Games are Complicated

In the latest edition of the journal Game Studies, Miguel Sicart wrote an intentionally provocative piece title “Against Procedurality”, which attempts to poke at the idea of procedural rhetoric and its centrality in current academic discourse about video games. This could be the first public shot in a new debate to split the game studies world again, just as ludology vs narratology did last decade.

Sicart argues that the proceduralist focus on rules comes at the expense of understanding the players’ experiences with a game. His intent is to prompt discussion about the role of play in the formation of meaning. As someone who is quite taken with the work of Ian Bogost and proceduralist games my initial reaction towards Sicart’s ideas was outright rejection. However, after reading this reflection and the ensuing comment thread, I have somewhat come around. As Pratt says, procedural rhetoric is a very compelling way to interpret games, but, reflecting on my own experiences playing and observing people play games, the rules are usually the third layer I go to for rhetorical significance.

The MDA framework breaks games into three simultaneously coexisting layers, Mechanics, Dynamics a nd Aesthetics. The Aesthetics are, broadly, the surface portion of the game that the player experiences, and the players’ emotional responses. The Mechanics are the rules or algorithms of the game. The Dynamics are the “run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.”

In an imprecise way, I see these debates in game studies as focusing different layers as the principle sources of meaning in games. Narratologists focus on the aesthetics, frequently utilizing tools from literary and film studies. “Proceduralists” focus on mechanics of a game, and Bogost’s procedural rhetoric is the dominant concept. Sicart seems to be proposing a new school, emphasizing the dynamics.

Studying the aesthetics layer of a game is a logical place to start, as that has the most in common with prior media. Recently “proceduralists” have developed strong tools for interpreting the rhetoric of mechanics. The next step will be tackling dynamics and play, which is a much messier area to study. I am currently working through Gonzalo Frasca’s dissertation Play the Message which seems to offer a compelling framework to begin thinking about the player’s vital role in crafting meaning from games.

I’m a nerd who as moved from endless hours playing Quake to endless hours reading academic debates about video games. It is debatable which is less valuable. But, self deprecation aside, the hours of playing games gave me the impression that most games were pretty simple. Hours of reading have now changed that perspective. Most individual games are pretty simple, but trying to understand games as a whole medium is decidedly complicated.

  1 comment for “Games are Complicated

  1. January 30, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Narratologists focus on the aesthetics, frequently utilizing tools from literary and film studies. “Proceduralists” focus on mechanics of a game, and Bogost’s procedural rhetoric is the dominant concept.

    I know you’re acknowledging this formulation as necessarily imprecise, but I think “aesthetics” is a little inaccurate in its (within the MDA framework, at least) emphasis on the surface level of input and output, if you’re going to associate narratology (and, for that matter, film and literary studies) with MDA’s “aesthetics” — especially if (and this sentence is getting ridiculously long) you contrast it with procedure as the domain of mechanics.

    If we just take aesthetics as the question of beauty, I think there can be plenty of beauty in process. Likewise, narratology can be highly structural and mechanical, which is how (I think) Nick Montfort is able to develop his Curveship engine around narratological principles gleaned from his work with Gerald Prince.

    Anyway, I’m not disagreeing that Sicart has reason to isolate or historicize procedurality (if that’s what he’s doing [so many parentheticals…]), but I don’t know how it really responds. I guess I need to get around to reading that.

    (Oh, and your MDA link is broken, by the way.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *