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Persuasive Games: Process Intensity and Social Experimentation

In this analysis, developer and scholar Ian Bogost takes a critical look at Chris Crawford's concept of process intensity, how it applies to contemporary games, and in particular answers some assertions made by Johann Sebastian Joust developer Doug Wilson.

In 1987, game designer Chris Crawford introduced the concept of process intensity, "the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data." Process, Crawford explains, involves "algorithms, equations, and branches," while data refers to "tables, images, sounds, and texts." A process-intensive program "spends a lot of time crunching numbers; a data-intensive program spends a lot of time moving bytes around."

For Crawford, process intensity is not only a theoretical frame for understanding the difference between algorithms and information, but also an aesthetic principle. "Processing data is the very essence of what a computer does," contends Crawford, so using it just to store and move data around is a waste. For this reason, Crawford boldly claims that process intensity is "a useful criterion for evaluating the value of a piece of software."

From word processors to video games, works with a higher "crunch per bit ratio" -- that is, the ones that contain more processing than they do data -- are better and more virtuous examples of computational media than those with lower ratios, according to Crawford.

In his article, Crawford cites the famous 1983 laserdisc game Dragon's Lair as an example of low process intensity ("its crunch per bit ratio stank," he deadpans). The game displayed big chunks of animations, performing very little processing on the video data and user input.

Crawford refers to his own game Balance of Power as a contrasting, desirable, high process intensity specimen. The game simulates Cold War geopolitics by algorithmically analyzing data like insurgency, economics, might, and prestige across many nations in relation to user actions like sending aid, escalating conflict, and backing down.

In a book-length manual for the game, Crawford summarizes the four geopolitical processes he hoped the game would emphasize: insurgency, coups d'etat, Finlandization, and crises. Dragon's Lair focuses on one process, timing, and a lot of audiovisual instantial assets, whereas Balance of Power highlights many processes operating independently on abstract data sets.

In his 1984 book The Art of Computer Game Design, Crawford had described the same phemonenon as a dichotomy between instantiality and procedurality. Games are instantial when they rely on prerendered, invariable assets over dynamic processes.

This distinction was somewhat easier to grasp for a working game developer in the early 1980s, when a game might be limited to 4 to 64k in size. Given a choice, filling that space with code instead of data would allow for a larger, denser experience. Such concerns are not really relevant anymore, but the general idea of a relative distribution of processes and assets in a particular work remains a potentially useful perspective on a game's formal construction.

By the mid-2000s process intensity gained renewed attention. Channeling Crawford in a 2006 SIGGRAPH keynote, Greg Costikyan advocated for interactive processes over poly pushing and canned data on the grounds that instantial games were hobbling the medium. Costikyan lamented that "80+ percent of the man-hours (and cost) for a game is in the creation of art assets. ... In other words, we've spent the last three decades focusing on data intensity instead of process intensity."

Indeed, the cost of those man-hours was becoming impractical. Where aesthetic rationales for procedural approaches hadn't made much headway, economic imperatives did. The rising costs of AAA game production catalyzed a new interest in procedural methods in game design, most visibly the procedural authoring and gameplay tools of Will Wright's Spore.

But as Costikyan pointed out, procedural content doesn't necessarily change the process intensity of a game on the gameplay register. Or as the critic Noah Wardrip-Fruin has explained, the central issue is not how much total processing takes place in a computational work, but which works "exhibit a comparative intensity of behavioral processing".

Put differently, process intensity and instantial intensity look different depending on which part of a computational platform one works with. Like 3D game engines, procedural content generation methods just increase the process intensity of an already data intensive design paradigm. Compare computer animated films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Considerable effort goes into animating characters and generating environmental effects through procedural methods, but the end result is instantial rather than procedural: a series of still images meant for anamorphic projection.


Doug Wilson's "Low Process Intensity" Aesthetics

Despite appealing to the "true nature" of computers, Chris Crawford's process intensity is an aesthetic category, and therefore it can be opposed or rejected on the grounds of style instead of virtue. The game designer Doug Wilson has done just that, calling for a celebration of "low process intensity".

