation of the game as something else, e.g. a film, digital painting, etc.

  10. I was struck by the way Sicart framed his argument against procedurality through the use of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment. His referral to play as synonymous with myth was particular in shaping his argument. It brought to light some of the other questions that arise concerning game design and agency in culture. While the article focuses on agency as a necessary component to understanding procedurality, I had more questions about the cultural role of games, how players ingest content and how this content is interpreted. It would be interesting to read a case study of a particular game, something as seemingly iconoclastic to the procedural school like the Grand Theft Auto series. Procedurality then, is what is at the basis of the popular criticism surrounding the game (themes, violence, etc.), while Sicart’s argument of a player’s own ethical and political positions counters those criticisms. Sicart gives power back to the gamer as more than just a receptor, once free of agency and thought. The process is almost circuitous, because procedurality can argue the nature of any game, like Grand Theft Auto, does have intended meaning in the apparent free agency of the game play, just not overtly so. This is where a more concrete study of the game will benefit Sicart’s argument (although that is not the main interest of his argument). How does the player assert agency, and what are the outcomes for the overall meaning of the game after doing so?

    The natural progression of Sicart’s argument leads to larger questions of game and culture. While the proceduralists argued games were created to encode meaning that would be unpacked via its processes, and Sicart emphasizes the importance of agency in the player, it’s valuable to identify the cultural role of games for players. If we take into account each player’s personal disposition, how does this inform the way we all make sense of game play and its inherent messages? What role does it play in our lives? And how does agency factor into this role?

  11. In response to “Rethinking Agency and Immersion: Video Games as a Means of Consciousness-Raising”

    Frasca’s objective is to promote critical discussion and debate on social and personal issues. His proposal is to allow the modification of the behaviors of simulated characters by players and to then let the characters participate in a ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (TO) simulation. I feel that his proposal is overlooking certain fundamental requirements of a traditional TO.

    In order to discuss the limitations of Frasca’s proposal, we need to understand the working of the elements that bring about an ideological debate. First off, an ideological debate requires the existence of an idea. It requires participants who do not (yet) have true knowledge with regards to the idea but have certain beliefs about the idea. A critical requirement is to be able to push the discussion further by responding to other participants, which means an understanding of the context of the debate as well as a memory of previous responses. Participants in a debate allow themselves to update their beliefs by incorporating the knowledge that results from the debate (updating a knowledge tree of sorts).

    Frasca’s Sim of the Oppressed meets a few of these requirements, but not all of them. By modifying behaviors, we may be able to generate diverse participants, but the absence of an idea means that the interactions will be more like reactions than an exercise in critical thinking. Assuming that Frasca’s objective with the modification of behaviors is to encode ‘beliefs’, and that perhaps one character spawns a debate by coming into friction with another character with different beliefs, there will still not be a meaningful debate. Since his characters don’t have an understanding of the context of the idea, their interactions would become meaningless. Furthermore, the absence of an ability to modify the belief state of the characters means that the debates will only be one level deep, unlike a debate in a traditional TO.

    Frasca suggests that Brecht’s alienation effects (on breaking immersion) would occur because of the bugs introduced by amateur programmers modifying behaviors. I would, instead, argue that in its highest form, the alienation effect would occur when the characters update their belief and knowledge models independent of the original behavior encoded by the player. Once a player starts the simulation, the debate should proceed naturally from their initial belief states set by the player. The inability of the player to modify the knowledge state would turn the simulation into a true TO.

  12. Play is personal. Unique to the gaming individual; the reason why most of us participate in interactive spaces in the first place. However, what is not generally taken into account when we engage in games is the procedural constraint intrinsic to them that can inhibit the very thing we desire from them–play.

    In “Against Procedurality,” Sicart brings to light the limitations of procedural structure in games. Most emphatically, he argues against game rules as being the sole vehicle for a player to gather meaning from a game. That is, expecting a player to receive the message of an interactive experience only through the rules and guidelines conceived and implemented by the game designers is a constrained concept– and mostly unrealistic. And, I agree.

    However, what makes me stand by and respect Sicart’s viewpoint is that it does not totally disregard the positives of procedurality. As we learned from Janet Zweig’s “Art Combinatoria,” sometimes there is a certain liberation within the limitations of a game. With too much freedom, the personal agency becomes overwhelming and restrictive. So, in the end, it is a balancing act. A tightrope between too many rules and restrictions and too much freedom. An interactive experience must walk the line between each so the player can, most effectively and at their utmost engagement, play.

    Personally, this idea of procedurality is brand new territory for me, and is something that has only ever been in the back of my mind while watching/playing interactive experiences. In a bit a side research on the topic, I came across this article by Michael D’Errico, “Worlds of Sound: Indie Games, Proceduralism, and the Aesthetics of Emergence.” He brings up some beautiful insights regarding the role of sound and music as they pertain to proceduralism in games.

    For instance, that a pre-pre-recorded and programmed score, with a set tone and feeling, can act as a procedural element just as much as any conventional “rule.” Even the pre-determined soundscapes in-between tangible in-game “choices” can have an enormous impact on the player’s experience, and thus the meaning of the game and what the player decides to do– like the sonic voiceover in “The Stanley Parable.” Errico argues that a more generative sound/musical design that evolves with the fluidity of player-choice can make for a more meaningful interface. With each in-game mechanic, music, sound, and visuals can transform individualistically with the gamer to reveal the meaning of a game in realtime– and thus making play a little bit more personal.

