Home About EIS →

Kosmosis – Procedural rhetoric gone wrong (as usual)

kosmosis_gameplayMolleindustria recently created a new game prototype called Kosmosis: “A COMMUNIST SPACE SHOOTER AS AN ARCADE GAME FROM AN ALTERNATE PRESENT WHERE NON-DEGENERATED SOCIALIST VALUES ARE HEGEMONIC.”  The game was created as an entry for the Experimental Gameplay Project competition titled “Unexperimental Shooter.”  Molleindustria are known for tackling controversial subjects including free culture and religious hatred and are some of the few people who create games from the “message up” (i.e. design with procedural rhetoric in mind).

Interpreting game mechanics is a passion of mine and thus I have strong opinions about the faults and outright failure of most attempts at wrangling procedural rhetoric.  Unfortunately, Molleindustria ‘s recent attempt at creating a shmup that subverts the war machine ended up with unconvincing and problematic procedural messages that almost completely rely on verbal rhetoric (i.e. skinning as usual).

In Kosmosis, the player controls the “vanguard” that is controlled with the arrow keys.  The vanguard can touch passive members of the proletariat and awaken them to follow his movements.  The group is held together by a flocking behavior where as the group grows bigger the cohesion to the vanguard’s movements weaken (thus giving incentive to not move too fast or suddenly).  Other passive entities in this universe are green diamonds which are said to represent the “reactive war machine.”  All prolets which are touched by these war machines are destroyed.  At any point, the vanguard/player can press the space bar and turn the amassed prolets and himself into a swirling yellow cyclone which can destroy the war machines.

First of all, I really want to stress how much I appreciate Molleindustria ‘s repeated attempt at representing theories through abstract game mechanics (see their Free Culture Game for another example).  Also, because of the game’s highly abstract representation layer, I forgive the outright description of the game’s message and entities (much like how Rod Humble’s The Marriage is best after reading the intended meaning first).

That said, even once I assume the assigned roles and meanings of the colored shapes, the game hardly presents a hegemonic set of non-degenerated socialist values and actually has the player enact several (almost cliché) criticisms of socialism.

All space prolets are floating through space and take no action until they are touched by the vanguard.  This idleness, along with the ease to which the vanguard can awaken the prolets, gives the sense that the player is more powerful and important than the thoughtless prolets.  The prolets will stray and follow a different vanguard if the player moves too fast.  It isn’t clear to me what this symbolizes, but here are some possibilities: the prolets don’t want to be pushed around, or maybe that they are lazy and don’t want to run too fast, or perhaps this even symbolizes how human beings don’t like to know they are being influenced and require a sneaky ideologue to determine their actions (thank god that sneaky manipulator is you!).  The process of unleashing the power of the masses for an attack also promotes the same follow-the-leader message as the proletariat conversion process.  All in all, the game appears to promote the idea that man is helpless without the right leadership (which the player represents).  This comic comes to mind.

The mechanics involving the war machines lead to more confusion and unintended/unconvincing messages.  The war machines are said to be reactionary, but are actually just as immobile as the unconverted prolets.  Avoiding them is trivial.  In other words, they hardly represent a horrible insidious war machine that one would want to amass an army of brainless masses to destroy.  They are more akin to blackberry bushes in a wide open field.  Not even that; blackberry bushes grow out of control and need to be trimmed, these green diamonds just slowly float by.

The game excelled at communicating about leadership in general, but failed to actually make any worthwhile claim about the supposed dangers of capitalism, the war machine or socialism.  The last is forgiven as the game did set out to take these values for granted in an alternate reality (i.e. no worthwhile statement necessary).  But all that is known about the war machines is that you need to destroy them.  At least in America’s Army the faceless enemy is trying to kill you.

All in all, the message of Kosmosis is: use your abnormal special abilities to amass an army and destroy the enemy.  In other words, it is a lot like every other war game.  The game set out to present non-degenerated socialist values but only managed to procedurally express only the most degenerated of messages through gameplay.

Designing procedural messages is hard!  I admit that there are many other ways one could understand this game, but these (mis)interpretations were not that hard to make.  Despite my critical review, I think Molleindustria are pioneers and love how they are pushing their agenda.  I send major high fives for creating a game that even provoked discussion of this sort in the first place, but I still hang my head in sadness that there are so few example of games that effectively utilize procedural expression.


About the author:  Mike Treanor is a game designer and PhD student studying at UC Santa Cruz. His work focuses on how to interpret and express ideas with playable media. Read more from this author


This entry was posted in Academics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

15 Comments

  1. Posted July 27, 2009 at 1:57 PM | Permalink

    “A COMMUNIST SPACE SHOOTER AS AN ARCADE GAME FROM AN ALTERNATE PRESENT WHERE NON-DEGENERATED SOCIALIST VALUES ARE HEGEMONIC.”

