Joy of Games Reading – In Celebration of Low Process Intensity

In Chapter 4 of  Ph.D. dissertation “Designing for Disruption” by Douglas Wilson

“It’s not that play is either rule or non-rule based but a question of whose rules in which contexts.” – – T. L. Taylor (2006, p.157)
“As technologists, then, our concern is not simply to support particular forms of practice, but to support the evolution of practice.” (2004, p.25)


“The places inbetween rules”

Opens with the example of JS joust 

Article Outline:

  • Introduction 
    • 2011 Nordic Game Jam playing John Sebastian Joust
      • goal of game is to be last player remaining
      • slowly approaching one another to try and make the opponents lose
      • game controllers are accelerometer driven
      • up to the players & audience what rules should be / legal processes


  • Outline & method 
    • an extension of past argument that “certain kinds of intentionally ‘broken’ or ‘self-effacing’ games can help nurture a distinctly self-motivated and collaborative form of play”
      • ex: B.U.T.T.O.N
    • Challenges “certain value statements that continue to proliferate in discussions about what games are and how we should make them.”
      • ex:  ” the computer-enacted rule systems that underlie most digitally-mediated games”
        • in order to help identify computer games from other media, “thinkers have often claimed, in some variation, that rules, above all else, are what constitute the “essence” of games


  • 2 Complimentary Case Studies
    • J.S. Joust  &  B.U.T.T.O.N.
      • Both “monitor only a fraction of the actions they instruct” (112)
      • As a design strategy, this conspicuous absence of technological systemization can be understood as an attempt to foreground social context.
      • “I elaborate on the idea of a hame as alibi – as a culturally-recognized excuse to “act out” and play the fool
        • game play is dependent on context & player attitude


  1. Define – Chris Crawford’s notion of “process intensity” & other “proceduralist” positions
    1. how this school of thought advances a # of value judgements about how we should think about & design digital games
  2. Case Studies & the Design thinking that motivated them
  3. using the 2 case studies:
    1. illustrate possible alternative design values
    2. why Wilson’s design approach is not easily reconcilable with the proceduralists
  4. Situate design approach in relation to Grant Kester’s (2004) examination of community based art practices.
    1. what it might mean to reframe game designers as context providers (as opposed to object makers) **
  5. Not only how we might understand games, but also how we might create them.
  6. Claim = ” ‘system-centric perspectives’ on digital games, both popular and academic, unintentionally marginalize a wider diversity of possible alternative approaches to game design.This argument is anchored in the belief that the ways we talk about design, as well as the ways we don’t talk about design, affect the things we make. “
  7. a jumping off point for thinking about digitally mediated gameplay and how we might design for it




  • On Process Intensity & Procedurality


  • Chris-Crawford
  • Chris Crawford‘s notion of “process intensity”  
    • Chris Crawford definition
    • “the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data”
      • data = multimedia elements like graphics, sound, and text
      • process = algorithms that operate on and arrange that data
    • advocates “process-intensive programs” over “data-intensive programs”
    • computation = the essence or “Schwerpunkt” of the computer
    • process intensity = defining measure of “computeriness.”
    • Believes that due to computers ability to enact rules, carry out calculations and present results, that computers are the most suited medium for interactivity
    • thinks that therefore processing power has made games so much more compelling
    • This emphasis on “procedural” capabilities of comp tech has been a common theory of digital media across the board.
    • Many theorists that have tried to articulate the formal properties that separate computer games from other media
    • “eschew data-intensive designs; aspire to process-intensity”
    • Thinks graphics & sound should be secondary to interactivity
    • “the very notion of low-interactivity games is intrinsically wrong-headed”
      • (low interactivity = low process intensity)
      • “Process intensity” is a term popularized by game designer Chris Crawford in 1987. It signifies “the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data” (2003, p.89). “Data” here refers to multimedia elements like graphics, sound, and text, whereas “process” refers to the algorithms that operate on and arrange that data. In his advice to aspiring game designers, Crawford advocates “process-intensive programs” over “data-intensive programs.” As Crawford sees it, computation comprises the very essence, or “schwerpunkt” of the computer. 4 Indeed, he identifies process intensity as the defining measure of “computeriness.” Citing the computer’s ability to enact rules, carry out calculations, and present results, Crawford claims that computers are particularly well-suited for “interactivity” – more so than any other medium. Moreover, he argues that “interactivity” happens to be the very essence of games, “the one element that is more than important, more than necessary, but indeed the entire point and purpose of games” (p.72).5 This observation leads Crawford to formulate a strong compatibility between games and computation. He claims that processing power “made games so much more compelling” (p.73).
    • Murray & Bogost = the proceduralist position
      • the comps ability to execute procedures is a defining if not the defining characteristic of digital media




