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Against Procedurality

Started by droqen, November 29, 2022, 08:15:13 PM

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Quote from: AbstractThis article proposes a critical review of the literature on procedural rhetoric, from a game design perspective. The goal of the article is to show the limits of procedural rhetorics for the design and analysis of ethics and politics in games. The article suggests that theories of play can be used to solve these theoretical flaws.

At some point before starting newforum, I read (skimmed, perhaps) Bogost's 'Persuasive Games' and was introduced to this idea of 'procedural rhetoric'. I don't know that I ever entirely understood it, but I'm interested to read this PASSIONATE TAKEDOWN by Miguel Sicart.

Miguel, if you're reading this, know that I've tried reading some of your writing and never quite got into it, but I'm hoping this will be the one ;)

Especially because I love theories of play! Let's go.


Quote"If Playtime has a plot, it's how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line" (Tati, 1967; minute 7:20). In this article I will argue that this line should also be the plot for game studies.

Intriguing introduction here. I'm very much in a mindset inspired by Howl (Moloch!), Emergence, and Why It's Rude to Suck at Warcraft that rather the straight line comes to reassert itself over the curve. It will be nice to try and be convinced otherwise; maybe the truth of it is that the curve and the straight line are never static shapes, at least not where humans and systems involving us are concerned. We are always bending and straightening, our whole lives, forever.


QuoteMy goal here is [..] advocating, finally, for a player-centric approach to the design of games, particularly the design of ethics and politics in(to) games.

Note to self: come back to this promise.

~ Across Worlds and Bodies, Keogh


QuoteThe first section presents [..] the core proceduralist tradition. [..] The Proceduralists [..]
For the proceduralists, a game means what the rules mean, and understanding what games are is to understand what their rules describe. Players are important, but only as activators of the process that sets the meanings contained in the game in motion.
It would be possible to argue that perhaps these designers do not intend to be considered "designers", with all the cultural and methodological implications of the term, but "artists". This change would allow us to read their statements in a different way - as a poetic rather than as an explanation of design. The implications of this change of perspective are troublesome, particularly if we account for the conceptual mess that "art" and "artists" are.

Why would this framing be troublesome?


QuoteIn the second section, the concept of Instrumental Play will be introduced. [..] Understanding Instrumental Play [..]

Proceduralism, with its call for systems at the core of the essence of games and its disregard for expressive or ineffective play, turns the act of playing a game into a labor-like action, into work towards an externally decided, predetermined, and rational outcome designed by others than the players. Play becomes external to the player and the play context. [..]

It is almost as if proceduralists were designing against play[..]

Play is the unknown and the uncontrollable, and by building an ontology based on designer-centric reason, the proceduralists eliminate the myth and the ritual from play, and encourage an instrumental approach to games that is exclusively guided by the rules, norms and processes embedded in the game system.

Ooooh, he makes a distinct claim here. I'm glad, but I do NOT agree with it.

Suppose play is the unknown and the uncontrollable. Then, to whom is it not known, and who does not control it? If it out of the player's realm of knowledge and out of the player's control, but it is known to and controlled by the designer, is it play?

There is an objective, removed, static perspective assumed by Sicart's statement, that play must be exactly one of known or unknown rather than an object which may be either, depending on the subject. (See the Ludic Sublime which argues for the existence of this gulf between subjective and objective)


Sicart makes multiple claims on the proceduralist perspective as one that claims "the meaning" of a work can be found [only] in the rules rather than in the play. Regardless of the veracity of his claim regarding the proceduralists, must "the meaning" be so constrained? "The meaning" of a work, should such a thing exist, is first of all a subjective construct, and second of all is larger rather than smaller than these concepts (rules, play), being constructed around (not within) a holistic matrix which includes both these material aspects, as well as many others.


QuoteArguably, these [proceduralist] designers are aware of games, and are in fact very concerned about player experience (Blow, 2007; Blow, 2010). However, all these designers feel compelled to write statements about the meaning of their games.

I wish to return to Sicart's undefended contention with these statements as artistic or "poetic" ones. Can these statements not simply be taken as missives from one particularly privileged subject?

Are design and art so immiscible?


Now the next bit is confusing because Sicart does not write about "section three" next, but "section four". As there is no fourth section, I have assumed this was a simple error in editing.

