At GDC, there was a Game Design Challenge (I’ve participated in one of these, in the distant past!). This year the topic was religion. And you’re going to need to know everything about what happened to make sense of this post.
Jason Rohrer won the challenge, with a game that was a Minecraft mod with very particular rules. The big rule to know about is that it’s a game played sequentially, with the world having persistence, so that each player gets to see the remnants of what the previous player left behind, but with no explanation. This is supposed to engender the sort of mystery that in real world leads to myths and thence religions.
A video of the entire challenge:
Game Design Challenge 2011 on YouTube
Side note: I actually received a “miracle” during this process, and then it was taken from me for the purposes of keeping score, something which I felt was rather gamificationy.
In any case, since then, Chain World, the winning idea, has morphed a bit, with the privilege of playing the mod next going to a bidder for charity.
Which then led to some tweeting back and forth about whether this was in the spirit of the idea, including heated remarks and comments from Jason himself. It even led to a Gamasutra article on it all.
And just now I stumbled across a blog post that links the arguments I make about authorial intent and games as art in A Theory of Fun for Game Design to the controversy:
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…
…It’s fascinating to me that with an extremely simple ruleset and a modded copy of someone else’s sandbox game, [Jason] 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…
…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… 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…
…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.
Mollusk Gone Bad: Chain World as Medium, Intent.
Most modern theories of art hold that all forms of art and all media are interactive, that there is an implicit conversation between any audience (despite the original roots of the word in just “listening”) and any creator — that the act of interpreting the work even in the most shallow way means that there is a collaborative construction of the work.
So I don’t actually hold with the idea that games are somehow special in that regard. They are more interactive than many. But frankly, they are less interactive than many forms of performance art. A concert where the audience sings back unpredictable stuff, or a comedy show being heckled, are arguably *more* interactive than a game.
That leads me to conclude that Jason, through his surrender of authorial intent, is actually imposing authorial intent. “Asserting what he feels is valuable about the project” is exactly expressing authorial intent, and is in fact often the worst-regarded form of it in many art circles: telling the audience HOW they are “properly” supposed to enjoy the art.
I don’t actually have any issue with telling people they are playing a game “wrong,” even though it is futile. Once it exists as an artifact, then the designer’s opinion shouldn’t be significantly more privileged than anyone else’s except insofar as it provides additional insights into ways to interact with the work. I only start to worry when the author(s) start getting obnoxious about it, which Jason is definitely not doing.
For what it’s worth, I think that authorial intent in games, and especially in art games or what Bogost calls proceduralist games, is expressed via the rule constructs that are conveyed and (usually) enforced by the code. Because of the unique nature of working in rulesets as a medium, we typically see two sorts of generalized approaches:
1) prescriptive rulesets, wherein the choice of what to leave out and what to include in the rules effectively conveys a message. SimCity was accused of this despite its goal of being descriptive, and September 12th is probably the canonical example. The Marriage is another good art game example; the dynamics that exist between the “husband” and “wife” certainly lean one towards specific ways of interpreting the meaning in the rulesets.
2) descriptive rulesets, which present the mathematical framework, and then leave the judgement up to the player as to how to approach the problem sets that the rules implicitly pose. I would put Chain World in this category, and Sleep is Death as well, but not Passage.
I would also say that MMOs and multiplayer games in general have a very natural affinity for this end of the spectrum, and I’ll go so far as to assert that all the virtual worlds I have worked on have explicitly had that quality of being a “medium” that the blog post suggests, because virtual worlds in general encourage a sort of player generativity far beyond what we see in single-player environments or even “team sport” style games.
Needless to say these are points on a spectrum. At the descriptive end, no author(s) can claim to truly have an unbiased and objective ruleset and still have a game, I suspect. Chain World includes some assumptions that convey to us some of how Jason thinks about the problem he is modeling — indeed, at the GDC session, he walked us through exactly those assumptions — and this leads to his having shaped perhaps not the possibility space of reactions, but certainly at least the probability space thereof.
On the other extreme, of course, the fact that the audience is a participant in the process means that prescriptive rulesets are just about always subverted in some fashion; a classic early example would be the pro-peace graffitti in Counterstrike mods, which were done as part of a guerrilla art project!
It is as yet early days for the art game movement (and I do term it a movement). Making prescriptive games *intentionally* is hard enough right now. I very much applaud those who set out intending to create provocative descriptive rulesets (though in the MMO world, we get called “ant farmers” for attempting to do so).
(Ironically, Jason has told me more than once that some of his own exploration of these issues was inspired by the very passages that the blog post author cites in my book, and I happen to know that Rod Humble got going in this direction also in part because of my prompting. Such a small community…)
In any case, I do think that people *set out* to create such rulesets, with intention. And whether they do it singly or as a team, I can’t help but call that an authorial impulse.