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Persuasive Games: Process Intensity and Social Experimentation
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Persuasive Games: Process Intensity and Social Experimentation

May 23, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Process Intensity vs. Multimedia Assets

To respond to the first concern, let's return to Crawford's understanding of process intensity as a ratio of process to data. For Crawford, process intensity is not a measure of whether or not goals or rules or systems are present in a game, nor is it a measure of the degree to which rules and mechanics constitute the fundamental experience or construction of games, nor is it a rejection or subordination of data to process in toto.

Rather, process intensity describes a proportion, a measure of the relative presence and importance of processes as compared to data. That metric cannot be realized in the abstract, but only in relation to a specific work.

Consider Dragon's Lair once more. It contains a large number of instantial assets in the form of animations, and a small number of processes for sequencing those assets in response to system and player action.

The resulting experience is not nearly so procedural as is The Graveyard or Dear Esther, which provide interesting, unbounded experiences in a lush, 3D space.

The latter games exhibit more process intensity than does Dragon's Lair because they incorporate processes like navigation, exploration, and narration, as well as those more hidden processes that make real-time, navigable 3D environments possible in the first place.

Or, take Humble's The Marriage, a game about the creator's idea of what a marriage feels like told allegorically through the interaction of abstract shapes. The game appears to contain no pre-rendered assets whatsoever, but the most instantial features of the game are the circles and squares that represent the partners and external factors in a marriage.

The Marriage

The game's paucity of instantial assets does not make it process intensive, but rather the fact that a very few assets are processed in a large variety of ways relative to the quantity of assets themselves: rules of transformation like movement, scaling, and shading operate on individual elements in a fashion that gives those elements a wide variety of states, helping to create an overall vignette.

The Marriage is high process intensity thanks to its large ratio of process to instance, not because it scrimps on audiovisual elements. There's just so little of anything in The Marriage, it's not so hard for it to achieve high process intensity. Process intensity proves itself to be an artifact-specific measure as much as it remains a general aesthetic principle.

Once we acknowledge that process intensity is a relative metric, we are forced to examine a specific artifact more closely to draw conclusions about its process intensity. For example, a software system like the Unity or Unreal engine is clearly a high process intensity apparatus, one that calculates and displays simulated virtual worlds in real-time.

But in a work like Dear Esther, that aspect of Unreal is abstracted in favor of the appearance of a virtual environment and the revelation of a narrative. This is a situation that wasn't really in play during the era in which Crawford first advanced the argument for process intensity -- games were often built on common hardware platforms and often shared subsystems or software routines, but they were not created atop what we now call game engines.

Today, it's sometimes hard to tell whether the process intensity in a work is that of the work or that of the platform. Dear Esther may not require substantial procedurality to tell its story, but it certainly does rely on enormous computational power to produce the lush world that Wilson celebrates as low process intensity.

The generative environmental game Proteus offers a helpful counterpoint to Dear Esther. On first blush, both games seems to involve relatively few processes beyond navigation and rendering, but in Proteus the style of the rendering itself, as well as the generativity of the environment are quite apparent to the player, making them operate on the experiential rather than the infrastructural register. Proteus was not created atop a premade engine, but by means of a custom procedural manipulation of the lower-level SDL and OpenGL graphics libraries. Working at the library rather than the engine level gives Proteus a highly procedural aesthetic, even if the experience it delivers is open and relatively goalless.

Thus, process intensity cannot be easily determined from the apparent level of interaction or audiovisual content in a game. And likewise, we can't conclude as quickly as Wilson does that "multimedia elements like image and sound may indeed inform the very heart of a creative game design practice". After all, those multimedia elements might themselves be instantial or procedural, or even both depending on how we evaluate them. The overall process intensity of the work often cannot be determined by simply eyeballing algorithms to assets from a naïve user's perspective. Now that games are more varied and more complex, further subtlety is required.

Let's take J.S. Joust as a test case. It contains just one major instantial asset, an audio excerpt from the Brandenberg Concertos. That asset is itself subject to a simple but important procedural manipulation: tempo alteration. The game alters the music's tempo via unpredictable patterns, and the tempo is also used to alter the game's accelerometer sensitivity threshold. If a player's sudden movement causes that threshold to be exceeded, the system shuts down the violating controller and the player is "out."

J.S. Joust

Like The Marriage, J.S. Joust sports a small system with few instantial assets upon which a large number of manipulations are conducted, relatively speaking. Wilson may prefer to evaluate a game from the social rather than the systems perspective, but process intensity is a feature of systems. And as far as things go, J.S. Joust is a work quite high in process intensity. It's just one in which players' freedom of movement within the experience is less determined than it is in other high process intensity works, like the strategy games of Crawford's early career.

In his eagerness to oppose process in favor of media, Wilson takes the instantial and procedural aspects of games to be more separate than they really are. Thus, when he argues that J.S. Joust's music "cannot simply be viewed as a formal element 'subordinate' to the game rules", he misses the fact that the music is inextricably and delightfully enmeshed in those rules by means of its rhythmic, computational manipulation.

The result of this manipulation provides important player feedback regarding the freedom of movement currently possible within the confines of the Move controller's accelerometer measures. It's certainly true that "music can play just as important a role in shaping how players act and perform", but in J.S. Joust's case, the shaping of that performance is not satisfactorily explained through the mere presence of a musical asset.

Wilson also cites the cultural significance of the Brandenberg Concertos as evidence of the game's resistance to process intensity, correctly noting that this purportedly high-culture classical piece becomes silly in the context of an absurdist party game. But such a feature is entirely compatible with the game's procedural aesthetics: a process intensive work is one with a high crunch per bit ratio, but by no means one that rejects the cultural force of instantial assets. The tight coupling of Bach's music (data) with an aggressive, competitive physical system (process) helps create the end result Wilson rightly celebrates.

Most of the procedurally-leaning design philosophies Wilson opposes already endorse such a blended view. Crawford wasn't calling for the elimination of instantial assets, but for an emphasis on processes in relation to them. Likewise, when Brathwaite places sculptural or physical elements around her games, she affirms that the game is a system and a sculpture: a system-sculpture. And for my part, I've advocated for a tight coupling between procedural and thematic elements in games as a necessary aesthetic strategy for communicating systemic ideas.

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