Unit Operations II

Notes from around the neighborhood:

Jordan Peacock recently wroteon the idea of the episteme and a “miscommunication-reduction strategy”.

Also, Adam Gurri recently wrote an excellent piece in response to the neoreaction that articulates a view of institutions that I particularly appreciate. (There’s also an annual roundup post by him on his personal site that I intend to dig into).

In this excerption packet, I follow the second quarter of Unit Operations, in which we start looking at videogames with the Unit Ops frame, with implications for software and traditional media as well.

Part III will mark my return to The Simulation Gap, this time from the Unit Operations frame (my previous source of this concept was Bogosts’ Persuasive Games)

Finally Part IV is where we get into a second impression of Deleuze (and Guattari, who seems to get shorter shrift), from Bogosts’ POV.

I. Comparative studies (and Bricolage)

Bricouler: A word for a Macguyver (or, in some circles, maybe a hacker– but hell if I’m going to be swinging that word around). The bricouler creates structures out of events, ad hoc. They cook with whatever’s around. The engineer/scientist, by contrast, is typically a totalizer: they invent events by way of structures. They bring their own cookbooks and spices.

“Together, comparative criticism and videogame software development entail the bricoleur, the deft handyman who assembles units of preexisting meaning to form new structures of meaning. An intersection of these two domains- a comparative videogame criticism- suggests a more intimate interrelation of two spaces of bricolage, that of criticism and that of production.”

Espen Aarseth’s cybertexts are examples of “ergodic literature”, wherein the user exerts “nontrivial effort.” Videogames, hypertexts, and configurative texts like the I Ching are considered in his conception. (Unsurprisingly, Aarseth’s background is in comparative literature). Aarseth attempts a broader umbrella to consider all of these artifacts- he also wants to be clear that he isn’t intending to merely extend literary criticism to new media “without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved.” He calls “interactive fiction” an “unfocused fantasy rather than a concept of any analytical substance.”

“Even as Aarseth draws a fundamental connection between videogames, hypertexts, poetry, and literature, he distances this new domain of cybertext from traditional forms of artistic expression, and especially from literature.”


II. The Essentialist Problem

“Today, just short of ten years after the first publication of Cybertext, the field of videogame studies reaps what it sowed- functionalist separatism.” That year, DiGRA (“videogames’ international research organization”), launched a column series called “Hard Core”.

“While the epiteth ‘hard core’ is usually reserved for explicit pornography, it is also frequently used in the videogame industry and press to refer to its most active and committed audience.” It may be telling, though- just as the “hard core gamer” stereotype is one who foregoes other personal activities in favor of game-playing, perhaps it affords the idea that “hard core” researchers will forego other critical activities in favor of videogames- a sort of media-centrism (subtly different, Bogost argues, from Aarseth’s privileged cybertextual functionalism). DiGRA’s “three theses” suggest as much.

“The field of ‘hard core’ game studies is thus revealed to be essentialist and doctrinaire, its theorists hoping to reinvent a different kind of isolationist techno-textual criticism that privileges the ludic over the literary, culturing the virulent oppositions of a future whose media ecology we cannot foresee. For better or worse, this essentialism has its origin in Aarseth’s functionalism, an approach that, even if ‘eclectic’, still privileges the material at the cost of the expressive.”

Bogost intends to focus on what videogames do (with knowledge, but not focus, on how they work), turning away from “pure functionalism” while “still retaining Aarseth’s otherwise useful analysis of games as configurative texsts.”

Of course, there’s no need to throw away all of functionalism.


III. The Game Engine (Components)

Videogames, as software, take advantage of the “componentization of object technology.” Doom and the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre created a new mode of cultural production: the game engine, leveraging common game mechanics and code for new games [later, authoring systems will allow even non-programmers to modify and produce games and game-like artifacts.].

“Game engines move far beyond literary devices and genrs. Unlike cultural categories like the modern novel or film noir, game engines regulate individual videogames’ artistics, cultural, and narrative expression. While other media also participate in the market economy (and use common processes and formulas) in their production, game engines are themselves IP. “They exist in the material world in the way that genres, devices, and cliche’s do not.”

“Game engines are no more transcendental than genres, in the sense that one cannot play a game engine but only a game that encompasses and integrates that engine to create a work. However, game engines do enjoy a different status with respect to authorship and criticism. […] FPS game engines construe entire gameplay behaviors, facilitating functional interactions divorced from individual games. Genres structure a creative approach to narrative; they describe a kind of story.” So, while film genres may or may not involve certain unit-operational underpinnings (“buddy cop movie: driving, guns, foot chases, bitter divorce”; “romantic comedy: chance encounter, urban near-misses, frustrating misunderstandings, touching resolution”), game engines are defined by formal, material unit operational constituents.

Tank, Pong, and Combat (which, while representationally different enough, deliberately shared a great deal of code and technical constraints) have a far stronger relation to one another than “interpretive notions like intertextuality or new media concepts like remediation allow”.

“The entire hardware architecture of the Atari 2600 […] was crafted to accomodate Pong- and Tank-like games. The device’s memory architecture and hardware register settings provide access to a playfield backdrop, two player sprites, two missiles, and one ball.” There were physical (low RAM, small cartridge space) and conceptual (again, made for Pongconstraints. “The [Atari 2600] offers a striking example of how the structure of a technology platform exerts expressive pressure on the software created to run on it.”

