Selfconscious and Unselfconscious Cultures

August 22nd 2004

From Notes on the Synthesis of Form

by Christopher Alexander

Alexander is making distinctions between ancient forms of design (the ritualised building of houses in primitive cultures) and their modern equivalents (the building of houses designed by architects who are schooled formally by academia). This is a subject which he talks about at length, but the general principle is one that can be directly applied to videogame design.

In the unselfconscious culture the same form is made over and over again and again; in order to learn form-making, people need only learn to repeat a single familiar physical pattern. In the selfconscious culture new purposes are occurring all the time; the people who make the forms are constantly required to deal with problems that are either entirely new or at best modifications of old problems. Under these circumstances it is not enough to copy old physical patterns. So that people will be able to make innovations and modifications as required, ideas about how and why things get their shape must be introduced. teaching must be based on explicit general principles of function, rather than unmentioned and specific principles of shape.

I shall call a culture unselfconscious if it’s form-making is learned informally, though imitation and correction. And I shall call a culture self-conscious if its form-making is taught academically, according to explicit rules.

I would argue that many game designers and development houses are still operating under an unselfconscious system, and I think this type of habit can be damaging to the future of those who use it.

An unselfconscious designer does things because they have always done things that way. They repeat habits and patterns and process without questioning their reasons in each individual application. They tend to do things the same way over and over. They do not apply measurement, science or other academic principles to their work. This makes them dangerously inflexible.

Consider the unselfconscious house builders of Polynesia. The building of a house within that culture is a ritual – everything is done in a traditional way, from the choice of location and the placing of supports to the application of covering materials. Priests and elders are present at every house building, making sure that the process is being carried out according to those traditions. Things are carried out this way ‘because they always have been’ and any attempt to deviate from this ritual is met with serious opposition within the culture.

This process of house building has obviously been very successful – the slow, measured evolution of the form of the houses has meant that no single individual is able to make a design mistake or instigate a dangerous fashion in building. It also functions well in a pre-literate community. The techniques of building are passed on by observation and copying, without the need for detailed plans. This inflexibility can, however also cause problems. If, in a theoretical Polynesia, a sudden change occurred in the climate, the unselfconscious system would not be able to keep up. Heavy rains or snowstorm would not be able to be dealt with by the ritual, as it frowns upon experimentation and the understanding of the specific reasons for the design.

Many game developers show a similar inflexibility in process, and it leads to the same potential for danger. The ‘high priests’ and ‘elders’ observe the development process, and ensure the ritual takes place as they have always done it. Any deviation from the tradition is met by scorn, and most of the time the games produced show a marked similarity to previous products which have used that traditional process. Academic, scientific and analytical techniques are not allowed, as they could call into question the origins of the ritual – the search for true knowledge is withheld and the high priests and elders maintain power.

This process works well if the game development environment is as static as the Polynesian weather. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The videogame market is subject to lurches and shifts, as technology increases in jolts with new hardware cycles. The size of audiences and budgets similarly grows, at an often surprising rate. Similarly the audience is getting older, and old genres and IPs are often not met with the same enthusiasm that they have in the past. Furthermore the videogame market is more and more subject to fickle trends and fashion as it moves into the mainstream.

This is the environment where the unselfconscious designer finds themselves in danger. With the technological and economic environment in flux around them, the ritualised techniques they developed can suddenly become out of date by a serious margin. The habitual and often idiosyncratic systems they have devised over the years no longer achieve the same successes that they have in the past. Games can be developed that are out of date in genre, setting or tone. Technology can be developed in a slapdash or unorganised way which is no longer competitive. As selfconscious developers take the lead, with their use of flexible, modern organisation, an academic approach to technology and content development and the use of formalised communication of ideas within and between teams, the unselfconscious developers find themselves at a loss, scratching around for new ideas and systems, and feeling suddenly vulnerable as the old rituals prove themselves useless.

It is the previously successful organisations and individuals who are most at risk from this phenomenon, as they are likely to feel that their systems, habits and rituals are more valid than others. They are more likely to hang on to the old techniques because they have all the successes of the past to prove that they work. The problem here is that the successes of the past happened in the past.

It is only by the rejection of this unselfconscious process, the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of techniques, the application of academic and scientific measurement and technique that any designer (be it a house builder, telecommunications designer or videogame developer) can make sure they don’t become as much a historical footnote as the straw house builders of Polynesia.