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Investigating Procedural Expression and Interpretation in Videogames


What a videogame is about is not easy to say. While existing theoretical approaches can help us understand games as narratives or generally cultural artifacts, it can be argued that the unique aspect of games is that they are comprised of processes and new theoretical tools and design approaches are needed if we want to utilize this feature of the medium. This dissertation develops and applies the claims of those who espouse the virtues of a procedurally oriented approach toward design and interpretation.

The contributions of this dissertation take the form of theoretical investigations and media artifacts that explore how videogames are both expressive and representational. The first investigation claims that what a game represents is grounded in patterns of abstract game rules and a player's beliefs about a game's visuals. This theoretical framework informed the creation of Game-O-Matic, a game generation tool that is able to generate simple games about subjects. The second investigation claims that more complex systems of rules are best understood through experimentation leading to an understanding of the game's representational principles. This approach informs a discussion of the creation of the social simulation game Prom Week, which uses simulation to represent a theory of social interaction in which the character's social actions are determined by a myriad of varied and complex reasons. The third investigation concludes that accounting for an individual player's subjectivity is essential when discussing what a game is about. A "proceduralist" position is then defined as someone who prioritizes a comprehensive account of a game's processes which can aid in the discovery of new representational affordances for games.

The insights and conclusions of this dissertation resulted from a methodology that embraces both humanistic investigation and technical research (critical technical practice). By developing theories and having these theories drive technical practice that result in art works, insights are presented about the relationship between instantial assets and rules, complex simulations and representation, and why players understand games differently.

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