Reason and repetition (part 1)

Repetition with variation is a common aesthetic concern in many art forms (music, painting, dance, theater, film, etc.). Presuming interaction(s) include, involve, or are entirely constituted of actions, we can ask questions about how actions might repeat with variation. This would provide a fairly traditional  question for analyzing an otherwise novel form (interaction). How then can actions repeat with variation? What is it to do the same thing but differently? Below is a start to exploring these questions.

The causal theory of action provides a few dimensions by which to consider repetition with variation: the causal chain of the action and the precipitating (or guiding) beliefs and desires, i.e. reasons. I’ll save the causal chain for another day and start with what may be more peculiar—variation in reason.

Assuming that an action is the action that it is with respect to the motivating or guiding reasons, we might bodily ‘do’ the same thing in two cases with the same equipment with the same consequences but perform two different actions by virtue of having different reasons. For example, in a fighting game, I might press a button causing a character to throw a punch. The first time I throw a punch my reason may be to attack the other player. If I learn though that the punch depletes my stamina and the stamina cost is less than a kick attack, I can perform a related but different action: I can conserve stamina by way of attacking with a punch instead of a kick.

In both cases I invoke the same chain of consequence but there is a distinction by virtue of my reasons. In the first case the stamina consequence might be better described as a side effect—its happening was outside the scope of my desired outcomes; I had no beliefs (or desires) with regards to stamina. In the second case the stamina cost of the punch was an understood factor in the chain of consequence I invoked. As such the action was different.

The relationship of side-effects to actions is an interesting topic that I’ll have to mostly table for now. I do have one thing to touch on though regarding ambiguity. It seems possible to anticipate some results in general but not in detail. For example, I could believe a box will break into pieces when struck and desire it to break into pieces when struck but have no specific desires or beliefs about the specifics of how it will break into pieces or where those pieces might go flying exactly. In this way I could repeat a box breaking action but with variation due to the ambiguity of my beliefs and desires about the specifics of the box breaking. Moreover, I might never be able to formulate more specific beliefs and desires about the breaking box. And so while I could repeat the very same box breaking action the ambiguity of my reasons would admit for variation. (I must admit that I have no idea if traditional philosophical discussions of beliefs and desires admit any kind of uncertainty, ambiguity, probability or other kind of vagueness. As such, the reader should note that I may be abusing these notions here.)

Back to the stamina relationship.

The understanding of the stamina relationship would also create unity between actions, allowing a player to look at punches and kicks as variations of single ‘stamina management’ action.

We can imagine gameplay experiences involving repetition with variation as the player identifies and appropriates side effects into their desires. In many games it’s not uncommon to develop a better understanding of the system such that various outcomes shift from surprises to desired results. As the player plays, they engage the same causal chains but with variation as their beliefs and desires become more sophisticated. We might say player reasons ‘inflate’; where these mental states begin as ideas about immediate results and ultimate game outcomes, they inflate to include more colorful, detailed, and intermediate reasons.

The focus on reason variation also foregrounds desires and beliefs as entities for designerly influence. This is to say that a designer could, through narrative elements and the like, aim to influence a player’s desires and beliefs over the course of a game so as to recast the same set of available casual structures in different ways. The Flash game Don’t Shoot the Puppy might provide a silly example. In each level there is only one causal chain to invoke: moving the cursor causes a puppy to be shot (and the game to end). In a sense, the player only has one game relevant intentional action, wait. However, many of the levels consist of increasingly elaborate attempts at convincing the player otherwise—that moving the cursor will achieve some other end. In this way, the designers play at influencing our beliefs about the causal system with the result of variations on the waiting action. Of course the game also varies the duration of the necessary waiting, which has much more to do with the causal chain itself.

What I’ve talked about so far just seems to fall out of smashing a causal theory of action against the aesthetic idea of repetition with variation. But I haven’t yet encountered any philosophy of action literature that deals with aesthetic implications. So if you know of something I’m ignorant of, drop a reference in the comments. In contrast, I am familiar with game literature that talks about action, but there are discrepancies in action definitions that will need their own space to untangle.

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