Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Not so much a practice, as an aspiration toward freedom

I just watched and am trying to digest an incredible and inspiring lecture by musician and scholar George Lewis.

Improvisation as a Way of Life: Reflections on Human Interaction
George Lewis

The lecture is broad and far reaching, and it's absolutely worth watching from start to finish. I couldn't hope to do justice to its depth in a small blog post focused on games and what they can learn from improvisation. Nonetheless, I'd like to pull out a few ideas relative to my focus on how we can conceptualize games as improvisatory frameworks. Warning: I'll be quoting from the video at length.

From ~24:30
"Interestingly, the 1960s emergence of collective musical free improvisation in Europe and the United States began to challenge first the individualisms of bebop, and then the primacy of the lone composer as the supreme icon of Western art music....The sound of improvised music is the sound of negotiation"
In my view, it's a worthy project to endeavor to draw in free improvisatory practices as central to the designs of  certain contexts in which game players may play. Doing so creates a model for construction of meaning divorced from the authorial control of the designer, even in contexts in which the behaviorist tendencies of designers are where constructed meaning is intended to occur. As Lewis later states, "Accidental meaning in improvisation is essential because we are never in control."

Not long after, he describes a debate on whether constraints are what allow improvisation and from which we must derive meaning. 

"So are constraints something we need to improvise, or is there a deeply rooted fear that improvisation, like noise, like slaves or subjects of authoritarian regimes, can simply get out of hand and run buck wild?.... "

One cited school of thought (which he associates with a Wynton Marsalis response to a question on improvisation) holds that in improvisation knowledge is limitation, and with knowledge comes a limitation of options that proscribes certain choices and thus renders the remaining choices meaningful. But Lewis comes to a different conclusion predicated partially on the necessity of "permission to exceed the necessary limitations":
"I've already implied that improvisation is more a matter of necessity than ability, but I want to go further in suggesting that knowledge empowers and expands choice rather than limiting it. As John Coltrane put it...or...was it Julia Child?... "The more you know, the more you can create." So we can view choice as a set of received options, or as an epistemological side of investigation. We can view knowledge not as a background for intentionless regulated improvisation....but as the desired output of an improvisative act, bound up with an epistemological project that nurtures the possibility of change."
I propose that as game designers, many of the contexts we create for play should be intended to enable improvisational acts bound primarily by the investigative desires of the player. This is not that far removed from the talk of "emergent gameplay" and sandbox creation that was popular a few years ago, but which resulted in a lot of empty-feeling game worlds with limited interactivity and criticism that there was no "game" there. The preferred prescription, however, seems to have been to overlay rigorous structures and limited tasks on top of any sandbox-like world. Instead of deciding that without rules, the contexts they were creating only allowed for extremely limited methods of engagement (climb this, shoot that, bump into or explode these people, kill things) and THAT was the problem, the popular decision was that more uses and more structured contexts for those limited means of engagement was what was missing. 

Note that I'm not against deep and rigorously-structured explorations of what is possible with a single mechanic (I'll post my quibble with that now-commonly-accepted term another time), just as I'm not against structured improvisation. And of course, extraordinary players will exceed/exploit the limitations of even the most structured simulation or ruleset, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

I am talking about reconceptualizing rule-creation and generation of mechanics to prioritize accommodating the improvisation of the player as central to the endeavor of gameplay. "Meaningful choice" is one of the current popular descriptions of good gameplay, but if we shift our focus to take into account the fact that, as quoted from Lewis above, "Accidental meaning in improvisation is essential because we are never in control," "meaningful choice" becomes somewhat divorced from its current focus on representing its (sometimes obfuscated) consequences to the player in advance. 

"Theorizing creative machines brings up the question of the relationship between the concept of improvisation and the notion of interaction. Interactivity can be purely reactive: a sensor-based door opener, a car alarm, or even the kinds of sensorial active spaces created by new media artists using video, infrared, radio frequency fields, and other technologies. Here I want to venture that interaction becomes improvisation when a third term, "freedom", enters the picture. When an interactor's analysis concludes that a response is demanded to a situation that could not be wholly foreseen....I think we can propose now, not a metaphysics of machine consciousness, but a phenomenology of freedom as dialogic interaction, in which we can be ready to allow a creative machine which is perceived by us as acting in a free way during a performance, to influence and even transform us. Not as stimulus-response, but as subject to quasi-subject."

Without trying to minimize the breadth of what he's just described, if these values are applied to the comparably narrow field of game creation we can extrapolate a new model for player interaction. I'm not talking about lifelike AI, or non-player-characters we consider so realistic as to be virtual subjects, but rather a view of the game itself as a creative subject, "acting in a free way." As the player interacts with the playspace, it could be perceived as part reactive-membrane, giving way and stretching in response to player freedom, but also as part subject, responding to the player with its own sense of agency.  If our job is to create that subject, certain types of indeterminacy and reactivity then become central rather than peripheral to the process of creating a ruleset or row of mechanics. And by means of active focus on that indeterminacy and reactivity, hopefully we'll be able to create more sophisticated means of generating the sense of the game's own subjecthood than the traditional "some rules need randomness injected to make them feel alive."