“The truly componentized, unit-operational game engines of modern games only further accentuate this merger of functionalism and materialism.”

The Quake II engine is licensed for $10k per title. Valve released a Quake II game in 1998 titled Half-Life, to critical and commercial acclaim. The multiplayer edition was released as Counter-Strike. 

“Unlike psychoanalysis or literary theory, IP is a stable relationship [between works] regulated by governments and markets instead of critics. The rules of IP are flexible and may change, but its fundamental principle is legal, not literary. T.S. Eliot did not license rights to Homer and Dante in order to make their works fungible in his own.”

Licensing is a legal function, not a discursive one. It also makes a relationship that’s less ambiguous than the gray-area of permissibility that most other commercial artifacts have to contend with.

FPS Game Engines afforded shooters but, as with the Atari example, new representations can afford different experiences: in Thief, the main goal was to avoid conflict rather than getting shot (avoiding detection and elimination). In Deus Ex, character interaction was treated as a sort of paramount mechanic.

The game Facade [take a look at it!] integrates ABL (A Behavior Language) “a compilable ‘reactive planning language’ based on Hap, a previous computational system for goal-directed activity developed at Carnegie Mellon University. Facade underscores the importance of recognizing the material and functional details of unit operations exposed by game engines.

“The unit operations of the ABL API encapsulate abstract functions for human discourse, while engines like Quake II concentrate on abstract functions for object physics. In both cases, developers who use these engines as the basis for other works are bound to the material, functional and in many cases intellectual proprietary attributes of the engine. These confines both facilitate and limit discursive production, just as the rules of natural languages bound poetry and the rules of optics bound photography.” (Bogost notes that of course, even these confines can be challenged: e. e. cummings and Jan Saudek)


IV. Games and Narratives

On the “ludology/narratology” debate.

“Games like Facade that create human experiences normally reserved for stage, print, or cinema raise questions about the relationship between videogames and traditional media.”

“What is the relationship between the study of games (ludology) and the study of narrative (narratology)?”

Jesper Juul,: “Do games tell stories? Answering this should tell us both how to study games and who should study them. The affirmative answer suggests that games are easily studied from within existing paradigms. The negative implies that we must start afresh.”

Bogost is fair to Juul, who concedes that we use narratives to make sense of experiences anyway, and games have embedded stories anyway. But if games are narratives then they should be translatable to other media.

Games are strange in that players are both observers and participants. Players are personally implicated in the work.

“‘Ludology vs Narratology’ may be a nice shorthand for the tension between rule-based systems and story-based systems. There is more in common between them than this dichotomy really affords. Both are formalist and reductionist practices (narratology “owes a deep debt to structuralism”)

Many media also maintain a tension between performance and exposition: ancient epic storytelling was “patterned into units” (poetic meter, rhyme, and other language tricks) for easier recall.

“A reformulated version of the question of ludology versus narratology might ask if games need to produce stories, while acknowledging that they might be able to do so.”

“We should attempt to evaluate all texts as configurative systems built out of expressive units. This entails training ourselves not only to “understand simulations as interpretations of the world”, as Janet Murray suggests, but also to understand narrative texts as simulation.” Films have linear, narrative progression, but they tend to be much more about the units of meaning they are expressing, the unit operations they expose.


V. Unit Operations in various media

Below I breeze through an example that Bogost lays out.

“The concept of the chance encounter is a founding archetype of modernity.” Bogost follows it through four artifacts spanning a total of 150 years:

“By chance encounter, I mean that random, anonymous meeting one has in modern environments, usually but not always with a subject of desire. My contention is that as this very modern experience moves from an experience of crisis in the mid-nineteenth century to an experience of banality in the twenty-first century, it becomes compressed into more and more compact modes of representation. Baudelaire does not merely author a poel he also creates a unit of cultural memory, a tool that others can make fungible as a performance of modern life. During its 150-year lifespan, this unit operation marks two important transitions.” First, via Bukowski in the mid-20th century, “the figure retains its original function as a way to resist the alienation of modern experience but achieves a level of familiarity that leads to significant poetic condensation. Second, by the turn of the next century, Baudelaire’s strategy begins to wane, and Jeunet’s and Wright’s works expose the potentially objectionable qualities of this unit of modern experience, calling those very rules into question.”

Bukowsky implies symbols from Baudelaire in fewer words, as Baudelaire had to spell out the full experience that Bukowski easily refers to. Amelie is about “a struggle to reject a hundred-year-old obsession with Baudelaire’s bequeathed way of using modern life.” (She deliberates and plans her contrived encounters, “explicitly recognizing the ritual”). The Sims: Hot Date proceduralizes the concept of the chance encounter for the player to decide and act on as both the God/onlooker and as the character within social rules. “One [player] option is to exercise the opportunity; to approach and talk to anyone the player chooses. Another option is to sit around and watch potential love interests pass by forever, never to return- like Baudelaire’s and Bukowski’s narrators.

There is of course a whole universe of actions in The Sims the player cannot take (eg. “watch the other Sim walk away longingly”)- and there only the player’s imagination can fill those narrative gaps.

And, hey, that’s a great way to segue into procedural rhetoric and the Simulation Gap. Which is exactly what Bogost does.