Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Compact

We might say that all works of art trade on an implicit bargain struck between the audience and the artist. It goes like this: we agree to take some time out of our days, paying attention to whatever it is the artist has to say, maybe suspend our sense of disbelief, and in exchange the artist promises to take us somewhere. Different forms of art have different tools at hand to accomplish the artist's side of the bargain.

In an interesting and well-thought out piece on his blog Fullbright, Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin (the developer of Bioshock 2) makes a persuasive case that the tools of games as a medium are uniquely suited to accomplish a particular kind of transport. He says “video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” One of the things I took away from his post is that the bargain struck between the player and designer in a game is quite different from the sort of bargains stuck by other media. Game design is, to a greater degree more than other media, a form of collaboration between the designer and the player, since the transport-- the sense of “being there”-- provided by games is crucially linked to the player's sense that their choices are a meaningful part of the experience. I'm going to summarize Gaynor's argument by rephrasing it as an agreement of this sort, with the aim of comparing it to another type of agreement that is central to the history of moral philosophy.

The setup is like this: the designer and the player have a certain common goal--transport-- but they each must play a different role in the realization of that goal. The designers have to make the rules for the world that the player is going to inhabit, and the player must accept the limitations on their choices that come along with being in a world governed by certain artificial conventions. While the designer's ideal aim is “verisimilitude,” the player will have to accept some restrictions on their arbitrary liberty-- the player just won't be able to accomplish all the interactions with the world that he is capable of in real life. (We have to suspend our disbelief and accept the bizarre conventions of games all the time-- bodies that disappear after 30 seconds, the narrow range of manipulable objects, exploding barrels, and so on.)

The aim of these rules, Gaynor says, is to enable the player to make their own story with the rules given to them: “the core experience of playing a video game is itself unique to each player-- an act of realtime media interpretation-- and the most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for.” The function of these rules is the transfer of power from the one who makes the rules-- the author of the game-- to the player. “Video games at their best, “ Gaynor says, “abdicate authorial control to the player, and with it shift the locus of the experience from the raw potential onscreen to the hands and mind of the individual.” By participating in the game and learning the rules laid out by the designer, the player realizes the common goal that governs their relationship: giving the player a sense of “agency and autonomy.”

When I was reading Gaynor's piece I was struck by the fact that the agreement between the designer and player he depicts there shares some interesting structural features with the social contract described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau, a “social contract”-- an agreement made among citizens, which creates a political community-- was the basis for the legitimacy of the laws created by a King or other political leader. What the “social contact” and the agreement I described above have in common is that they are structured around a mutually held end-- the freedom and autonomy of the people to be ruled by the laws established by the contract. The sovereign has the authority to make the laws that govern those subjects, but on Rousseau's account this authority itself only comes from the fact that these laws are appropriate given the common goods, particularly agency and autonomy, realized by social life.

Now, I don't think we can make too much of this similarity; I don't mean to suggest that the collaboration between player and designer that occurs has the same sort of moral and political significance of the social contract. I just think that these two “agreements” share a certain texture deriving from the fact that they are both guided by the value of agency and autonomy.

But what also intrigued about both of these contracts is a certain paradox: they both work off the fact that submitting to rules can feel liberating. Even though these rules place artificial constraints on how we act in the world, we can feel that we are more free when we work within them. This is certainly the sense that we get when I figure out how to get around in the world created by a game or overcome the challenges it throws at us. Games can abuse us or humiliate us by imposing limitations that feel unfair and arbitrary, but when these rules are well-crafted they can create the terrific feeling of agency. (This is even true of games, like Half-Life 2, that are a great deal more structured and linear than Gaynor's ideal.) Rousseau offers some interesting perspective on this idea, because he also believes that the regulation of our conduct by laws makes us more genuinely autonomous agents; it is only when we consent to being governed by just laws “that the voice of duty succeeds physical compulsion and law succeeds appetite; man, who up that that point had only regarded himself, sees himself forced to act according to other principles... Though he loses, in this state, many advantages that he had in nature, he wins much greater ones back. He exercises and develops his faculties, his ideas flourish, his sentiments are ennobled.”


Justin Kevene said...

I touched on a similar topic myself.

By consenting to certain restrictions and limitations we provide out actions within them with scope and specificality. Given freedom to do anything each individual action has little absolute value, but in a world where our options are inherently limited the value of an individual choice is dramatically increased.

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

Iroquois and Justin, I think you're onto something really enormous, I have to say.

