Lesson Plan: You’re There. You’re a Square. Get Over It.

Lim (merritt kopas, 2012)

Ian here—

The first time I taught a unit on the concept of procedural representation, it was in my course “The Moving and Interactive Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The theme I wanted to explore that week was the limits of thinking about games as moving images, at all. Are there some games that get such a large percentage of their meaning from rules and interactions that it is not even productive to think about them as images at all anymore? To this end, I assigned students the chapter “Art” from Ian Bogost‘s book How to Do Things with Videogames, where he lays out the idea of what he calls the “proceduralist style” in art games. Bogost characterizes this style of games in the following way:

In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects. These games lay bare the form, allowing meaning to emanate from a model.[i]

I also set up a unit on proceduralist games in my Intro to Mass Communication course at DePaul University, which I taught three times, in the Fall 2015, Winter 2016, and Spring 2016 quarters. As I repeatedly taught this unit, I segued away from using Bogost’s “Art” chapter from How to Do Things with Videogames. (I found that the chapter’s engagement with the tired “are videogames art?” debate was too much of a lure, pulling student attention away from the core issues I wanted to address.) Instead, I subbed in “Procedural Rhetoric,” the first chapter of Persuasive Games, with very heavy excisions. (It really is a shame that, at 64 pages, that chapter is so unreasonably gargantuan. It definitely makes for some headaches when deciding on reading assignments.) And, over time, I gravitated toward some specific games to play in-class: a group of games I affectionately refer to as “games about squares.”

Whether I’m assigning reading where Bogost lays out his concept of “proceduralist style,” or reading where he lays out his related concept of”procedural rhetoric,” my aim is the same. I want students to be able to explain the ways in which games can express ideas and make arguments, as Bogost puts it, “not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.”[ii] We are all familiar with artifacts of art and mass culture that generate meanings through text, images, and sounds. But what does it mean for an artifact to generate meaning through interactions, through the dynamic behavior of some sort of output that responds to user input, according to a set of programmed rules?

It can be difficult to get students to fully express the difference between procedural meaning-making and other types of meaning-making when they are playing games with robust textual or visual aspects. Students aren’t used to talking about rules and interactions qua rules and interactions, and these types of games given them an easy way out: they can talk about what the images or text are telling them, rather than talk about what the rules are telling them.

This is where my so-called games about squares come in handy. All of the games I delve into below feature highly abstract visual and sound design, reducing the on-screen representation of “characters” to simple geometric shapes.

I use these games to pull the rug out from under students, so to speak, forcing them to confront rules and interaction head-on. These games’ visual presentation of narrative information is abstracted to a degree which is almost unprecedented in the history of cinema. (To find a good analogue, you’d have to turn to a few experiments in abstract animation, such as Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel’s work on abstraction and apparent behavior.) In their denial of the visual vocabulary students usually hang their hat on, they force students to truly account for how representing something procedurally is different from representing it through strictly visual and auditory means. In short: these games aren’t really about squares. But you need to be able to describe procedural rulesresponses, and dynamic behaviors to explain why.

Three notes on the games that follow:

1) The Marriage is written about in the “Art” chapter of Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames. The other three, though, appeared after the publication of that book. I think they’re great examples of what Bogost terms the “proceduralist style“—in fact, better in many ways than the games he had to work with when he was originally writing.

2) Although The Marriage requires installation and is Windows-only, the other three games are all browser-basedLoneliness is browser-based Flash, Lim is browser-based HTML5, and Companion is browser-based Unity. (I write more on my bias toward browser-based games in the postscript to this post.)

3) I mean it when I say that the visual and sound design to these games are highly abstract! Although you will sort of get a sense of them by watching the embedded YouTube clips below, there’s really no way to fully experience the feelings and messages these games are meant to convey unless you interact with them. To that end, each of the section headings below is a link to the game. There’s no excuse not to spend at least a minute or two with the browser-based ones, especially!

The Marriage (Rod Humble, 2007)

In his artist’s statement for The Marriage (included in the page linked to above), Rob Humble explains that the game is his “expression of how a marriage feels,” and, furthermore, that he wanted to render this expression as “something that was not easily representable by other media,” because it used “game rules to explain something invisible.” The game is controlled by players gliding their cursor over blue and pink squares, slowly directing their path in relation to each other, and to the cascade of small circles drifting down from the top. In doing so, players affect the squares’ size and opacity. Here’s what it looks like in action:

In a “spoilery” section of his statement, Humble lays out all of the rules of the game, including the crucial facts that that when the blue square touches the circles it becomes more opaque and grows in size, and that when the two square touch each other the pink square “absorbs” some of both the blue square’s opacity and size.

