Gameplay is Inherently Abstract

Feb 28, 2013

Pinball and videogame designer George Gomez, interviewed for the documentary Tilt, explained that pinball gameplay is inherently abstract, but that as a designer he strives to use theme-based gameplay concepts to help make it less abstract. The player is toggling lever positions with electromagnets to knock a metal ball around a painted piece of wood, but when people see the games their thoughts are first taken over instead by racecars, cartoon characters, sci-fi themes, licensed movie elements, or other artistic decoration. Beginning in the early-mid 1980’s, pinball designers sometimes added a few playfield elements or goals connected loosely and conceptually to the theme, and in that way attempted to make the game somewhat less abstract (in Steve Ritchie’s High Speed: advance the traffic light from green to yellow to red, then run the red light, then “escape” the police – but it’s all just a ball rolling around banging into stuff).

Although pinball is a far more severely constrained medium for expression than videogames, due to its reliance on cheap, reliable, physical mechanisms instead of animated graphics, the underlying gameplay in videogames is also inherently much more abstract than we often acknowledge.

As is usually the case for my writing about videogames, I don’t have in mind here the computer games that evolved from board games – turn-based, tile-based, or menu-driven strategy – which is perhaps more trivially understood as abstract. Rather my emphasis is the seemingly literal and situated games in which players run, jump, collect, shoot, open, and otherwise interact with spatial environments in real-time.

The player isn’t jumping, the player character isn’t jumping, there’s something else entirely going on that we reason about through metaphor for jumping. Under the surface what’s going on is far more complicated and unnatural than jumping, yet on the surface what’s going on is far less complicated than jumping – more natural even than jumping.

I do not wish to overstate this case, because taken to its extreme I’d argue against myself here, too. The vogue idea from the mid-2000’s that gameplay can be productively reasoned about as meaningless rectangles bouncing around and interacting loses much more than it adds to the conversation. Of course it matters that what I’m seeing is a ninja, a frog, or a spaceship, and not merely for the affordances and expectations that we infer from that imagery.

For that point, here again I’ll point to pinball: at most a few scoring events on any given table are even loosely grounded in the game’s theme or metaphor (“slaying the dragon” or “defending Paris”), the rest are just abstract (“1000 points” or “increase bonus multiplier”). Prior to the early-mid 1980’s virtually none of the scoring events connected to the game’s theme. The art was literally, at one level, merely decoration atop a completely unrelated abstract game, akin to the patterns painted on the backside of a deck of cards, and in the 1930’s when pinball started truly abstract patterns like the back of a card were occasionally used on the tables (see: Ballyhoo).

Yet despite that massive disconnect between the art and the gameplay it still mattered, when the industry began to outgrow sport allusion and sport metaphor toward miscellaneous other themes in the 1940’s and 1950’s, that the games depicted fighter planes, fishing, cowboys and cowgirls. It clearly mattered to a degree that it hasn’t for playing cards, since while any playing card patterns besides the cheapest generic styles are a fairly uncommon novelty, differences in backglass art and cabinet decals played an important part in selling new large, heavy, costly arcade machines for decades between pinball’s major gameplay breakthroughs.

The visuals are planting seeds in our heads about what we’re supposed to be imagining when we play or think about the game. It’s filling us with associations that we cannot look away from while still continuing to play. To play Terminator 2 pinball is to look at illustrations and elements from the movie while managing to play a largely abstract game with the ball; to play Mega Man is to stare continuously at a little robotic man while “jumping” between “platforms” and “shooting” at the enemies which follow simple patterns to function as dynamic obstacles.

Of course we all understand this, it’s hardly a mystery, but I think we can become so casual or careless in referring to these abstract activities by their metaphors that we sometimes lose a sense for just how unlike they all are from what we call them. This is also an oddity that I think we occasionally become aware of in very isolated cases in videogames – “oh how strange that my character can invisibly carry 5 large weapons” – though in that focus we overlook the abstractness and borderline absurdity of everything surrounding that point and giving it meaning: those aren’t weapons, they aren’t large, there aren’t 5 of anything, nothing is being carried, and so on.

When the Madden player is throwing a football there’s no football, there’s no throwing, and there’s no football player – and I don’t mean this in the trivially reductive sense of, sure, those are models and bits and pixels and sound files, I mean this very much still at a conceptual and practical level as well, in that the nouns and verbs relate in very, very few ways to the nouns and verbs we use to refer to them. Think about the differences between a real football and the football in Madden – the differences not only obvious in its materiality but in what it can be used for and how (creative or unintended uses included). The same goes for the act of throwing, and how that simulated act from the player’s button press up until the “ball” (or maybe ball’ for ball-prime, even?) reaches its destination differs vastly from what can be said about a real physical act of throwing, in the complexity of conducting the act, in the versatility of ways to get it right or wrong, in the factors affecting the outcome.

It’s not a football player, not throwing, a not football, on a not football field, during a game of not football. And that example is situated in a case for which there is a clear physical analog that is, at least at some conceptual level, being simulated, yet what is going on is so far from a simulation of what actually happens or how that I fear that using the word risks significant misunderstanding.

No matter how cinematic or photorealistic a game’s graphics may appear, and no matter how much marketeers try to convince us that arm waving to inefficiently and imprecisely simulate button pressing is going to somehow replace button pressing, there’s still a vast gap between what’s happening on screen and what’s happening in our heads.

For an illustration of the other side of this difference, look at how videogame action is depicted in television shows, when professional animators are tasked with putting on some exciting videogame-like sequences. House has done this, Futurama did it, Psych did as well, and I’m sure there are countless others that I’m not familiar with. It’s as though the characters are literally there, present and moving within the virtual world. They bend down to pick up objects, wince at nearby explosions, and lean in to whisper to one another.

Ever since Warren Robinnet made Adventure for Atari 2600 in 1977, we’ve usually picked things up by walking over them. Lest anyone forget, that’s really sort of weird, or in any event not how things actually get picked up, and someone had to invent it before it could become a convention. Now some 35-36 years later, and especially for people younger than 35-36, it seems pretty casual to run over the top of a loaded gun (gun-prime?) to instantly transfer all ammunition from it into our inventory, from which we can directly reload a gun in hand.

To return to Mega Man’s navigating the level by jumping: what’s going on in the code is that there’s a moveable region in virtual space, over which the player has near direct control, to get past systematic dangers until goal conditions are met or reached. There are very few ways for the player to move their vulnerable region through the space, typically running horizontally and jumping upward against simulated gravity, and that control happens by a few among a dozen or so switches plus several directional or analog levers. The actions are generally discrete – attack or don’t attack – or if varied then varied on a single dimension across a simple scale – hold jump to jump higher.

All of the other stuff is just going on our heads, not in the game, at the intersection of the decorative imagery we’re shown and the fairly abstract activities we’re fiddling with. That’s not a problem to be fixed. That’s not a criticism of videogames. As developers, that’s even an opportunity, since it’s a reminder of just how much doesn’t have to be implemented to get the important feeling or sensation across, and it’s also a reminder of the power of imagery and sound to stir up associations, feelings, or ideas in players that our best efforts to embody programmatically would be so inarticulate and inefficient as to become the singular focus of the game, distracting away from building upon that one effect toward some more cohesive end.

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