Speaking recently at Indie Connect, Wilson cited games like The Graveyard, Proteus, and Dear Esther as examples of games that focus primarily -- perhaps almost exclusively -- on audiovisual design over game mechanical design. Indeed, all three games offer different versions of modest gameplay experiences. Graveyard creator Tale of Tales has previously embraced the terms realtime art and nongame to clarify this distinction.

There's no question that all three games offer limited means of interaction, and both Crawford and Costikyan have suggested low interactivity as a litmus test for low process intensity. In each of the games just mentioned, the player navigates through a 3D environment in pursuit of a lightweight, easily accessible, or even non-existent goal.

Even titles meant for a more general market have begun embracing low-interaction designs. As Wilson points out, That Game Company's titles Flower and Journey offer only basic control and limited action -- it's certainly possible to play those games just by wandering around, refusing to follow the progression of the levels.

But for Wilson, the real problem with games is structure rather than interactivity. For him, Flower fails to take its initial gambit seriously when it adds additional goals, mechanics, and challenges over the course of the game. In so doing, Wilson argues, the game's emphasis on audiovisual experience wanes.

In a more formal version of this argument, Wilson further clarifies the aesthetic and even political undesirability of process intensity, citing designers like Rod Humble and Brenda Brathwaite as adversaries. Both designers have embraced philosophies that locate a work's meaning in its system behavior (whether a computer is involved or not) rather than in its audiovisual presentation.

Humble's abstract, experimental artgame The Marriage is a far more extreme example of this practice than is Brathwaite's Train, whose visual elements include boxcars and a vintage SS typewriter. Wilson makes note of this ambiguity, calling Train "as much a sculpture as a game system". Wilson proceeds from here, wondering if system design amounts to arbitrary aesthetic essentialism that marginalizes other aspects of a work.

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Train

In response to such concern, Wilson endorses an approach to design "beyond formalized systems and computational algorithms -- a space where players are rallied to improvise their own gameplay and appropriate games to their own purposes". He cites two of his own games, B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now) and Johann Sebastian Joust as examples of this new style.

The former is a party game in which players respond to computer-selected invitations to behave in silly or surprising ways while competing to reach an Xbox controller button, and the latter is a physical game that uses PlayStation Move controllers to operate a kind of musical version of the folk game King of the Hill.

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B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now)

In B.U.T.T.O.N., players must perform acts like posing like a ninja or lying down on the floor while racing to the controller button. As the title suggests, players can choose to do so by any method, even "brutally unfair" ones. In J.S. Joust players must maintain a specific accelerometer threshold in their Move controller, which is modulated by cyclical changes in the tempo of music from the Brandenburg Concertos that emanates from the computer that operates the game.

As it turns out, Wilson has two gripes with the design patterns he groups under the name "process intensity". First, he suggests that low process intensity is related to a celebration of audiovisual experience over the experience of rules and systems. And second, he objects to high process intensity on the grounds that such games offer narrow player experimentation within the constraints of their rules. According to Wilson, his own games offer signals for an alternate design strategy.

Given these objections, a question presents itself: do games like B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust really exhibit the low process intensity Wilson claims they do?


Process Intensity vs. Multimedia Assets

To respond to the first concern, let's return to Crawford's understanding of process intensity as a ratio of process to data. For Crawford, process intensity is not a measure of whether or not goals or rules or systems are present in a game, nor is it a measure of the degree to which rules and mechanics constitute the fundamental experience or construction of games, nor is it a rejection or subordination of data to process in toto.

Rather, process intensity describes a proportion, a measure of the relative presence and importance of processes as compared to data. That metric cannot be realized in the abstract, but only in relation to a specific work.

Consider Dragon's Lair once more. It contains a large number of instantial assets in the form of animations, and a small number of processes for sequencing those assets in response to system and player action.

The resulting experience is not nearly so procedural as is The Graveyard or Dear Esther, which provide interesting, unbounded experiences in a lush, 3D space.

The latter games exhibit more process intensity than does Dragon's Lair because they incorporate processes like navigation, exploration, and narration, as well as those more hidden processes that make real-time, navigable 3D environments possible in the first place.

Or, take Humble's The Marriage, a game about the creator's idea of what a marriage feels like told allegorically through the interaction of abstract shapes. The game appears to contain no pre-rendered assets whatsoever, but the most instantial features of the game are the circles and squares that represent the partners and external factors in a marriage.

