do the best you can

I’ve been thinking more about games over the past week as I’m working through Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, and trying to finish my orchestra piece. The thing which draws me to games as a basis for music (apart from the fact they are fun) is the sense of purpose they present. The last couple of posts I’ve made consider this, but this morning I’ve been looking back at some other recent work and thinking about other models. In particular, the context of a psychology experiment is possibly a different model to consider. Of course, this is a highly abstracted, non-empirical and partly fictionalised notion of what psychology experiments are. I’m not a psychologist and my understanding of this work is through popular science publications, with a few research papers thrown in (although the maths mostly sails past me as I cut to the conclusions). That’s fine: take what you need to make the piece. But there’s a different kind of purpose implied in these situations to that of games. For example in the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test there is a simple local goal in each iteration of the task: match the card to one of the others in order to satisfy the current matching rule (which changes periodically). So purpose is present: participants know what they need to do and whether they have succeeded or failed at each attempt. There is a gamelike situation to a point, with a series of win states, but there is no overall goal. The aim is to do the best you can. It’s a sequence of guessing games essentially, with some plays being more predictable than others once the pattern is learnt and before it changes. So you don’t ‘win’ overall. This is not the purpose. It measures the way participants respond to changing stimuli, and the data trace allows certain diagnoses to be made as a result. If this situation is transferred to decision-making in music, then it presents an alternative model to that of games. Instead of players aiming to achieve a single win state, their ongoing attempts to respond correctly to changing stimuli presents a different kind of purpose. As observers of this activity, we see the variation in players ability to respond accurately as the trajectory of the piece, rather than the gradual move towards a single goal. I think both these models – the game and the psychology experiment – present viable approaches for imbuing indeterminate music with a sense of purpose for players and communicating this as an experience for audiences.