Actions, Verbs, and Processes: Games and Being Human

2019-07-31 · by Sharang Biswas
tagged Blog / Columns

Piled in a corner, at the nexus of walls and floor, are hundreds of multicolored pieces of candy. The cellophane wrappers glint in the light. Your docent invites you to take one. To eat part of this sculpture, to slowly diminish its weight until, dozens and dozens of visitors later, there’s little left of the original pile. As you consume the candy, as you squeeze it between your tongue and your palate, suck on it using the fleshy walls of your inner cheek, and crush down with sharp teeth, the docent tells you about the artwork. Created by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, it is known as “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” [1]. Ross, the artist’s lover, died of AIDS-related complications. The disease slowly consumed his body. It squeezed the fat from his torso, sucked his immune system away, and crushed his white blood cells. It did what you are doing to him right now.

Some people spit out the candy.

In the evening, museum technicians refill the pile to an exact 175 lbs., Ross’s ideal body weight. Perhaps this rejuvenative act grants Ross perpetual life. Or perhaps it chains him to corner like Prometheus, whose liver was devoured every morning by an eagle only to regrow overnight for another day’s gruesome snack.

Eat. Regenerate. Eat. Regenerate. The cycle of actions is Art.

* * *
In his influential book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost talks about videogames as a “subcategory of procedural expression” [2]. By “procedure,” Bogost clarifies, he refers not to the term’s common meanings—with its computational or bureaucratic connotations—but the more general idea of “process”. The book is largely about how videogames (and I would say all games, by extension) can convey meaning through process. Bogost would argue that that the processes players carry out, the actions that they take part in, the verbs they engage with: these comprise the hallmark of a game. Their presence is what differentiates games from other forms of media. Within a verb, within the act of doing something, lies tremendous communicative and artistic potential.

At the inaugural Narrascope conference at MIT earlier this year, Aaron Zemach delivered a primer on drama theory. Synthesizing an array of thinkers, from Aristotle to David Ball, Zemach discussed the primacy of the “action” in a play and how a play is a series of actions, verbs, or processes that convey meaning to an audience. A playwright never writes moral quandaries, internal thoughts, or dramatic conflict, Zemach argued. They can only craft a sequence of actions that produce these metaphysical phenomena in the minds of the audience. He then extended his thoughts to games: “It’s easy to figure out a moral argument by looking at which actions were rewarded and which actions punished.” [3]

Even if Zemach hadn’t been explicitly drawing parallels between theatre and games, the connection between his and Bogost’s thoughts on the semiotic function of action and process is particularly glaring. Be it through the meatspace actions taken by players in LARPs, actions in the psychic space of tabletop roleplaying games, or those encased in the silicone back-end of interactive fiction, the verbs we partake in during our gaming activities become powerful vectors of emotion and meaning. This may partly explain why the “illusion of choice” (or “dream of possibility’ [4]) model for interactive stories work so well. Noting the correlation between an action and its consequence appears to be less important than simply taking the action itself.

* * *
Artists, game designers, and writers of interactive fiction thus have a rich palette with which to express their ideas. Some have taken more unconventional routes.

Zoe Quinn’s interactive story Depression Quest is famous for providing readers with choices that are crossed out and inaccessible. The choices are dangled tantalizingly in front of players but are forever out of reach. Are they even real choices? By deliberately showing players what they cannot do, Quinn attempts to convey how depression can render one powerless to perform even basic functions [5].

In the award-winning tabletop RPG Bluebeard’s Bride, designers Sarah Richardson, Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, and Marissa Kelly pointedly strip the player character, a bride wandering through the folklore-villain Bluebeard’s house, of agency and ability. No matter how plucky or bold players decide their bride is going to be, their actions continue to prove futile. Their rules even prompt the game master to actively comment on the players’ lack of strength, ability and choice, in order to reinforce themes of feminine horror and female powerlessness [6].

Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu’s widely lauded LARP Sign forces players to convey complex emotional truths via pantomime and a crude, improvised sign language—no talking or writing allowed. If you grow frustrated about your signs not being understood, you have to mark yourself in ink, a bodily reminder of your inabilities. The game conveys the frustrations that come with simply trying to be understood by others, while also giving players some idea of the challenges facing deaf children in Nicaragua in the 70s. [7]

The choices in Laura Michet’s interactive story Swan Hill focus more on the setting and emotions than on your actions. You do make decisions about what to do, but many of the interactive, clickable elements are about changing the scenery or your interpretation of the scenery. Michet weaves a tale of nostalgia, guilt, and regret by making you choose how to look at your present surroundings and their relationship to your past.[8]

* * *
Humans are obsessed with doing. We recognize and identify with this trait so much that it has become almost a cliché in fiction: that of all the sentient species in a fantasy world, humans are the most industrious. “Perhaps it is because of their shorter lives,” reads the 5th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, “that they strive to achieve as much as they can in the years they are given.” [9]

Consume. Build. Consume. Build. The cycle of actions is humanity.

Maybe it’s for the best that games overload action with meaning. Maybe games can help us pause in our voracious appetite for doing, pause and think about the candy we’re eating, even if it means spitting it out.


Works Cited

[1] F. Gonzalez-Torres, Artist, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). [Art]. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1991.

[2] I. Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

[3] A. Zemach, All the World’s a Screen: How Improv and Playwriting Can Inform Digital Narrative, Cambridge, MA: Narrascope Conference, 2019.

[4] S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” Sub-Q, February 2019. Available: https://sub-q.com/rituals-cheating-and-the-dream-of-possibility/.

[5] Z. Quinn, “Depression Quest,” 14 February 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.depressionquest.com/.

[6] W. Beltrán, M. Kelly and S. Richardson, Bluebeard’s Bride, Magpie Games, 2017.

[7] K. Hymes and H. Seyalioglu, Sign: A Game About Being Understood, Thorny Games, 2012.

[8]L. Michet, “Swan Hill,” 2012. [Online]. Available: https://lauramichet.itch.io/swan-hill.

[9] J. Wyatt, R. J. Schwalb and B. R. Cordell, Player’s Handbook, Seattle: Wizards of the Coast, 2014.


Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find him on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website https://sharangbiswas.myportfolio.com/ , or on his Itch IO page https://astrolingus.itch.io/

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