  13. In reading the Sicart essay this week, I found myself reimmersed into a very familiar epistemological debate that has framed theoretical discussions of the visual arts, film, television, and new media among others, namely: who is the originator of knowledge, the author or the spectator (or listener, reader, etc.). In film studies we have the various iterations of Apparatus theories influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, in television studies we have the work of Raymond Williams and his critique of technological determinism (which seems very apt in relation to Sicart’s essay), and so on. I enjoyed Sicarts intervention in the rhetoric of proceduralism, especially because on a personal level one of the reasons why I have never been able to enjoy most video games is because they felt too much like work: practicing to become adept at manipulating the controls and timing, completing tasks for the rewards of progress, points, game currency, and so on. The games I am inevitably drawn to are RPGs because their interface and controls are simple and because I enjoy assigning personalities to the characters and inventing/rewriting their backstories, which is exactly the type of play Sicart discusses. And yet as much as I enjoyed this essay, I felt that Sicart did not take his analysis to it’s logical conclusion, and thereby erased the Marxist underpinnings of Adorno’s theory upon which Sicart’s entire critique rests. A full accounting of my problems with Sicart’s application of Marxist critical theory would require a lengthy essay of my own, so I would like then to simply chart the general terrain of my critique, without diving to deeply into its specifics.
    Sicart’s sole critique of proceduralism is that it is too auteurist, too determinist, and does not allow for a multiplicity of interpretations, or in his terms a multiplicity of different expressions of play which he sees as highly performative and can often yield what Stuart Hall called oppositional readings. All of these ideas are firmly grounded in Marxist cultural theory and are ideological tools that help us make sense of how capitalist hegemony functions and how marginalized groups engage with the codes of dominant culture. My main issue here is that Sicart fails to indicate how he sees video game epistemology as a function of, or in relation to, culture or politics, and yet claims that his goal is to “engage in a productive conversation with proceduralism, bringing back players and advocating, finally, for a player-centric approach to the design of games, particularly the design of ethics and politics in(to) games (my emphasis).” His focus on the individual player and their interaction with the rules of the game as the ontological essence that defines video games as a whole, while a much needed update from the proceduralist rhetoric, still erases the individual’s ideological interploation within dominant culture.
    For example he states: “Play does not only include the logics of the game – it also includes the values of the player. Her politics. Her body. Her social being.” The way Sicart approaches politics is as if they are wholly individualized, fully divorced from the cultural ideology that, for example, genders them as a “her,” or the unseen economic and political implications of the very nature of video games themselves. Here I am thinking of Hart and Negri’s explication of affective labor as well as the way in which video games’ very logic often reproduces the forces of labor by normalizing the idea that labor (in this case unpaid affective labor) begets a reward according to prearranged economic logics that the laborer is unable to change or affect. In an age where mobile game rule sets are often designed to capitalize on people’s internalized need for work/reward logics by making the amount of work exceed the quality of reward, and the selling short cuts to better rewards. This is the backbone of their business model, and the game design then becomes a sophisticated psychological experiment whose ethics are very problematic. The goals of the design are no longer primarily about play, but amount to a calculated trial to see how much money they can extract from players before they get frustrated and stop playing the game altogether.
    I think that a serious investigation of the political economy of video games is required, and while Sicart was not engaging those issues, he did bring Marx to the table and I feel that his argument became very repetitive and left many important critiques behind. This probably wasn’t the forum to go fully into them, but he could have at least signaled that they were important issues to raise. Their omission and his overwhelmingly individualist political bias in conceptualizing gamer subjectivity to me reeks of an unacknowledged neoliberal worldview that I strongly disagree with.

  14. I find Sicart’s description of the procedural rhetoric movement interesting as it reveals a deep desire in the game design community to nail down the methods of creating political arguements within their games. This desire itself seems to have grown greatly in the last decade and continues today. It makes me wonder, however, if our hopes to great “argumentative” games create a bias in our theory building.

    I found myself agreeing with Sicart’s arguement that the rules of a game cannot fully contain the meaning the game conveys to its player. I wonder if any object or interaction within our world only communicates the meaning we infuse it with. A game, may be created rules designed to communicate certain ideals, but the game will never be experience in it’s original design. Instead, it will become an object within the world that can then be infused with meaning by the player and community. This is mainly to say that creators of content cannot fully rely on purity of the creations, instead, they must accept that their content will be transformed through time, culture, individuals, etc. to a point where it may be unrecognizable.

    If this is the reality, then what sort of hopes can we have for our creations? Simpler, more focused, and more private hopes. Perhaps a game is much like a discussion between two people. The more those two people understand each other’s culture, the deeper and more meaningful the conversation. The conversation has rules: listen, respond, listen, etc. If one stops listening or responding, the conversation ends. In the conversation, if the goal is of a political arguement, the most effective way to advance is to fully understand the other person. In that way, you can drill deep to the cause of their notions, and address them, through the rules of conversation, and with the content of your words, and the compassion of your heart.

    Here we come to what I feel is the most important aspect of creation. Whether you use procedural rhetoric to structure your message or not, your ability to communicate an argument doesn’t come from your skill at the structuring of rules or formulation of content, but in your ability to understand those you are communicating with. Ultimately, I believe the various aspects of each creation that contribute to it’s meaning are too numerous to consciously control. As we continue to develop theories as each aspect’s affect on the player, we should also devote ourselves to understanding the players themselves. Doing so will help us to better predict and maneuver the rules, content, and other forms of our creations to communicate our arguements.

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