Janet Murray
  • 4 essential properties of digital media
    • procedural*
    • participatory*
    • spatial
    • encyclopedic
    • * = most fundamental
  • She writes that “The most important element the new medium adds to our repertoire of representational power is its procedural nature, its ability to capture experience as systems of interrelated actions” (p.274).
  • ” aspiring digital media artists, from interactive storytellers to game designers, will ultimately distinguish themselves by harnessing complex algorithmic thinking towards creative ends. “
  • early websites and cd-roms as media scrapbooks
  • should be using its own “intrinisc properties” vs remediating
  • important to id those native properties
    • ex: comps ability to enact procedures
      • i.e. algorithmic complexity
    • almost cybernetic – the task of modeling behaviors and systems




Ian Bogost

  • following Murray’s lead, argues that computer-enacted procedures open up new modes of representation and expression.
  • thinking about videogame rhetoric –  i.e. how games might be used to mount claims about and critique cultural and political values
  • “Procedural Rhetoric”
    • operates through algorithmic processes
    • ex: Animal Crossing models economic life ina way that converys lessons about long-term debt & consumerism
  • Bogost argues that the true “power” of videogames lies not in their narrative, visual, or textual content, but rather in their ability to communicate through procedures. “This ability to execute a series of rules,” he writes, “fundamentally separates computers from other media” (2007, p.4). As Bogost describes it, rules are what “construct the meaning of the game” (2008b, p.121). Videogame play, in this view, can be understood as the manipulation of symbolic systems provided by the game.
  • Subordinate vs Primary properties of the computer


Wilson’s issue with what the proceduralist theories prescribe, implictly & explicitly

*Privileging of systems echoed in game design


  • Tracey Fullerton (2008)
    • “look at the world in terms of its underlying systems”
    • objects, behaviors, and relationships


  • Ernest Adams & Andrew Rollings (2007) 
    • games can be understood as systems of rules
    • “We prefer that you think of a game as an activity because that focuses your attention on the player – the person for whom the game is made – rather than on the rules”
    • “The most important benefit computers bring to gaming is that the computer relieves the players of the burden of personally implementing the rules”
    • discourage certain kinds of designs: “Ambiguous or conflicting rules are a sign of bad game design”


  • Rod Humble (2006)
    • locates rules at the very “center” of game design practice
    • rules are ultimately the only thing needed for a game to “succeed as a work of art


  • Brenda Brathwaite (2010)
    • Own game Train
    • “The rule set […] of any game, is the single most important thing a designer crafts. The rules of the game are the game. The pieces, the parts, the board? The table, computer or console? The graphics, the viewpoint, the angle of the camera? They are all there for one reason only – to allow us to play out the rules. They embody the game, they help to immerse us, but they are not the game. The rules are” (p. 317



  • Serious games
  • Ludology vs narratology debates of the early 00s
  • Proceduralist stance
  • Cybernetics
  • Folk Games
  • Play Theory
  • House Rules
  • phenomenology
  • ethnomethodology
  • process intensity


Arguement for non proceduralism



Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 6.38.34 PM.png

Case study 1: B.U.T.T.O.N.

“In a very obvious way, it’s up to the players to interpret the rules and referee themselves. ”

“Viewed in relation to most conventional videogames, B.U.T.T.O.N. gives a distinct impression of “incompleteness,” as if the system were somehow defaulting on its end of the bargain. We, the players, are forced to pick up the computer’s slack.”

Self effacing in its ambiguity

From an algorithmic standpoint, B.U.T.T.O.N. amounts to little more than a randomized billboard, taking a rudimentary button-press detector and dressing it up with sequences of timed texts. In short, the amount of computational “game logic” has deliberately been minimized.