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The Marriage

The game's paucity of instantial assets does not make it process intensive, but rather the fact that a very few assets are processed in a large variety of ways relative to the quantity of assets themselves: rules of transformation like movement, scaling, and shading operate on individual elements in a fashion that gives those elements a wide variety of states, helping to create an overall vignette.

The Marriage is high process intensity thanks to its large ratio of process to instance, not because it scrimps on audiovisual elements. There's just so little of anything in The Marriage, it's not so hard for it to achieve high process intensity. Process intensity proves itself to be an artifact-specific measure as much as it remains a general aesthetic principle.

Once we acknowledge that process intensity is a relative metric, we are forced to examine a specific artifact more closely to draw conclusions about its process intensity. For example, a software system like the Unity or Unreal engine is clearly a high process intensity apparatus, one that calculates and displays simulated virtual worlds in real-time.

But in a work like Dear Esther, that aspect of Unreal is abstracted in favor of the appearance of a virtual environment and the revelation of a narrative. This is a situation that wasn't really in play during the era in which Crawford first advanced the argument for process intensity -- games were often built on common hardware platforms and often shared subsystems or software routines, but they were not created atop what we now call game engines.

Today, it's sometimes hard to tell whether the process intensity in a work is that of the work or that of the platform. Dear Esther may not require substantial procedurality to tell its story, but it certainly does rely on enormous computational power to produce the lush world that Wilson celebrates as low process intensity.

The generative environmental game Proteus offers a helpful counterpoint to Dear Esther. On first blush, both games seems to involve relatively few processes beyond navigation and rendering, but in Proteus the style of the rendering itself, as well as the generativity of the environment are quite apparent to the player, making them operate on the experiential rather than the infrastructural register. Proteus was not created atop a premade engine, but by means of a custom procedural manipulation of the lower-level SDL and OpenGL graphics libraries. Working at the library rather than the engine level gives Proteus a highly procedural aesthetic, even if the experience it delivers is open and relatively goalless.

Thus, process intensity cannot be easily determined from the apparent level of interaction or audiovisual content in a game. And likewise, we can't conclude as quickly as Wilson does that "multimedia elements like image and sound may indeed inform the very heart of a creative game design practice". After all, those multimedia elements might themselves be instantial or procedural, or even both depending on how we evaluate them. The overall process intensity of the work often cannot be determined by simply eyeballing algorithms to assets from a naïve user's perspective. Now that games are more varied and more complex, further subtlety is required.

Let's take J.S. Joust as a test case. It contains just one major instantial asset, an audio excerpt from the Brandenberg Concertos. That asset is itself subject to a simple but important procedural manipulation: tempo alteration. The game alters the music's tempo via unpredictable patterns, and the tempo is also used to alter the game's accelerometer sensitivity threshold. If a player's sudden movement causes that threshold to be exceeded, the system shuts down the violating controller and the player is "out."

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J.S. Joust

Like The Marriage, J.S. Joust sports a small system with few instantial assets upon which a large number of manipulations are conducted, relatively speaking. Wilson may prefer to evaluate a game from the social rather than the systems perspective, but process intensity is a feature of systems. And as far as things go, J.S. Joust is a work quite high in process intensity. It's just one in which players' freedom of movement within the experience is less determined than it is in other high process intensity works, like the strategy games of Crawford's early career.

In his eagerness to oppose process in favor of media, Wilson takes the instantial and procedural aspects of games to be more separate than they really are. Thus, when he argues that J.S. Joust's music "cannot simply be viewed as a formal element 'subordinate' to the game rules", he misses the fact that the music is inextricably and delightfully enmeshed in those rules by means of its rhythmic, computational manipulation.

The result of this manipulation provides important player feedback regarding the freedom of movement currently possible within the confines of the Move controller's accelerometer measures. It's certainly true that "music can play just as important a role in shaping how players act and perform", but in J.S. Joust's case, the shaping of that performance is not satisfactorily explained through the mere presence of a musical asset.

