Seek Ye the Gnarl (part 2)

More notes on Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.
Unit 3: PLAY presents six different schemas for talking about games with respect to “play”.
Editorial notes: This unit seems to be the real core material of the author’s interests. It is better edited and provides a more thorough discussion of the areas covered. Here we get 20-30 pages on each schema, almost twice the amount of material compared to units 2 and 4. The commissioned game notes by Kira Snyder reveal more interesting detail about the design process than the previous two.

Chapter 24: Games as the Play of Pleasure, is a treacherous section. First it talks about “flow”, a kind of soft-and-squishy psychological phenomenon where people lose themselves in play. There are a few too many parallels between flow and the “immersive fallacy” presented a few chapters later. In this chapter the authors argue for flow as a useful concept; a few chapters later they present the same kind of immersive sensibility as a “fallacy”.
Next they give a terse presentation of behavior theory, without which this schema would be incomplete. The people who design slot machines are well aware of Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement.
Then, at the end of the chapter the authors take a swift and sudden wrong turn, by attempting to defuse the term “addiction” within the context of games/play. Being addicted to a game, they tell us, is not a negative thing, in contrast to addiction in a medical context. I think Scott McCloud’s obsession with chess presents a good counterexample.
I’m not sure why Salen & Zimmerman felt the need to say, “But Mom, it really isn’t a bad thing. Honest.” I think if game studies (ludiology, as I like to call/spell it) is to be taken seriously, it needs to grow out of the “it’s just a game” attitude it has towards itself. I am particularly dismayed by the dismissive attitude many game theorists have towards violence in games, such as Gonzalo Frasca’s remarks about Grand Theft Auto 3. It seems no one on this side of the fence (the side that is opposite the outraged mothers and appalled schoolteachers) wants to take a serious look at how violent experiences penetrate into and extend out of the culture of computer games. I believe it to be more than just mom-being-prudish; there is a meaningful connection between violence in the media and violence in the real world. Those who refuse to define where that connection takes place are foolishly removing themselves from a discussion that will take place without them.
Returning to the book, three of the schemas, Games as the Play of Meaning, Games as Narrative Play, and Games as the Play of Simulation, focus on the creation of meaning in the play of a game. In these chapters the term “emergent” keeps popping up. When talking about systems, emergence is something of a “gee, I didn’t expect that to happen” kind of event. But with respect to meaning, narrative, and simulation, emergence is more of a “we want this to happen” kind of event. In other words, emergence with respect to meaning, narrative, and simulation is actually the same thing as design. The potential for a certain situation is programmed into the game, although this programing might be done in a “second order” way, one level removed from the situation itself.
In a through-composed experience, meanings, stories, and interactions don’t “emerge” — they are revealed. Meanings don’t suddenly rise from the ground, like Arethusa as a spring. At least they don’t in simulation games, where meaning tends to be located on the surface of objects, in their form, color, and attitude. The process of design is an activity of adding constraints, the shutting out of incorrect meanings.
Now it is possible for one to create a private game, an activity performed in isolation, in which meanings are allowed to accumulate in every relationship. These meanings multiply themselves, forming metaphors, analogies, and so on. But few of these emergent meanings will survive exposure to other players. This is the process of design, the activity of pruning down the meanings in a system so that others can appreciate that system.
Quite often there might be truly emergent behavior in the system, things happening that were unexpected by the designer. How often do these emergent behaviors result in unstable systems, in critical errors and infinite loops? At least half the time, I would say. In the end, a good designer will eschew emergence. The players of the well-designed game get exactly the experience it was designed for, because when a game demonstrates emergent behavior it is just as likely to cause a critical failure as not.
It just so happens that narrative is a domain where the observer brings significantly more meanings into the situation. Observer-supplied meanings explode the constraints that were so carefully put into place, allowing texts to be “read as” new texts. Narrative, as a form, is in a position to take advantage of this, in a way that games, simulations, and the anti-narrative lud[i]ologists cannot.
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