Some texts, rather than introducing new “game mechanics,” are geared instead at evoking a particular mood or emotion. This especially true of the “socially abusive” content (Wilson and Sicart, 2010), which aims to make players laugh or feel awkward.10


Case Study #2: Johann Sebastian Joust

  • encourages a range of “House Rules”
  • how it evolved from an initial inspiration of “Animal Tracker” a wii party minigame
  • playtesting accelerometer speed
  • too rough
  • magic circle

sound not as a formal “subordinate” to game rules but an essential aspect:

“As in B.U.T.T.O.N., the music in J.S. Joust plays an essential role in setting the tone. The choice of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos was quite deliberate. The playful transgression of listening to the music at such comically slow and fast tempos becomes all the more absurd given that Bach’s music is so renowned and so “high culture.” As such, my claim here is that the music cannot simply be viewed as a formal element “subordinate” to the game rules. Ultimately, J.S. Joust is as much a piece of dance choreography as it is a “game.”13 Moving along to silly music in slow-motion becomes a kind of freeform play, deeply enjoyable in it of itself.14”

As Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) – writing on the relationship between music, media, and his own work – so aptly phrases it: “the soundscape is a palimpsest that encourages play”

Multimedia, Spectacle, and the Art of “Deputizing” Players

  1. First, consumer technologies like game consoles offer a powerful tool for packaging together and presenting compelling multimedia content like graphics, video, music, and text.
    1. The key difference between these two examples and Murray’s multimedia scrapbook is that deliberately low process intensity games signal an acute selfawareness of this fact.
    2. In other words, the bulk of our design challenge resided not in engineering systems of rules, but rather in successfully rallying the players to approach the game with sufficient silliness and self-irony. To this end, graphics, music, and text serve as essential tools for setting the right atmosphere and shaping, however partially, the context in which the game is played.
  2. Second, technologies both old and new can be leveraged to create a visible spectacle.
    1. Even the simple act of registering your controller becomes a pleasurable experience: upon pressing the button, the colored light switches on, accompanied by a satisfying, shimmering sound effect.
    2. Players are often eager to toy around with the controller, regardless of the particulars of the game rules.
    3. how the specialness of the controller can wear off


Paul Dourish (2001)

  • similar critique to HCI theories


Thinking Beyond the System 

A critical shortcoming of these perspectives is that they forget that human beings, too, are good at “interactivity.” When we focus so intently on computation, we risk overlooking alternative views on interaction design. Games like B.U.T.T.O.N. and J.S. Joust foreground how we might conceptualize the computer not as a singular authority tasked with orchestrating interactivity on our behalf, but rather as a material – one that can be shaped by both designers and players.23 The problem with systems-centric theories is that they so frequently neglect (even if they do so unintentionally) these alternative design possibilities, almost as if they didn’t even exist.



Adams & Rolling

“No computer can create absolutely unconstrained play; software can offer the player only the actions that the designer chooses to implement, and the program will always be limited by the amount of memory available” (p.138). Note that in this view, the task of “creating” gameplay is largely framed as a technical challenge – one delegated to the machine.


Leveraging Contexts, Providing Alibis

Bogost, writing on how games can be used to persuade and mount claims, states that “Videogames themselves cannot produce events; they are, after all, representations” (2007, p.332). Perhaps videogames themselves cannot “produce” events, but they can certainly catalyze them. In a certain sense, that’s exactly what games like B.U.T.T.O.N. and J.S. Joust are – eventcatalyzing apparatuses.

Yes, games can push us to reflect and to contemplate. But they can also do much more. They can inspire performance, color social interaction, and give additional texture to interpersonal relationships.

At issue here is a tension between two different views on the craft of digital game design: one which focuses on games as objects (i.e. with formal properties), and one which sees games – even digitally-mediated ones – in terms of performance and interpersonal exchange.2

Drawing inspiration from performance art, community art, and other contemporary art practices, I’d like to suggest that we game designers might alternatively understand ourselves as context providers, rather than as object makers.

WochenKlauser collective example

Conclusion Janet Murray has mused that it is “surprising how often we forget that the new digital medium is intrinsically procedural” (p.71). Today, we might counter that it is even more surprising how often we forget that human beings too can enact procedures – and not only enact them, but also create, change, and argue about them, all with relative ease. As children’s folklorist Linda Hughes (1983) puts it: “Games aren’t much ‘fun’ when rules, rather than relationships, dominate the activity” (p.197). Hughes’ wisdom, more than just an observation about games, can also be adopted as a conscious design ethos. Deliberately low process intensity designs remind us that we need not cede all or even most of our authority to the machine.

The lesson here is straightforward, but bears repeating: there is something crucial that transpires in those in between places, where computational systems run up against other media forms and situated practice. Those designers who make the effort to tackle that betweenness head-on may well discover exciting possibilities for the future of digitally-mediated gameplay – a future that is decidedly performative and readily malleable to our improvisational whims. Like Paul Miller (2004) says: “It’s the twenty-first century. Things should be really wild. Anything else is boring”

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