    Sounds like a riff on High Exalted Dreadlord Professor Elliot McGucken’s patent for EXALTED GOLDEN GUN GAME KILL COMMUNIST VAMPIRE ZOMBIE SOCIALISTS. Definitely falls under the rubric of “procedural response” piece.

  2. Martin Jennings-Teat
    Posted July 27, 2009 at 6:51 PM | Permalink

    But (not having played the game), it does sound like there are a few positive interpretations as well. For instance, the enemies cannot be defeated by the vanguard alone, so popular action is required for victory. Also, the slow movement of the proletariat could be interpreted (less cynically) as intelligent critical thought requiring logical persuasion rather than quickly whipping them up into a mob.

    Your statements about the procedural rhetoric are all valid, and I’m glad you posted your interpretation, but I thought it might be useful to share another possibility as well.

    Mike, what are your thoughts on procedural rhetoric’s ability to narrow the possible interpretations down to an intended argument? Is representation layer rhetoric also necessary to prevent these differing takes on the message of the game, or is this particular abstract example just unclear in it’s procedural presentation of the intended argument?

  3. Posted July 28, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Permalink

    I have to admit I have sort of the same problem with all of the Molleindustria games. I admire that they are engaging with complex political ideas in their games, and they seem to be embedding this engagement in the heart of the gameplay, not just on the game’s surface, which in theory is good. But the results never work for me. I’ve never felt like I’ve learned something or confronted a new idea or seen things from a new perspective or experienced any other “rhetorical” effects.

    The McDonald’s game, for example, works a little bit like an Ad Busters style “media-jamming” prank I guess, sort of. But the only rhetorical effect I experience from actually playing that game is the sensation of having my pre-existing opinions lovingly massaged while I play a game. It actually made me *less* sympathetic to standard, off-the-shelf critiques of the fast-food industry, that can’t have been their goal.

  4. Posted July 28, 2009 at 7:13 AM | Permalink

    Indeed, Frank, many players seem to react to the McDonald’s Game with a feeling of pity or even empathy: running a multinational business is hard!

    Perhaps the problem is in asking the rhetoric to persuade. Maybe that’s not what Kosmosis does. Perhaps it’s more like procedural allegory.

  5. paolo
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 7:52 AM | Permalink

    Hey, good analysis.
    A couple of integrations.

    To put it straight: the notion of vanguard in the game is the Leninist one. Lenin advocated the formation of vanguard parties (intellectuals) that were meant to “awake” the proletariat dumbed by a false class consciousness functional to the bourgeoisie. In a way, it’s how you described it and it’s not really a clichè. This notion is quite controversial, has been discussed for a century and it’s generally rejected by anti-autoritarians. But it’s not exactly the “follow the leader” thing, which is the degenerate idea (Stalinist), since the vanguard was supposed to have an instrumental role in the revolution and to not crystallize into some kind of bureaucratic class or be replaced by an authoritarian leader.

    Then yes, it’s about amassing forces and destroying the enemies (it’s not a pacifist shooter) except the process of accumulation jeopardizes the player’s agency and control over the NPC making him/her more mass than leader. That’s basically the gimmick, but you get it only if you play the game for a while.

    The “converted” prolets are not really brainless since they swarm avoiding the objects and attacking the enemies pretty much as the player does.

    The *fictional* persuasive goal of the game was not to outline the dangers of capitalism, which is taken for granted as part of the premise (the hegemonic values etc…) but to mock the agitprop style that is often not very articulated in the critique of the status quo. Consider the famous painting “Beat the whites with the red wedge” by El Lissitzky for example (the whites are the reactionaries).

    Finally, you’re right about the stillness of the enemy, it’s a flaw rhetorically speaking but it was a necessary condition for playability given the other elements, same thing for the speed differential between vanguard and prolets.
    And this is the really interesting and tricky part, ’cause when the player recognizes the game as meaningful / persuasive (basically recognizing that it’s pointing to something outside the game world) he/she will tend to interpret all the elements and the mechanics as rhetorical devices, even the ones that in the mind of the designer were just meant to keep some kind of balance in order to make the game vaguely compelling.
    The risk of over interpretation is always there (if Mickey Rourke stands for the US in the movie the Wrestler who the hell is the stripper? Canada?) but it seems even more likely to happen with nonlinear texts. Ah, procedural rhetoric is a bitchy monster that nobody should ever evoke.
    P

  6. Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:15 AM | Permalink

    Ian, I don’t expect the game’s rhetoric to persuade, I’m looking for them to have any perceivable rhetorical effect at all.

  7. paolo
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 12:13 PM | Permalink

    “Indeed, Frank, many players seem to react to the McDonald’s Game with a feeling of pity or even empathy: running a multinational business is hard!”