Wilson also cites the cultural significance of the Brandenberg Concertos as evidence of the game's resistance to process intensity, correctly noting that this purportedly high-culture classical piece becomes silly in the context of an absurdist party game. But such a feature is entirely compatible with the game's procedural aesthetics: a process intensive work is one with a high crunch per bit ratio, but by no means one that rejects the cultural force of instantial assets. The tight coupling of Bach's music (data) with an aggressive, competitive physical system (process) helps create the end result Wilson rightly celebrates.

Most of the procedurally-leaning design philosophies Wilson opposes already endorse such a blended view. Crawford wasn't calling for the elimination of instantial assets, but for an emphasis on processes in relation to them. Likewise, when Brathwaite places sculptural or physical elements around her games, she affirms that the game is a system and a sculpture: a system-sculpture. And for my part, I've advocated for a tight coupling between procedural and thematic elements in games as a necessary aesthetic strategy for communicating systemic ideas.


Process Intensity vs. Player Experimentation

Now let's take up Wilson's second complaint with process intensive game design: that it limits player experimentation and self-definition, focusing on the designed object too much and the player experience too little.

On first blush, this seems like a strange objection. After all, highly systemic games like the strategy titles Crawford and Costikyan design demand more numerous and more meaningful player decisions than rail shooters or narrative adventure games. What seems to bother Wilson is that those choices themselves are constrained by particular rule-sets. A strategy game like Balance of Power only allows the player to make the choices allowed by the system.

Unlike Thatgamecompany and Tale of Tales, Wilson is clearly in favor of goals and competition in games, and both B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust are far more brutally competitive than many so-called "proceduralist" games, including those of Humble, Brathwaite, and Crawford.

From Wilson's perspective, his games are "low process intensive" because they encourage players to negotiate "house rules" by which to manage the experience of play.

Since the system responds to a small fraction of player acts -- pressing a button, or exceeding an accelerometer threshold -- Wilson concludes that these games encourage and even demand personal and social negotiation: "J.S. Joust requires it players to gauge an appropriate intensity of physical play. How hard can I push my opponent? Will they mind if I try to kick them?"

This kind of experience may or may not be up your alley, but certainly Wilson and his collaborators have found an aesthetic that is unique and appealing to many. B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust offer small, simple designs that operate on a relatively small, even if aesthetically important, textual, graphical, and sonic instantial assets.

But, both games create their unique open social-code driven play experiences by means of very small system designs, using just enough multimedia materials to glue the whole thing together. They are neither multimedia games nor are they games without system design. Johann Sebastian Joust in particular exhibits this sort of high process intensity.

Even so, such a conclusion doesn't offer sufficient explanation for these games' considerable aesthetic appeal, which is related to Wilson's preference for a more open player experience. Instead of the ratio of process to instance, instead of the rejection of process as structure, it's the ratio of computer process to social process that makes these games unique. They offer a tiny system design that affords significant freedom for player behavior.

We might call such works games of social experimentation, for their primary aesthetic force arises from social behavior inspired by a specific system. Wilson's games offer an even more specific take on that invitation: they couple tiny systems which respond very selectively to player input to a hybrid play space that is nevertheless mediated by a recontextualized game interface (the Xbox or Move controller). Spontaneity, surprise, confusion, and disruption often result from plays of these games -- results that can be truly delightful for players and spectators who are not alienated by the particular social taste such experiences demand.

Wilson's games exemplify one type of social experimentation in games, but other styles also exist. For example, games like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Spore also offer weird spaces for individual and collective social experimentation.

Minecraft and Spore do so through tools for social creation. The construction system in Minecraft and the editing systems in Spore allow players to create environments and objects that operate within each game's larger simulation, but which also exceed the system's capacity for understanding player input, just as J.S. Joust does, albeit in a different manner.

A Spore creature that looks like Homer Simpson or a Minecraft shelter that doubles as an analog computer -- these player activities exceed the game system's capacity for understanding, even as that system can respond to the aspects of those creations that are captured in its simulation. They function in the players' social space in addition to the games' simulation space.

Likewise, Grand Theft Auto and its open-world kin provide a simulated virtual environment in which players can devise their own activities within the confines of the simulation. An early example of this kind of social experimentation is documented in Jim Munroe's machinima film My Trip To Liberty City a video travelogue of his effort to behave like a Canadian tourist in GTA III's Liberty City. In any case, everyone who has played GTA or Crackdown or Skyrim has experimented with wandering around the city and watching the sunset.