Here's how it looks from my own perspective: ancient epic provided the Greeks with an interactive world that was uniquely suited for the exploration of ethical philosophy (which Rousseau addressed under the rubric of the Social Contract, obviously) because of precisely the "contract of immersion" (as I would call it, though I like "transport," too) you're looking at. Plato calls it mimesis and gets unhappy about it, because he wants a top-down solution; it's pretty much at that point in his career that he breaks with the ghost of Socrates. Games, as you guys point out, have the same potential; Bioshock is just the rudimentary beginning, as far as I can tell.

Steve gaynor said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Iroquois. The 'social contract' parallel seems very apt to me, for the same reasons you state: a designer defines the bounds and rules of the space and asks the player to live within them. I like that analogy a lot more than designer as vindictive playwright, wherein the player must conform to the script precisely as dictated, and it punished for stepping out of line.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@justin: Hey, that was a good piece, and I think it raises just the point I wanted to bring up with Steve (if he's still tuning in).

@roger: maybe this isn't the place, but I would be interested to hear some more about how Plato's theory of mimesis plays into this type of agreement I'm talking about. (My Plato is even rustier than my Aristotle, which is saying something.)

@Steve: Hey thanks for stopping by, as I said before I really enjoyed your piece. I had a question, too.

I want to bring up a point that's also in Justin's article. You use this idea of transport to make a strong argument for games with a focus on emergent gameplay and user-created narratives. But if you look at Justin's post you can see how David Cage and the folks at Quantic dreams make some very linear, shallowly interactive games (this is not a knock on them! Just a statement of fact) with the same set of guiding ideas in mind-- Cage talks about making limitations on player choice that the player would on reflection, endorse. (I know I had his recent interview in Gamasutra on my mind when I read your own post.)

I think some players take the attitude: "hey, here's sixty bucks, why don't you come up with a great story for me and I'll help you make it happen. Make sure the stuff you have me do is fun, and it'll be great." Plenty of outstanding games work off an agreement like this one. In this case, the player is making a slightly different bargain with the designer than the one you present. Is this a worse way to approach game design, or just a different one?

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

Platonic mimesis and gamng is where I'm headed on my own blog, after I tackle immersion pre-Plato, actually.

Briefly, the version of mimesis in Republic 10 is the one everyone remembers, because it's the excuse for tossing the poets out, but the earlier version in Republic 3 is the foundation for that, and presents a very different picture, a picture of people turning bad through watching epic and tragic performances in which characters give way to their emotions. It's precisely that power of peformative art that Plato wants to put the strongest possible controls on--then, later, he uses it as a way to bootstrap himself towards the forms. Most importantly, the cave analogy is really all about mimesis and immersion.

Later still, at the end of his life, in the Laws, he takes much of it back but still excludes tragedy on the basis that the real mimesis is the constitution of the ideal city--perfect immersion in the laws. Yikes. But cool, of course.

Stay tuned! :D

Steve gaynor said...


My personal understanding of modern video games' primary strengths drive the post I made. It certainly doesn't encompass many other current, valid forms but instead addresses a particular ideal. I did enjoy being swept along in the lovingly crafted and incredibly dense experience of Call of Duty 4. I don't know if games taking that approach most effectively address what makes video games inherently unique and powerful as a medium (and yes BioShock leans on these techniques heavily; I'm speaking in the realm of theory.)

The Clandestine Samurai said...

Rules, no rules. Chaos and Order. Of course! When rules and laws exist, there is an ascent to the ideal, and a certain pride at achieving that mastery.

What I've gotten out of the "freedom" argument is that: I guess, in a virtual world where there's no guiding laws and principles, there's no value. Nothing means anything. But of course, when there's a goal to achieve (get to that ledge, take out the Senator, etc.) and you're given, although through restrictions, many ways to accomplish this goal, there's value in what choices you personally make.

Kylie Prymus said...

You can also think of this in terms of Sartrean freedom. We have complete control over our actions and consequently total responsibility for them. This is especially germane when it comes to our own enjoyment such as the ways we choose to spend our leisure time. Many players may choose games specifically because they provide constraints and within those constraints we have a finite set of options. Enjoyment comes from choosing which course of action to take. Give us a game that is too much of a sandbox and players may feel overwhelmed with freedom. But if they are not having fun they can blame the developers when in truth they should be blaming themselves for not taking the responsibility of finding their own joy in the game (I know I'm guilty of this from my brief stint playing EVE Online).

Yet many may turn to games because, whether they enjoy them or not, games keep them from having to face the fact that they live in the ultimate sandbox (real life) and must take responsibility for themselves and their own enjoyment within it.