Proust Was a … Game Designer? (Games Design, Research, and the “Fourth Culture”)

Firstly, you’ll have to excuse the rather absurd title (the above subtitle is far more accurate), but, I will explain. Despite it having taken me way too long, I recently finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s brilliant debut book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Amazon). I can confidently declare that it has been one of the best, most personally influential books I’ve read for a while.

This is not so much a review of the book, as much as it is a few personal musings on how it has affected my thinking, and, furthermore, how I perceive Lehrer’s central premise to be one which is strongly applicable to game design, and, indeed, games research. Whilst you don’t necessarily need to have read the book in order to  understand this blog post (that is, if it makes any sense at all!), I highly recommend that you do. Again, here it is on Amazon!

Lehrer gives away in the prelude that “the moral of this book is that we are made of art and science”; it is founded on the premise that, when it comes to understanding the human brain, art has quite often “got there first”. Drawing on examples such as George Eliot’s ideas of the malleability of the brain, Paul Cezanne’s work on perception and sight, Igor Stravinsky’s understanding of how the brain processes music, and of course, Marcel Proust’s revelations of the falleability of memory, he shows how such artists have anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience. Indeed, neuroscience is a fascinating subject, and Lehrer writes in a brilliant, accessible style. However,  I won’t be getting into these, which is why I strongly recommend you read the book.

Instead, I found this quite an apt read for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ll preface this with a reminder that I am someone whose own formal higher education has been, more or less, completely technical. I studied  Computer Engineering for four years at university (and obtained my MEng), and prior to that, I did my A-Levels in Physics, Maths, Chemistry – and English Lit. That latter one was not only because I thoroughly enjoyed the subject, but also, due to some vague attempt at ‘rounding out’ my subjects. I have to confess, I’m not sure if I was ever clear, at age 16-18, as to exactly why that was important. I’d say, in fact, that it’s only been over the last couple of years, over the course of my doctorate thus far that this has become apparent. I guess I took a while with my personal journey (and perhaps I’m still on it), in which I eventually conceded to the realization of how inherently interdisciplinary everything really is. Especially, I suppose, when you’re in the realms of video games research, and design.

Games Research and the Fourth Culture

I’ll talk only briefly about this, saving further details of my more recent research for another upcoming post. However, I wanted to draw particular attention to Lehrer’s final chapter of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, in which he provides us with what is essentially an irresistible call to action for the birth of a new, “fourth culture”. This, he argues, should supercede the current “Third Culture“, which strayed from C.P. Snow’s original vision; instead, the current third culture refers to the communication of scientific writing/thinking to the masses (by, for example, those such as Richard Dawkins). Instead, Lehrer writes that a new fourth culture should be one that “seeks to discover relationships between the humanities and the sciences.” In such a culture, “the humanities must engage sincerely with the sciences”, and “at the same time, the sciences must recognise that their truths are not the only truths.”  He states that this culture is much closer in concept to Snow’s original definition. He writes:

“[the fourth culture] will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience… This is what our third culture should be about. It should be a celebration of pluralism.”

I would assert that games research is perhaps exemplary of this kind of pluralism.

When I first set out on my PhD, I immediately found myself in a very interdisciplinary sort of environment. My peers were from all sorts of backgrounds; such is the nature of the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth.  Back then, although my broad subject area was more or less the same, (well, very, very broadly, I guess) I wanted to measure things, precise things, and record them. I wanted things to fit into neat, quantifiable boxes. I wasn’t even a scientist by training, but an engineer, and thought, logically, that these could be the only sort of truths. However, I was also simultaneously very aware that ‘Game Studies’ as a wider field seemed impossibly filled with humanities and social science scholars. I will confess, I was minimally irked by this at first, though later, realised that this was probably because I had realised that I had a lot to learn. Two years later, I’ve decided that whilst empiricism is still compelling, I did realise that it is, of course, not the only answer, particularly when we are considering the experiential aspects of playing video games, as I now am. After all, as Lehrer writes, and is, essentially, the very core of Proust Was a Neuroscientist:

“Scientists describe our brains in terms of its physical details: they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not the machine). It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

Mirroring this, I am much more interested now in the experience, the way we feel when we play. For this reason, at the same time as I’m hacking hardware and programming and doing practical things, I’m also currently planning research methodologies beyond that of scientific reductionism; that is, of mixed-methods, and of phenomenology. Of course, I am not saying that a strictly scientific empirical approach is wrong; and neither, indeed, is a strictly theoretical, humanities-based approach. As Lehrer states, “Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural.”

Which way? Originally from engadget it appears, but I got this from @bokista on Twitter!

