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.

1 comment:

  1. Much to my chagrin, Raph Koster found this post and commented on it on his blog. He makes some excellent points here:
    Art game thoughts re Chain World

    Here was the response I posted on his site:

    I basically agree with most of what you’re saying here (and didn’t realize I was being so confrontational about your work, blame daylight savings.) I also muddied my point a bit by invoking team design which isn’t really germane to what I was trying to say.

    I think listening/reading as an interpretive act is a far cry from the kind of collaboration enabled by active performance, as in music, theater or gameplay. With reading or viewing/listening, while you could say that the work is instantiated in the mind of the audience through the act of interpretation, I think it would be more meaningful to view the work itself as external regardless of the collaborative nature of interpretation. To my mind the locus of the instantiated work in a performance art-form is the performance itself, not the artifacts or acts of interpretation that led to that performance.

    I’m not sure that I think what Jason Rohrer put together in the Chain World ruleset was a game, which I think may be one of our points of disconnect. I think it was closer to a performance practice, a process. I called it a game as a “medium” which I now think may be a mischaracterization of what I was trying to convey. I think it was a beautifully thought-out process that would lead to players instantiating new games with layers of anonymous authors and designers and generate something much different from a succession game. As such it dovetailed with what I was thinking with respect to how I felt you characterized the role of the designer/author toward the end of your book, in particular the following (apologies for any typos, copying by hand):

    “When we look at great works of art, however, they are shaped in special ways. They are trellises that form the plant in particular directions. They have intent behind them, and they have the purpose of achieving something in particular with the growth of that plant.”

    It’s the “something in particular” piece of that which suggested to me a model of how you view authorial intent and seemed to continue through the end of the book. I’m not talking about an author making clunky post-hoc declarations of what was meant, I mean a mode of generating art that relies on intentionality and a means of controlling the recipient’s impressions as its core.

    To me that seems antithetical to creating rich versions of what you’re describing above as “decriptive rulesets.” Full disclosure: I highly value exploratory art in which the creator is often unaware of the kinds of effects his/her art can or will create. Rohrer’s ruleset, which I’m not sure is a game, is designed to confound a permanent “something in particular” type design and shift the role of author/designer squarely to the players’ singular interactions with Notch’s gamespace, which is why I was completely untroubled by his later suggested prescription. The kind of authorship such a process would enable was what I was contrasting to your trellis-creator, not Rohrer’s authorship of the game/process. I’m not saying creators don’t set out to create, I’m saying that the type of intentionality presumed by setting out with “the purpose of achieving something in particular” with respect to your creation isn’t and shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the consideration of great art or great artists, in games or elsewhere.