    Actually I never got this particular feedback but it makes some sense. People reacted to that game in all sorts of ways, I’ve received emails by kids who were inspired to put up a website or to do some counter-information activities, teachers using it to introduce to globalization issues, people upset because of the depiction of animal cruelty or outraged by some curse words in the tutorial, people who simply got hungry after playing. And there are obviously a lot of brainwashed morons than are upset by everything vaguely opinionated or political, everything that is not presented as fair, objective, reliable and balanced as in mainstream media. And there have been also several companies interested in a game “like Mcdonald’s” but – guess what – without the negative externalities and unethical choices.
    Political subjectivity and the way we make sense of messages emerge from an unmeasurable accumulation of experiences, only marketers and no-profits like to believe that a specific cultural object thrown in the media can provoke a specific predictable action (buy / donate).

  8. Posted July 28, 2009 at 2:30 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for the replies.

    Martin: I have been thinking a lot about the different possible interpretive levels with games recently. I know this is pretty much an unsolvable problem in all matters of interpretation, but what entry point/level of perception do you choose to take on when ascribing meaning to something? In response to Simon Ferrari’s analysis of September 12th (where he proposed that the game could be interpreted to be saying that we need more ground troops), I suggested that this is where the representation layer needs to do some talking. If a game is going to be anti-war, it needs to ‘feel’ anti-war.

    Frank: Your quote pretty much sums up my opinions: “But the only rhetorical effect I experience from actually playing that game is the sensation of having my pre-existing opinions lovingly massaged while I play a game.” The difference is that I mostly find myself aggressively disagreeing with Paolo’s opinions, so the “massaging” ends up being more like sandpapering my skin off.

    Paolo: Nice to meet you. I’ve very much been enjoying following your work! Your intended meaning makes some sense (barring the theory itself, that is!). Something I don’t think I stressed enough in my interpretation is that this was intended to be propaganda, so clearly it isn’t going to be rock solid.

  9. Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:37 PM | Permalink

    “Actually I never got this particular feedback but it makes some sense.”

    Paolo I think Ian was being facetious, I find it hard to believe that many players come away feeling pity for McDonalds.

    “Political subjectivity and the way we make sense of messages emerge from an unmeasurable accumulation of experiences”

    Well put.

    I think the McDonald’s game is more understandable as a political gesture, as a confrontation and an intervention, than as an statement or argument. It’s like the difference between a speech act and an assertion.

    When I look back at some of the most famous examples of politically engaged culture they often share this characteristic. Very few protest songs, for example, were actually cogent arguments about workers’ rights or pacifism or whatever, most of them were just songs that signalled which side of the argument you were on and thereby reinforced a sense of solidarity and shared purpose.

    The problem is that a game like the McDonald’s Game, because it presents a detailed model representing real-world systems, looks very much like it *should* be making literal claims about the world, like for example “mass-producing beef from cattle inevitably leads to dangerously inefficient use of natural resources”.

    Typically, models are used as evidence to support claims. I can show you with a simplified version of some situation that such-and-such a claim about it is more likely to be true. I can make a miniature window and a miniature cow and we can agree that this model captures some essential qualities regarding the relative size of real cows and windows, and then I can use that model as evidence that a cow could not have snuck in through the window and stolen your pie.

    But the model in the McDonald’s Game doesn’t work this way. At no point do you make any effort to demonstrate that you are actually capturing any essential properties of the system and using that to support a claim. Instead your model is gestural, like the figures in Gurenica, it is a rallying cry, not an argument.

    This is where the confusion lies for me, in this gestural use of models, which normally have a very different rhetorical function and purpose.

  10. Posted July 29, 2009 at 12:22 AM | Permalink

    *Guernica

  11. Posted July 29, 2009 at 1:49 PM | Permalink

    Paolo I think Ian was being facetious, I find it hard to believe that many players come away feeling pity for McDonalds.

    I wasn’t. I’ve heard it more than a few times. Some I’ve read online (not sure where), and I know I’ve heard students make this observation. Interesting huh?

    But the model in the McDonald’s Game doesn’t work this way. At no point do you make any effort to demonstrate that you are actually capturing any essential properties of the system and using that to support a claim. Instead your model is gestural, like the figures in Gurenica, it is a rallying cry, not an argument.

    Well put. Paolo, this does seem to characterize your games to me, too. Oiligarchy for example. I suppose the question we might ask is: so what? Isn’t this a valid design strategy? Perhaps the problem is in reading it as something it is not.

  12. paolo
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 3:23 PM | Permalink

    Typically, models are used as evidence to support claims. But the model in the McDonald’s Game doesn’t work this way. At no point do you make any effort to demonstrate that you are actually capturing any essential properties of the system and using that to support a claim.