QuoteSection four [three] will focus on the critique of proceduralist rhetoric and the suggestion of a set of concepts that will allow for the understanding of games as systems without sacrificing the presence of the player and play as fundamental elements of the political and ethical relevance of games. [..] Against Procedurality


QuoteThe main argument of the critique against procedurality has to do with its lack of interest in the player and play.

I have skipped analyzing too deeply into many pieces of section two as I am not familiar enough with the body of proceduralist rhetoric to take a stance regarding its intent. In the case of this section I will focus on the constructive elements of the text -- rather than where one theory lacks, I will look for what this theory seeks to build. I believe this is in line with Sicart's intent: it is not a paper designed to shut down the value found in a game's rules, but to advocate for the value found in its players and their play.


Remembering this from the introduction:

QuoteMy goal here is [..] advocating, finally, for a player-centric approach to the design of games, particularly the design of ethics and politics in(to) games.


QuoteMany of the games produced and analyzed under the proceduralist domain [..] are seldom playful in a mechanical, procedural sense: these are single player, puzzle or resource management games, with only few "operations" available to players, and a very limited space of possibility in which players can express themselves.

(Not regarding 'proceduralist' games, but rather the traits ascribed to them here as the source of their lack of playfulness:)

Thinking about my own pseudo-unreleased game, Art for Three, it is possible to make a free-playful game given a very small number of "operations," although in that game the space of possibility is quite large. What of my Asphyx or even awake? In those games the player has a very small number of "operations," a very limited space of in-game possibility, and yet by tapping into the world beyond the screen, the player is reminded that regardless of their avatar's lack of expression, they themselves have access to expressive freedom which is irrepressible by a videogame.


Quote[..] we need a theory of play that accounts for, and complements, the proceduralist discourse.

I agree with this, and will look passionately for supporting statements. But I don't get the feeling that Sicart actually believes it!

QuoteWithout the player there are no ethics or politics, no values and no messages. Objects can have embedded values, technology can be political, but only inasmuch as there is a human who makes the politics.

Is the one who produces said object (with values embedded), the designer or artist or whatever you'd like to call them, not a human? Of course earlier Sicart does write "Play does not only include the logics of the game - it also includes the values of the player." But the problem with the statement quoted above is it strays wildly far from acknowledging the "logics of the game" as an object produced by a human, an object capable of meaningful (and yes, procedural!) rhetoric.


QuotePlayers don't need the designer - they need a game, an excuse and a frame for play.

If the problem with proceduralism, as presented throughout Sicart's paper, is that it erases the player's agency and individuality, then I see this perspective as problematic in the exact same way, and yet the exact opposite way: it seeks to erase the designer's agency and individuality.

As a designer, I often question the necessity of what I do, of what I enjoy doing: Do players need me? In The Well-Played Game, at the end of a particularly fluid chapter, Bernie DeKoven proposes "It would be best[..] if we could each be our own coach". Every game needs both a designer and a player -- but there is nothing that says they cannot be the same person.

I believe however that this perspective calls for the erasure of designers (the 'death of the author', let us say), which is an attitude I find harmful and dangerous to my very self, as well as to, perhaps, the very fabric that connects us as people.

People don't need designers, they need games. People don't need farmers, they need food. People don't need friends, they need to not be lonely. People don't need anyone, they need what people give them.

The end of this road is ironically instrumentalist.


QuoteAs game researchers, we should focus, like Tati, on how curves reassert themselves over straight lines, and how that reassertion is a process and a matter of beauty.

Sicart and I agree here. Of course play is beauty. How could any designer think otherwise? Perhaps it is my error to take his words as if they are a dagger to my heart and not to that of the more extreme proceduralist.


As a last exploration of this piece, I will return to the note to which I promised myself I would return.

QuoteMy goal here is [..] advocating, finally, for a player-centric approach to the design of games, particularly the design of ethics and politics in(to) games.

Sicart successfully advocates for a player-centric approach to the design of games, but in a way that feels wholly incomplete. He writes "we need a theory of play that accounts for, and complements, the proceduralist discourse." Perhaps these two lenses (proceduralism and Against Procedurality) overlap and produce a full view, but it seems to me that Sicart commits the same grave offense of which he accuses proceduralism:

He erases some humanity from the equation.