Game Design and The Fourth Culture

Just as I’ve found pluralism in my research methodologies, similarly, I would argue that game design itself is also a kind of celebration of pluralism. Or, at least, it should be. Games are, to varying degrees, about taking what are essentially mathematical and logical constructs, and from this, eliciting an experience.

After all, what are games, really? We can argue that they are equally the machine code, the physical or virtual ‘packaging’ they may come in, or the feeling of engagement and fun that they give rise to. Where, in all of these components, does the ‘game’ really exist, after all? A game is the sum of all of these parts. [Indeed, for more on this you should read Ian Bogosts’ DiGRA keynote on the flat ontology of games].

Games are as much science/engineering as they are an experience. Of course, in many cases, this experience may simply be fun, and that is brilliant and perfectly fine. However, in some cases, rather than fun, a game may intend to offer some kind of other experience, and it’s this I wanted to talk about especially.

My good friend, the very awesome Doris Rusch, spoke at DiGRA 2009 about designing video games which reflect the human condition, in a talk entitled “Mechanisms of the Soul” (you can also download the paper here). As Doris notes, few games currently enhance our understanding of ourselves, or address “the mechanisms of our very souls and how they shape our believes, behaviors and relationships towards the world around us.” It is such games, like many, that I like to think about and try to design. Whilst there are increasing numbers of games which aspire to this, in addition to the oft-cited favourites (e.g. Rohrer’s Passage, Humble’s The Marriage, etc), there is still a long way to go.

Doris, in her paper, goes on to ask how games may indeed ‘step up to the plate’, and in doing so, defines three different ways. These may be summarised thus:

  • Device I “Fictional Alignment” – this focuses on “expanding the emotional palette of games by aligning game structure and fictional theme”, thus eliciting emotional responses from the player. For example, mapping the goals and motivations of the player to that of the avatar.
  • Device II “Procedurality” – this refers to “a games’ potential to make statements about how things work by representing processes with processes”.
  • Device III “Experiential Metaphor” – this addresses “the immediate, emotional comprehension of processes through the game’s aesthetics. Recognizing structural similarities between a gameplay experience and an experience from real life can help us understand the quality of these experiences and make sense of them.” (e.g. as Doris explains, being able to say “this game feels like job-hopping”, etc)

These serve as an excellent starting point for thinking about the subject; as Doris herself states, this is by no means an exhaustive list of how games can reflect the human experience. One may also argue that these devices do not necessarily work in isolation, and any game addressing the human condition may fulfil more than one of these devices.

So where does Proust Was a Neuroscientist fit into all of this, exactly? Well, in recent years, I’ve been more and more interested in addressing games which are, as above, reflective of certain personal experiences; I’ve designed (or at least begun to design) many in this way, though they’ve not necessarily been the sort of thing I would want to release publicly. Such design has been largely a kind of personal therapy.

Only a couple of these games have seen me putting cursor to code at all, not only due to the above reasons, but also due to time constraints. However, there is one in particular, that I’ve resolved to see through to completion this year. I won’t give too much away just yet (though a couple of screenshots are below),  but, as I read Lehrer’s book, I was reminded of the process of designing such a game, one that attempts to tackle a very specific aspect of my human experience, at least. After all, such a process necessitates taking “what reality feels like”, and attempting to translate (though not necessarily reduce) it into rules, into logic, and into code. That is, taking an experiential concept, and proceduralising it. All this requires a plural understanding of science and art. Indeed, Chris Swain, even had a chapter in Game Usability (2008) entitled “The Science Behind The Art of Game Design”, and, it was only after drafting most of this post that I came across these slides by Raph Koster from GDC 2005, entitled: “A Grammar of Gameplay – game atoms: can games be diagrammed”, which, in part (sort of), addresses what I’m trying to get at here. That is, the marriage between the experience and the algorithm.

Mitu's work-in-progress game: screenshot #1
Mitu's work-in-progress game: screenshot #2

I suppose I am advocating here that game design is (or at least can be) a great manifestation of this kind of fourth culture; particularly the sort of game design which some may term “meaningful”; that is, those games which attempt to reflect our conscious, human experience, and what “reality feels like”.

So, back to the clumsy and preposterous title of this post: Proust was a  … Game Designer? Well, no, he wasn’t. Neither were any of the other artists that Lehrer talks about in his wonderful book. However, they were all individuals who, through reflection, presciently understood a very real part of  our human experience, and translated this into a form of art. Games offer an opportunity to do the same, and in order to heed this call, one must understand and be able to connect the reductionist facts of logic, of metrics, and of game science to the human experience, and vice versa.

Game design itself is a celebration of pluralism.