Humble also lays out his own personal interpretation of the game’s meaning. The pink and blue squares represent the “feminine” and “masculine” sides of a marriage, respectively. The circles represent those elements outside of a marriage that enter into the couple’s negotiation of life—”work, family, ideas,” etc. The moments when the two squares touch represent “kissing” (an act of intimacy, generally). The size of squares represents each partner’s respective ego and their domination of the couple’s dynamic, whereas the level of transparency reflects their engagement in the relationship.

How much students engage with this particular piece in part depends on how politically conscious they are of things like society’s expectations of gender dynamics. At the very least, I point out to them that in creating a set of processes that he says expresses his thoughts about marriage, Humble is in fact making a claim about how marriage works in the real world. From here, you can burrow down further if you want. What sort of assumptions about gender are given form in Humble’s rules? What, for instance, does the game say about work-life balance for women, as opposed to men? Since colliding with a circle results in the blue square becoming more opaque, does this mean Humble is claiming that having the freedom to pursue interests outside of the relationship makes men more engaged in their marriage? Why don’t the game’s rules enact the same process for the pink square? Why do acts of intimacy cause the pink square to “leech” ego and engagement from the blue square? Do women cherish intimacy more than men (for whom it is a chore)? What might this game look like if we threw out the “masculine” and “feminine” categories altogether, and tried explore the dynamics of a same-sex relationship? Or a polyamorous one?

Loneliness (Jordan Magnuson, 2011)

Alright, so: moving away from examples Bogost himself writes about. I discovered this next game through Extra Credits’ “Mechanics as Metaphor” video—something that actually might be great to add to the syllabus for this particular lesson, as it discusses many of the same concepts as the Bogost readings, in a language and form that might be more accessible to students.

In 2012, Jordan Magnuson released The Gametrekking Omnibus. To those who like their experimental games described through comparisons to experimental cinema (and I might be the only one who does, but whatever), you can think of this project as the game analog of something like Warren Sonbert’s The Carriage Trade (1973), Peter Hutton’s Images of Asian Music (1974), or Mark LaPore’s A Depression in the Bay of Bengal (1996).[iii] In short, it’s a personal travelogue, reflecting on the maker’s travels and the people they met along the way. (It leans more toward LaPore’s intense ethical engagements than Sonbert’s floaty apoliticism.)

Before the release of the Omnibus, though, Magnuson had already released many of its segments as stand-alone games. One of these is Loneliness (2011), a game about depression, social isolation, and, well, squares. Here it is in action:

There are two important shifts to note as we transition from The Marriage to this. First, the rules are much simpler. The Marriage takes many playthroughs for players to fully un-tease the behaviors of, and interactions between, its various elements. Loneliness does not. Loneliness also ditches the detached “pointer of God” feeling of The Marriage, substituting instead direct control over a single square. It is a notable shift. The behavior of the other squares may be simple, and eventually easy to predict (they disperse whenever your square gets within a certain radius of them), but the fact that this mechanic takes the form of something that is happening to you in real-time, rather than something you’re a detached observer of, gives the game a more gut-punch feel. Loneliness swaps process intensity for greater emotional intimacy.

One thing my students have tended to gravitate toward in this game is the music (especially if they’re looking at it after the silent Marriage). Productive questions here: Would the game be as powerful without its achingly sad piano score? Would it in fact be more powerful? Does the music render the piece over-determined? Would a greater range of possible interactions, modeling a more complex array of social behaviors, perhaps have resulted in a more compelling or persuasive game?

Companion (Robin Burkinshaw, 2012)

Consider this the anti-Loneliness. (It would be a gesture of goodwill to have students play this after Loneliness, as a palette-cleanser.) Burkinshaw writes of the game: “I wanted to make a character that you interacted with solely through movement, and for that to feel playful and interesting enough that you would miss the character if it was gone.”

Burkinshaw doesn’t really consider this to be a completed game, but rather a short tech demo—”still a simple toy.” This modesty is unmerited: simple this game is most definitely not. Its modeling of friendship (and its encouragement of a feeling of protectiveness) through nothing more than sounds and the motion of squares is far in advance of anything we see in Loneliness or The Marriage. Here is the game in action (I am controlling the big pink cube/square thing, and the little pink cube/square thing is AI-controlled):

There are so many adjectives we could apply to the little square, just based on how it is coded to move and the sounds it makes. It is playful. It is easily-distracted. It is a bit obliviousnaive about the world’s danger, but then quick to be frightened by danger and to come running back to the player’s protective embrace. It alternates between being carefree and being cautious, and we, as players, feel a sense of pride and relief if we’ve kept it from danger long enough for its carefree side to again emerge.