    Maybe I’m just too attached to the issue of indexicality but I’ll never ever try to use a digital model or, even worse a game, as evidence to support a claim. Models are engineered, cause and effect relations are implemented by designers. Right, you can throw in some measured quantitative data but one can always claim that the internal relations are biased and elements are missing because a model would never represent the totality of anything. And as opposed to the predictive models (ie the global warming ones) you don’t generally have any reality check.
    Even the most factitious and doctored video documentary has to show some material with some indexical value, a simulation doesn’t, and also assuming you have the source it’s extremely hard to unpack a piece of software to verify and criticize the “claims” embedded in the code. The model-as-evidence can only be a non transparent layer built on top of some sampled data and an arbitrary algorithm we are asked to trust because, you know, we should trust computers and computer people.

    Now the point is: are we going to push this idea of demonstration-by-game (maybe because it can be functional to the glorious rise of a “serious games” industry) or we are going to warn about the risks that this idea implies? I’m an art/deconstrutionist type, I’m committed to the second option and I dare to call it new-media literacy.

    The McDonald VG is a quite straightforward culture jamming thing (in contemporary art we use the word gestural in another way so I’m not sure of what you mean) and it was always presented as a playable translation of a bundle of critiques, starting from the McLibel to all the contemporary literature about meat production. If want to find evidences, and verify claims you gotta go to the sources that are usually books and researches. I can only give you cute virtual cows.

    Secondarily, it was meant to intervene in a debate that was already there and IMHO needed to be reframed. I’m talking about the narrative “fast food is bad because it’s unhealty and it makes you fat”. Very few attempts to popularize anything more “systemic” than that were made until this year, with the great documentary Food inc.

    Same thing with oiligarchy, it was about peak oil implications vs the conservative repackaging of the issue as “energy security” and the reductive oil depletion as higher-gas-prices kind of story.

  13. Posted July 30, 2009 at 9:30 AM | Permalink

    Thanks Paolo, that gives a lot of insight into these questions. I share your skepticism about models-as-rhetoric.

    I think the McDonalds game is most successful in the culture-jamming way you describe.

    I sometimes think that something about games resists and confounds their application within these larger rhetorical contexts. Maybe it is their deep and essential relationship to uncertainty.

    I like that Kosmosis appears to be about this very question!

  14. Mike Treanor
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    A couple of thoughts:
    – I don’t think it is necessary to warn about the risks of demonstration-by-game. Or rather, it frustrates me to even consider catering to people who will accept a game, a book, a painting, a “breaking” news report, etc. as representing the totality of anything. Books, music, games, etc. are assertions that someone holds up to their brain, attempts integration and then evaluates. At least that is what I want to believe. Maybe it is a good mission to warn against demonstration-as-proof, but I personally really want to give people more credit than that.

    – I see your games as “procedurally painting with broad strokes.” At some point, what you, or anyone else, represent with cute cows, or green diamonds, bottom out as assumptions, or representation level, assertions about it works. The details that were “swept under the carpet” in your McDonald’s game seemed insignificant to me and I think it was very successful. Kosmosis and the Free Culture Game confronted me entities that were so loaded with assumptions, that appeared false to me outright, that I felt compelled to challenge them. But as said in the original review, hi5 to you for accomplishing that!

    – I think my primary point in all this is that whether you are trying to present a coherent prescriptive description of Lenin’s socialist theories, or of Free Culture, your system of entities and relationships does carry meaning that translates literally. It is this literal translation that interests me. That being said, I admit that the reframing that your work accomplishes is more readily interpreted by most at this point in time.

  15. Ari
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 6:26 PM | Permalink

    “All prolets which are touched by these war machines are destroyed. At any point, the vanguard/player can press the space bar and turn the amassed prolets and himself into a swirling yellow cyclone which can destroy the war machines.”

    I kinda felt like i was leading an army. In my mind its illogical to leave the war machines there (yes, i understand its just a game.) but when you destroy them you lose your army.
    Until recognizing what a true “swarm” was, did i then initiate trying to make the swarm larger. Which made me see metaphorically, that if by doing so, it was kind of like making new friends.
    though in theory, that would mean leaving the war machines, which looks like plain ignorance to me.
    There doesn’t seem to be any balance.
    By being the vanguard; are you their leader? or their god? or are you “One with the prolets”?
    Also, do you have to destroy the war machines?
    i see it as; as long as you can avoid them, then why destroy them?
    because you can? or because you want to?
    Also metaphorically because you want to protect your friends.

    However it sounds point is, in my opinion; Cool Game.
    You were able to create something both entertaining and worth while.
    By playing this game, i have thought outside of the box.
    its not just a game to me; its Philosophy.
    I’m sure I’ll return to play this game, and each time I’ll have learned something new.

    Keep up the awesome work, i hope to see new games to learn from again.