Unit Operations III

And for me, a circle closes. As I’ve mentioned before, the Simulation Gap was one of my first darling games-analysis-tools. I had picked it up from the far less dense Persuasive Games, which was clearly more meant for practioners than Unit Operations, whose audience is a little more difficult to discern (Media Studies?).

It’s been two weeks and a few thousand words since the last Unit Ops notes:

Part I defined the foundational terms (units, operations)

Part II applies the principles of Unit Operations, looking at mechanical and representational views on games and other media.

I. Simulations

Bogost starts by referencing Wolfram, and outlining how cellular automata offer an example of “the logic of unit operations at work”: the accumulating complexity resulting from the relations of simple logics- generative rules. The classic Game of Life is used to the same effect.

He then discusses how SimCity is in essence a “social simulation”, based on simple generative rules. I’ve harped about SimCity here and there, and I don’t feel the need to dig too deeply here.

“A simulation is a representation of a source system via a less complex system that informs the user’s understanding of the source system in a subjective way.”

What simulation games create are biased, nonobjective modes of expression that cannot escape the grasp of subjectivity and ideology. Simulations represent something to somebody. 

“Drawing on Scott McCloud’s work, [The Sims/SimCity designer Will Wright] purposely leaves out portions of the simulation from the computer model and allow the player to fill in the details in his or her own mind.

Ted Friedman: “SimCity has been criticized from both the left and right for its economic model. It assumes low taxes will encourage growth while high taxes will hasten recessions. It discourages nuclear power, while rewarding investment in mass transit.”

“Speculating on the game, [Paul] Starr wonders, ‘What assumptions were buried in the underlying models? What was their hidden curriculum? Did a conservative or a liberal determine the response to changes in tax rates in SimCity?’ Starr sees a danger “when simulations are used to make predictions and evaluate policies” because those decisions are themselves slaved to the rules of the simulation, the specific unit operations the system does (and does not) allow.”

(Note: Wright sometimes calls open-ended simulation games like Sim City “toys”, indicating that they do not necessarily have goals to game, but are instead systems to play in).


II. “Simulation Fever”

“One of the reasons videogame criticism has been so difficult is that the process of working through the subjectivity of simulated experiences has less history than that of narrative experiences, even though computer-aided simulations have existed as long as computers” (GUIs, for instance, with their mapping to a physical working space).

Sherry Turkle coined some some stunted approaches to dealing with the simulation:

Simulation Resignation: Accepting the simulation on its own terms. “Even if the models are wrong, we need to use the official models to get anything done.”

Simulation Denial: Rejecting simulations to whatever degree possible, such as “the position of the MIT physicists who saw them as a thoroughly destructive force in science education”.

Both Simulation Resignation and Denial are two sides of the same coin’. Both are apprehensions about the limitations of the simulation, what it includes or excludes. “Both kinds of apprehension likewise derive from subjectivity’s encounter with the game’s unit operations. Simulation Resignation acknowledges that sims are subjective, but refuses to interrogate the implications of that subjectivity. Simulation Denial acknowledges that sims are subjective, and concludes that they are therefore useless, untrustworthy, or even dangerous tools.”

Bogost offers a new definition of a simulation:

A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and the user’s subjectivity. 

Bogost shore’s up this new definition with similarities to existing concepts (Plato’s kho- rismos on the space between ideals and the physical, Saussurian semiotics on the space between linguistic signs, Derrida’s Différance, Lacan’s objet a, Badiou’s void.

Archivization, according to Derrida, has always been about selective preservation and omission. Derrida coined the idea of “archive fever”, a “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” Bogost claims that “Archive fever is the simultaneous drive toward and fear of archivization.”

Analogously, our two forms of simulation anxiety can be called simulation fever, and her only cure is to work through this discomfort.

Turkle recognizes a third response to the simulation, other than Resignation and Denial: “A new social criticism”, which would “discriminate among simulations. It would take as its goal the development of simulations that help their users understand and challenge their model’s built-in assumptions.”

“Of course, simulations are not exactly like textual or electronic archives.” Eskelinen, summarizing Aarseth: “The dominant user function in literature, theatre and film is interpretative, but in games it is a configurative one.” Configuration does not necessarily entail interpretation, though, and so “we must also make room for interpretive strategies that remain faithful to the configurative properties of games.”

Players go through cycles of configuring the game by engaging its unit operations. The player has a subjective response to the game, “the internalization of its cybernetic feedback loops.”


III. Forces against videogames for social commentary

Bogost discusses Huizinga and Caillois briefly. I have notes on them elsewhere. He also discusses the incentive structures of the videogame industry, briefly. Point being:

“Videogames are thus subject to two equally strong forces opposing their use as tools for social commentary, social change, or other more “revolutionary” matters. On the one hand, the anthropological history of games has set the precedent for their separation from the material world. On the other hand, videogames inherit a mass-market entertainment culture whose primary purpose is the production of low-reflection, high-gloss entertainment.”

“Even earnest attempts by game critics and developers to overturn this received conception of videogames can be shown to reinforce rather than challenge the status quo.” Here, Bogost goes on the offensive against some major practitioner views on games studies, which I have only brushed against in this blog although (or really, because) I am familiar with them- instead, the old stuff (the anthropological thread) was the new stuff to me- and that was part of my intention of naming my blog what I did. Rediscovery of lost knowledge and all that. Pretentious, I know.

Anyway, the practioner mentioned is Raph Koster, an influential game developer and writer of A Theory of Fun for Game Design. In particular, Bogost finds the connection to “fun” to be problematic, even as Koster tries to invert ‘fun’ as being a wildly underestimated idea.

Bogost then turns to what we might call Serious Games, newsgames like September 12, and what their potential events imply to the players about the models of the simulated world that they’re exploring. Some critics call these attempts out for being overly didactic or linear instead of emergent or replayable. Are all artifacts given the same critique, and if not, why not? Exercise left to the reader.


IV. Lessons on Simulation Fever

Simulation Fever Lesson 1: Unit Operations are biased. The rules are precise but their representation may not be. In September 12 there is only one player rule: you can shoot missiles or not. There are many simulation rules (missiles are inexact; collateral damage is inescapable; terrorists might move out of harms way; innocents may day.) In other cases, the ideology might be less discernible, and the interpreter will need to work harder to make a convincing case.

Simulation Fever Lesson 2: “The dialectic between Unit Operations and subjectivity that constitutes simulation fever is extrinsic, not intrinsic, to the game.”

“The Magic Circle” is a common phrase in contemporary discussions among practitioners, and it has been misunderstand as “safe, separate, predictable” area cut off from an otherwise chaotic world. (Note: It was coined by Huizinga off-hand, and was not an important part of his thesis.)

“But if all games are ideologically and extrinsically subjective, then the magic circle cannot maintain its status as a hallowed, isolated safe place, at least not entirely. […] an adjustment to our understanding of the magic circle is in order.”

Games can have consequences. Game convey ideas and experiences that players carry off of the field. The Magic Circle is porous.