Here, you can really dig in deep. Why do we feel these things? What type of behavior is actually on display on the screen, and what to we bring to it by reading anthropomorphic dimensions into it? A game such as Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation (2008) can get students talking about parenthood, companionship, and feelings of responsibility, but Companion, in its greater visual abstraction, forces them to get more specific about rules and behaviors as they do so.

Lim (merritt kopas, 2012)

Lim is a marvelous game, and one I have consistently found to be the example that students “get” the most when I put it in front of them. There are numerous reasons for this. It adds and aspect of challenge that the other games lack, which helps with engagement. Also, its themes are very of the moment. Finally, with a little bit of Googling, students can easily find Micha Cárdenaswonderful blog post on the game, which explains some of the meaning behind the game’s mechanics, and places it within the larger context of contemporary indie games made by trans women.

Lim is a game about “the tension and violence and dread and suffocation of passing.” Players pilot a square through a twisted corridor, interacting with many other squares as they do so. These squares are inert if you are the same color as them, but become alarmingly hostile to you if you are a different color.

Your own square doesn’t have a single color, but instead shifts colors through a rainbow spectrum (sensing a metaphor here?). The game therefore instructs players to “press z to blend in.” Pressing the “z” button on the keyboard causes the player’s square to “pass,” temporarily adopting the color of the nearest squares. But this passing comes with a price—the “suffocation” referred to above. The longer you attempt to pass, the closer the game’s virtual camera draws. Eventually, it begins to jitter, as well, making navigation through the twisty arena almost impossible. The constant question the player must ask, then, is: Do I try to pass, so that I can get to the next area? Or do I finally take a breath, let my guard down, and face the violence that awaits me? The sections of the game’s path were your square is isolated from other squares become your only respite, the only moments where you can be yourself without fear of reprisal.

As Cárdenas mentions in their blog post, Lim is a little bit broken. When being attacked by other squares, it’s not unusual for a clipping error to occur, resulting in the player being knocked out of the game’s playable space, left to wander outside the game’s map, unable to re-enter it. Cárdenas praises this aspect of the game, pointing out that the fact that the game occasionally becomes completely impossible to “beat” makes its rhetoric even more powerful. My students have generally agreed.

One problem I’ve found, though, is that it’s a bit too difficult to avoid this error. I don’t think any of my students has ever “completed” the game in-class, and so they’ve been robbed of its “proper” ending, which is actually quite powerful. For this reason, the embedded YouTube clip below shows an entire “successful” playthrough of the game. (Be forewarned: The game’s sound design is quite startling. Also, the jittery camera effects can create flashing images that should probably not be viewed by people with epilepsy.)

Questions I like to ask about Lim: To what extent does the game come across as being explicitly about trans experience? To what extent could it be applied to the experiences of a wide range of queer people? Can we take this even further? Does the game have something in general to say about bullyingsocial ostracism, and the pressure to conform? What do we gain, if we read the game in this more general way? But, importantly, what do we lose?

Pedagogical postscript: on teaching procedural representation in 2016

As I write this blog post, I am thinking ahead to another unit I will be teaching on proceduralism, for my course “Moving Images and Arguments.” This course, like my Intro to Mass Communication course, is not primarily organized around games—instead, we’re just spending one week on them. In this type of class situation, I typically assign game play time as in-class small group work, rather than take-home assignments. This allows me to walk around the room, and provide troubleshooting, as needed.

When coming up with games to use for this sort of classroom experience, I have three major preferences, which define my ideal course objects:

  • The game should be free. Neither the students nor myself should have to put any money down, or sign up for any sort of account.
  • The game should be playable on a laptop (no console exclusives here), and should be OS-agnostic. It should be readily available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  • The game should not require installation. The most recent versions of Windows and macOS make installing software downloaded from places other than their respective official stores difficult, and require poking around in some protected system security settings to change thisBrowser-based games are ideal. They are also OS-agnostic.

The most recent unit I taught proceduralism (for my Intro to Mass Communication course, in May 2016), I had students break into groups and play the following games:

There are two things I want to note about this selection of games—two things I am thinking about quite a lot as I prep for my next time teaching this topic.

1) I broke my own rules.

All of these games are free. But my other rules are only the weakest of guidelines. Nova Alea is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, but requires installation. The Marriage requires installation, and is Windows-only. Passage and Gravitation are nominally available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, but the Mac versions only work on PowerPC Macs, which Apple discontinued in 2006 (before Rohrer released both games), and which now have not been made for over ten years. (Also, the iOS version of Passage, although still for sale on the iOS App Store, fails to launch iOS 10.) Mainichi‘s Mac version is non-native, running in a fan-made Wine wrapper, and I’ve found that students have not always been able to install it and get it to successfully launch.