What of the game systems that facilitate such weird experiences? Open world games contain considerable quantities of instantial assets in the form of 3D models and animations, but they also contain a great deal of computation necessary to simulate a weirdly credible if incomplete virtual world. There are a lot of assets in GTA, but there are a lot processes as well -- that's what creates the experience of a reasonably credible, lived-in environment. If J.S. Joust exemplifies a high process intensity social experimentation game in the one style, then perhaps Grand Theft Auto offers an example in another style, at least when played in that fashion and shared among a community.

Still, such a distinction is necessary but not sufficient to characterize the social experimentation design space. J.S. Joust also plays with video game conventions themselves, repurposing controllers in unexpected ways, and it focuses on extra-computer, physical activity rather than computationally-mediated exploration or creation. Many factors are at play, not just process intensity and social design.

A social experimentation perspective might also partly explain the appeal of games like The Graveyard, Endless Forest, and Proteus: they dare to offer the open-world experience without any of the missions or goals that would ally them with the less flexible adventure games that bother Crawford and Wilson alike. Still, all three of those games make fewer invitations for social experimentation than does J.S. Joust, and in that respect it's possible that a low- or no-goal environmental game may offer less purchase on the aesthetics of social experimentation than a competitive or collaborative game that seeds it with a specific -- if loose and open -- invitation.

Computer Games Have Computers In Them

When advocates of process intensity advance procedurality as the defining feature of computation, they do so because computers are programmable, electronic machines that process information. There are many ways to make use of or ignore the data storage or the data processing capacity of computers, but fundamentally, at some level, every computer game has a computer in it somewhere.

That computer might be conducting very little procedural work from the perspective of the player, but it might still be processing intensely at a deeper level, for example through real-time 3D rendering (Dear Esther) or sensor transmission and reception (J.S. Joust). When push comes to shove, there's just no avoiding procedurality when we make things for computers.

When creating specific works of computational media with specific tools and specific goals, the creator can choose how procedural or instantial an experience to create. There are low and high process intensive games by design and by accident. But the creation of a small system at the level of game design -- for example, the system of behaviors in games like J.S. Joust or Proteus -- does not involve a rejection of rules, processes, or systems so much as the tight and deliberate construction of a system that fashions a loose play space open to a variety of player actions.

Games create play by setting up situations bounded by constraints; the exact combinations of these ingredients, both formally and aesthetically speaking, vary widely. It's possible for one designer to create a small, tight system that advances an argument, idea, or representation, and for another designer to create a small, open system that invites unexpected player negotiation with it.

Johann Sebastian Joust is a superb example of high process intensity, high social experimentation game design. Surely there are other such games waiting to be made, many of which will have been inspired by Wilson's model. But rather than offering an antidote to process intensity, J.S. Joust demonstrates the surprisingly diverse power of process intensity.

Wilson takes the "abdication of authorship" positions advocated by Doug Church, Clint Hocking, and others to their logical extreme: for him, limiting player behavior to pre-determined moves is unappealing. Yet, all games limit player behavior in some way -- that's part of what makes them playable. J.S. Joust demands that players negotiate social interaction as a part of play. Such a demand is just as empowering (or repressive) as any other. But that's what games demand, that players submit themselves to the experience of a foreign system.

It's not process intensity that really bothers Wilson, but the inflexibility of certain tightly-designed rule systems: game designs that smother players and reduce rather than expand their available creativity within a particular work. But this aesthetic position isn't just compatible with procedurality -- it also relies on it. In fact, the greatest irony in Wilson's rejection of procedurality is how central the concept is to his particular brand of social game design.

A lightweight system structure is primarily responsible for the aesthetic outcome he celebrates. That system sports a large ratio of assets to processes, which facilitate the social negotiation Wilson values aesthetically. Indeed, it's possible that the most socially experimental games, from J.S. Joust to Minecraft embrace smaller system designs that tend toward higher process intensity. While games that celebrate loose social experimentation with truly low process intensity designs might be possible, I doubt they are likely.

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