Games are Complicated

In the latest edition of 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, just as ludology vs narratology did last decade.

Sicart says 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 and 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 producers of meaning. 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 idea. 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.