The reason I broke my own rules? Because it is unfortunately difficult to find good games that demonstrate proceduralism, and that meet these rules. And I have reason to believe that the problem is getting worse …

2) The canon is aging, and new games have their problems.

Jason Rohrer is considered a major artist in the world of independent games. The Davis Museum of Wellesly College just put on a solo exhibition of his work in 2016Passage is in MoMA’s permanent collection. And yet Passage is impossible to play on a current MacBook or iPhone. Given the poor maintenance of the game, there is reason to believe that it might become unplayable on Windows, as well, in the foreseeable future. Gravitation and Humble’s The Marriage likely won’t fare much better. Operating systems change regularly, and these types of small, experimental, non-commercial works are falling behind, and becoming impossible for students to experience on their own hardware.

The reason I am worried about this is the same reason I have so many games from the range of 2006–2011 on the above list: even as these games age and become jankier, there are not enough games popping up to take their place in a lesson plan.

This may seem like a silly assessment. Surely, in 2016, there are more games being made and distributed than ever before! But that glut of games is of limited usefulness, for multiple reasons.

First, an explosion in the opportunities for small-scale developers to actually charge for their games has spurned a migration towards different modes of software distribution. In 2014, Valve’s Steam service radically re-worked its previous method of curation, allowing greatly expanded access to small developers on its storefront. Meanwhile, itch.io has proved to be an attractive storefront for developers such as Anna Anthropy and merritt kopas. Now, I have of course absolutely no objection to Anthropy and kopas finding ways to be compensated for their art (that’s why I’m linking to their storefronts! you should buy their stuff!). But it does, of course, mean that Anthropy’s Dys4ia (2012), one of the most important games of the past five years, is now no longer freely available on Newgrounds, and therefore not available to my students unless I force them to pay some money. On ethical and economic grounds, I’m happy to throw money toward these developers, but pedagogically it does mean that the field of free, browser-based games that are easy to use as an in-class activity is narrowing, as more and more developers move toward the paid, installation-based model.

“Free, browser-based games,” you say: “But what about the explosion of Twine? More people are making games than ever before thanks to Twine. Furthermore, the platform’s oft-noted commitment to inclusiveness and low barrier of technological knowledge mean that we’re seeing a new type of personal game created by marginalized groups who have never had the ability to make games before!”

To which I say: Yes! Twine is great. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d recommend taking a peek over here.) But, along with its (glorious) strengths, Twine games also have pedagogical weaknesses. And this gets into my second reason.

I guess I would put it this way: If I was teaching game designinteractive fiction, or emergent possibilities of new media scholarship, I would definitely have my students make games in Twine. But using Twine games to teach the concept of procedural representation is trickier. I actually think that some Twine games would make fascinating case studies here, for instance Cara Ellison’s Sacrilege (the one Twine game I did include in this lesson) or Porpentine’s Skulljhabit (2014). But the fact remains that, since they are text-based, they just don’t work as well as my beloved “games about squares” for illustrating have meaning can be constructed from rules and interactions. (It doesn’t help that, outside of Porpentine’s wonderful experiments with the platform, so many Twine games’ rulesets don’t progress much beyond “click to advance.”) Ultimately, a completely text-free game such as Lim makes for better pedagogical “aha!” moments, because it forces students to unlearn what they previously thought they knew about rhetoric.

So, what will happen in the coming years? I don’t know. I will likely keep teaching things like these “games about squares,” although I realize that even browser-based fare such as Loneliness will get more and more difficult to assign as the Flash platform is slowly abandoned. At a certain point, I will probably have to give up on my “free” rule, and do things like direct students to pay $5 for Dys4ia. But once I cross the threshold of commercially-released games, I’m likely to abandon the “play in-class” model, as well, and start assigning longer fare such as Papers, Please (3909, 2013) and The Westport Independent (Double Zero One Zero, 2016).

Who knows: maybe eventually I’ll have to abandon Windows, Mac, and browser-based games altogether, as students completely forgo laptops in favor of tablets, phones, and wearables. I’m a bit worried, though, as I’m too busy to do thorough searches of interesting new free things popping up on iOS and Android, given how many games are released daily on those platforms. I guess I’ll just have to find new curators who meet my needs.

[i]. Bogost, Ian. “Art.” In How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Pg 13.

[ii]. Bogost, Ian. “Procedural Rhetoric.” In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Pre22, 2007. Pg 28. (It is this chapter, absolutely cut to ribbons until it is only 22 pages long, that I have most recently assigned students when teaching these games.)

[iii]. In case you’re curious, I’ve got reams of these comparisons. Terry Cavanagh, for instance, for instance, is the Paul Sharits of the indie gaming scene.

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