Mar 162011

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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 inย 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.ย 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.

Fighting words!

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).ย  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.

  10 Responses to “Art game thoughts re Chain World”

  1. The conflicts between the vision of the author/designer and the player/creator has caused me of late to give much thought to getting out of the armchair and making a game of my own. The collaborative process these days too often consists of thousands of players shouting into a darkened house without knowing whether anybody inside is listening. The most interesting voices are drowned out by those who shout loudest.

  2. 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.

  3. didnโ€™t realize I was being so confrontational about your work, blame daylight savings

    Oh, I didn’t regard it as confrontational! It’s a good discussion. ๐Ÿ™‚

    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.

    This is one of those things that art theorists love to argue over. I suspect we can agree that things reside on a spectrum, even within given media. Some comedy performances don’t get heckled; you don’t sing along at a piano recital; a jam session is more participatory than that; and so on. Some performance art is hermetic and some is highly interactive. I think it is dangerous to say that the locus always lies in the performance itself. Even in cases of fairly “authorially defined” media where interaction is heavily asynchronous, such as writing a book, we see examples ranging from Choose Your Own Adventure books to Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and beyond to people like Alain Robbe-Grillet, and experiments such as printing the novel in loose pages and having the pages sorted in random order prior to reading.

    So I guess my point is that this is a very fluid line, and I wouldn’t necessarily set the definition of authorial intent on that line in all cases. Rather, I would set it in the act of choosing a point on that line in the first place.

    The question of whether what Jason defined is a game is an interesting one. It almost begs to be subverted, via its near complete lack of goals. It pushes all the burden of success or failure off onto the individual player. In that sense, it better meets the definition of toy than of game, and I agree with you that it was definitely a performance (one of my gradually rising issues with the Game Design Challenge is that it actually rewards performances better than games… most of Will’s wins were driven off of performance criteria, not viability of the resultant game… yes, there are some sour grapes there! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    As far as what seems to be the crucial point of difference… The “something in particular” that I reference and analogize to a trellis, in my view, could very well be “the player’s complete freedom to do whatever they want.” That’s still an artistic point to make. In fact, given a construct of artifice, that’s a harder point to make than one that is more directed!

    I would suggest that if we wanted to look towards “modes of art that do not rely on intentionality” we would need to venture well beyond what Jason presented, towards the realm of Dadaism, Duchamp, chance poetry a la John Cage, and similar experiments. This is a far cry from the (comparatively speaking) circumscribed and prescriptive world that Jason is setting up. Among the assumptions that Jason makes are sequentiality of play, the Minecraft environment itself and its assumptions of generativity, and (perhaps most relevant to the challenge he was given) the very framework of a computer game which likely undermines the premise of a mystical experience of relics in the first place. Some of these, he made consciously and intentionally — sequential play is embedded into his rules. Some were matters of convenience — the choice of Minecraft. And some were issues he likely simply sidestepped, such as the issue of telepresence and how it might affect the sense of finding relics.

    As I have said before in other contexts, we design by acts of commission or omission. And I think that overall, Jason is designing by acts of commission here — even to the point of carefully considering the open-ended nature of what he is proposing — and that to me betrays intent.

    Maybe we should get him to chime in here. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Just another short point about where I stand with this: I think the designer role Jason Rohrer has taken on with this possibly-not-a-game is closer to a concert programmer, publisher, or Open-Mic MC. It’s certainly a creative act and an act of intentional design, like choosing a performer, repertoire or venue, but I think this act of commission represents less of an artistic statement about freedom than an invitation to creation within a specific context.
    This is starting to lead into one of my own pet arguments (jazz as process vs. jazz as genre) so I’ll try to restrain myself and read up on this immense blog.

  5. That’s a fair point. In that sense, though, is it really different in kind (though certainly in scale and context) from invitations to create such as Second Life, LittleBigPlanet, Sims, Pinball Construction Set, or Rollercoaster Tycoon?

    Dunno how much there will be directly related to this topic on the blog. ๐Ÿ™‚ But have fun reading anyway! Would love to hear more about the jazz thinking… I’d almost analogize the discussion here to whether Jason by choosing a chord progression, tempo, or key is exercising authorial intent over the solo’s melody or lack thereof.

  6. It’s funny you should mention Second Life. I’ve been thinking about SL in the context of how the creativity of the residents (“Your World, Your Imagination”) is constrained by the underlying assumptions of the revenue model. We’ve seen some wonderful art installations go under because the primary stops subsidizing them and there’s no protection for excellence without profitability. Despite the popular perception in some quarters of SL as some sort of socialist utopia for artistic hippies, it is in reality a brutal arena of largely-unregulated free-marketeering, and that reality, though crafted by residents, is a direct consequence of one basic design decision: “let’s sell land”.

    I submit that in the case of Chain World, auctioning turns for charity is going to impose a different dynamic than auctioning turns for profit or begging participants for donations to keep an SL region running for another month… if only by attracting a different audience in each case.

  7. Re music: In the studio, I express intent by the choices of musicians asked to play. Then I am very open to suggestions. OTOH, someone who as a fan or off the street source who thinks they have a right to input will be sorely disappointed. On stage, when playing ensemble, I listen to the other players in conversation in jazz and somewhat in pop but pop gives less opportunity for conversation. An audience member who wants to participate better be dancing or applauding. The channels are limited by intent; otherwise, focus falls apart, the important conversations degrade, and the performance sucks. With classical works, I give them a score and I expect them to follow it. There is a lattitude of interpretation in the performance given to the director particularly over inflections, tempo and dynamics. I consider my intentional marks suggestions. If someone starts telling me to change the lyrics, I withdraw the piece. When performing solo, I may listen to requests for songs and may not. That is the limit of that channel. They may not tell me how to play. If a bluesophile comes out of the audience to tell me their ideas, I may listen and I may not but I forget what they say as soon as they finish.

    I have a friend who for years did a very interactive gig. There were two results: a) very popular. b) he devolved into mediocrity.

    I favor an artist in any medium because of their ability to surprise me in the channels they use. If they can’t, they go to the bottom of the stack. As you say, there are points along the line of choices. I think of these as channels and some are explicitly one way.

  8. Is this mistaking speech acts for the thing described. Can a game become a religion, or is a religion a prerequisite to playing the game? IOW, is a person is a hippie because they grow their hair long, get a VW van and live in it? Or is one a hippie and because of that, they get a VW van, grow their hair long, etc.? Would one cut their hair, get a crucifix and live in a church to become a Christian?

    There is a theory that temple building followed the development of agriculture which enabled sufficient people to remain in place and commit acts that did not enhance survival. The discovery of Gobekli Tepes refuted that. It is interesting in that it was built 6000 years prior to stonehenge by, it is assumed, hunter gatherers who had to organize and commit resources to it. Also interesting is that after a time, they buried the site. They intensionally preserved the expression against destruction. There are theories that language follows civilization thus the European theories of migration into the Indian subcontinent as evidenced by the language artifacts and a denial of the stories in the Rig Veda. Evidence is now exactly the opposite. Euro-centric English Christian thinking attempted to reform the history to suit their religious convictions based on using the Bible as the template. Fortunately, the soil and the development of satellite mapping undid that formulation. Note that history as a document of facts and not belief assertions is more powerful over timescales.

    So is the test in this experiment what will people deliberately preserve across game plays and moreover, how will they organize to ensure artifacts are preserved against other intensions as expressed by deliberate destruction of the artifacts? I would expect channels and documents to emerge for that if not in game, then out of band. Playing he game is not enough. Games do not become religions. Players with documented beliefs conserve religions. The GDC experiment is limited to the documenting behaviors (both writing and erasing).

  9. I find performance very interactive. It doesn’t have to be anything so blatant as dancing, clapping or singing along. You become attuned to the mood of the crowd, and that informs your tempo, phrasing and intensity. In a sense, the people aren’t fellow players so much as they are another instrument, one that you’re trying to play on an emotional level.

    I think that’s the difference between a brilliant studio musician and a brilliant live musician. Some rare players are both, of course, but a studio musician thrives on the internal energy of the ensemble, while a great live performer has a mastery of playing the crowd.

    It’d be a neat bit of coding for an MMO to translate that dynamic into a game, to be able to parse from the characters’ communications, motions and actions when the players are impatient and when they’re overwhelmed and adjust the pacing and action dynamically to compensate.

  10. Of course one feeds off their energy. As I said, it has to come down the right channels. Trying to figure how subtle ways to do that dominated first the storytelling/VRML lists for a while and then HumanML. Eventually we had a pretty fair set of feedback classes most using intensity attributes, position relative to other entities and so on, but you’re right that it takes a neat bit of coding to make that smooth.

    My favorite hobby was focusing on butts dancing and using the rhythm guitar to change their shake. It’s fairly easy to do. It’s harder to push that back in the opposite direction but doable.

    Trying to turn that into a religion seems to be quite a challenge but it exists. When I was doing the video for My God Is a Loving God, I intensionally selected religious dance videos for the overlays. There is plenty of that out there.

    But what jumps out at me is the intent to preserve expression from destruction as implied in Gobekli Tepes. For a game to do what it seems to me the game challenge was, one would not necessarily be looking for the religious expressions but for the emergence of channels to communicate what is to be preserved or destroyed. OTW, no interaction.

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