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August 26, 2010

Repetition and Meaning in (Art) Games

This is the second in a short series of posts¹ where I discuss things I drew from Rod Humble’s The Marriage in the making of my own art game, my divorce.

The Marriage is a rules-driven art game; it was the intent of its creator to have the message and experience driven entirely by the rules. My follow-on effort was intended to work the same way.

In replaying The Marriage, I found that it took me repeated plays to be able to beat the game, and I think this served to better illustrate its message. Through its play, The Marriage says that marriages are difficult², requiring significant effort to find an appropriate balance between the forces at play and achieve success.

Beyond that, however, is that in a short game like The Marriage, it takes time to understand the rules in a deep way -- and by deep, here, I mean at a level beyond a sort of surface understanding of the rules at work, what you might call a "gut" level. I think this time is particularly extended if one doesn’t read his artistic statement before one plays, since it takes a little time to even understand the mechanics at work.

I recently listened to a Brainy Gamer podcast in which Steve Gaynor discussed the MDA framework a little bit. In the framework, designers create Mechanics which give rise to Dynamics and result in an Aesthetic (loosely speaking, an emotional) response in the player. But the player perceives these elements in reverse, starting with the Aesthetics and moving backwards through to the Mechanics.

I think this is a useful framework for thinking about games: in the case of The Marriage or my divorce, it takes several plays of the game to uncover the dynamics well enough to feel more in control of the game, though in both, perfect control isn’t attainable nor meant to be. But this repetitive experience is necessary -- in playing The Marriage it wasn’t sufficient for me to read the rules and comprehend intellectually how they worked, I needed to play several times before my understanding became more visceral and automatic. I have played the game dozens of times and although I haven’t kept formal track, in my estimation I can now achieve victory maybe one in three times, which is about how often I can do the same with my divorce. It took me many more than three times to beat either initially; anecdotal evidence from one of my testers found it took eight attempts to beat The Marriage and ten to beat my divorce, though I’ve since balanced the game a little more favorably³.

In any case, the levels of difficulty of The Marriage and my divorce are therefore relevant to their Aesthetics, and at least partially convey meaning in that way; both indicate the difficulty of the situations at hand and arise from the Dynamics of the simulations. Either could be made easier, and require only a single play to understand the dynamics, but in doing so, a part of that meaning would be lost.

¹Possibly only two entries long; you’ve been warned. I have a few other ideas but at the moment they’re all a little sketchy, so I’m not sure whether I’ll get back to them.
²As should perhaps be obvious from the title of my game...
³I’d like to be a little more optimistic about the possibility of success when raising children in situations of divorce, for obvious reasons.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 26, 2010 07:14 AM