I'll end on another quote from Lewis (~43:48)
"Indeed, improvisation here for me becomes not so much a practice, as an aspiration toward freedom that, even as it is doomed to failure, nonetheless produces a consciousness that continuously transgresses limits, and resists their imposition."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chain World as Medium, Intent

Background reading:
Darius Kazemi on Jason Rohrer's Chain World and its "Mutation"

This morning I found myself reading the tail-end of Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun For Game Design. I found a lot to love about the book, but one of the things that persistently bothered me was his insistence on value and meaning being bestowed by authorial intent. Despite his claims throughout the book that games are something fundamentally different than film or literature, he regularly referred to players as audience, and implied that in order to create meaningful games the designers needed to create loaded situations in which a limited mechanic was able to be interpreted as a sophisticated message and reapplied to aspects of the player's life. (Oddly, in a Chapter 11 sidebar he also implies that if someone manages to draw meaning from a simple mechanic that wasn't necessarily designed with the intent of conveying that meaning, it's somehow less worthy, despite his earlier celebration of the same in pure visual art.)  Like most other people, myself included, Koster regularly refers to games as a "medium," a term I'd like to unpack a little bit.

We've used the term so regularly in talking about art and entertainment that it's become virtually invisible. A medium exists between things.  In painting, the substance used between bits of pigment to bind them to one another was the medium, but as different substances necessitated different artistic approaches, the term became more generalized and eventually picked up some of the baggage of the language of "expression." Currently a medium is thought of as a means of transmission, a substance over which thoughts or ideas can be communicated. For Koster, as I read it, a game designer uses the game design as a means of facilitating or broadcasting ideas or ways of thinking to an audience. Under this view, the act of playing a game becomes a unique exercise in interpretation. And with an artistically designed game, a good player would profoundly understand the ideas conveyed by the mechanics and their framework in a way impossible in another medium. Why? Because learning to play consists of a fundamentally different type of thinking than pure observation.

What interests me about games as a medium is the fact that in my thinking a game lives somewhere between a static work and a performance art. I deny auteur theory, and I think many gamers and designers do as well (witness the fundamental disconnect between game culture and Roger Ebert on the "game as art" issue.) Much more often than not, a videogame as it exists on disk is already the result of an enormous collaboration between designers of different stripes to construct the playspace in which the game may be played. Add to that the gamer as simultaneous performer and audience and you have a model for generation and interpretation of ideas that goes somewhat beyond a simple binary author with intent and receptive audience.

Jason Rohrer has been making games that play with those roles and the consequences of creation and collaboration for some time now. "Sleep Is Death" brilliantly sets up a space where to play in any role is to embrace a function that is part author, part performer and part audience. In a sense, "Sleep Is Death" is itself a medium, functioning as germ and as an intermediate means of conveyance of ideas generated both by its designer and by its players. While it would be possible in my view above to read any game as its own medium, the success in carving out that territory, fleshing out what's possible and the insight into how to enable that mechanically are why I value Rohrer's work so highly.

So we come to Rohrer's GDC keynote and Chain World (did you read the link up top? Check it out and watch the keynote, too) It's fascinating to me that with an extremely simple ruleset and a modded copy of someone else's sandbox game, he's managed to generate something that's simultaneously a reflection on continuity (I'd actually dispute that the game OR its reception is much of a reflection on religion) and a medium in its own right. 

It's dismaying to me that upon receipt of a game designed explicitly to minimize the idea of centralized control and binary authorial intent, a game designer would immediately attempt to exert as much centralized authorial control as possible. In a game where the mere act of playing becomes an anonymous creative act with an undefined and possibly-neverending set of former and subsequent collaborators, the designer's first instinct is to act as a gatekeeper to the content. Additionally, by trying to give people "slots", he removes the final and possibly most-profound act of each player, that of choosing the next player and passing the game on to them.

Jason Rohrer's reaction was excellent. He has encouraged whoever ends up with Chain World to NOT pass it on to the next person in the chain. He can't force the issue, though this will PROBABLY be treated by the recipient as a fiat from on high (which plays back into the religion theme along with the whole exploitation and elimination of central principles for control, status and well-intentioned financial gain, I GUESS). But it's more a declaration about what he feels is valuable about the whole project than an attempt to reassert authorial control on a ruleset that he created which could become a powerful (though not widespread) medium. He didn't make a statement asking people not to sell access to Chain World. He just encouraged the next in line not to follow the dictates of the person in line who tried to establish authority and control, and that speaks volumes about the kind of designer Rohrer is.

To my mind, it's that kind of thinking about author-ity that will lead games/videogames to fulfill their potential rather than the call-to-arms for authorial intention on which Koster closes his otherwise excellent book.