Quit Smoking Game: Effect of Interaction on Interpretation

Sep 12, 2011

A few months ago, the above image by the artist ReClark Gable made its way around the internet. Note that this is not a screenshot. ReClark authored it as a still image.

This image communicates without interaction nor gameplay. Instead, visual parallels imply a mapping to components in the classic game Breakout, with lungs in the place of bricks, and a cigarette taking the place of a paddle. The idea of the picture is clear enough: smoking destroys the lungs, and the reader/player is instructed to “Quit Smoking.” Through association with a classic videogame, it might even be read as suggesting that smoking is fun, or (drumroll please…) addictive.

Although this isn’t the first appearance of the concept – this version by Piercey predates ReClark’s by 3 years – something about this latest attempt resonated with people in a way that previous attempts didn’t, with the image receiving over 350,000 pageviews within a few weeks.

Piercey’s take, for comparison, received roughly 1/100 as many views per year as ReClark Gable’s received each week. Gable’s looks more like a playable game. The bricks fit tightly together. The ball’s trail suggests its movement. There seem to be enough bricks there to play for awhile.

What if it did exist as a game? To answer this, I made a playable version.

To be clear: the goal of making this playable version was not to entertain, nor to persuade, but instead to better understand the role of interaction in the communication and interpretation of meaning. (We like to assume when we researching games with meaning that it’s significant that the artifacts studied are actual games, and not just static images.)

Implied Gameplay Changes

There are a few changes to gameplay, which, though not derived directly from the image, seemed more consistent with the image’s message than the standard Breakout conventions:

Without a lives display, an interpretation of one life/play (reset bricks each ball) and infinite lives/play (never reset bricks) would be equally consistent with the image. The latter design was selected, to represent permanent damage to the lungs. The former would seem to suggest that quitting smoking results in immediately undoing any damage done, as opposed to only ceasing the cause of further damage.

Traditionally, destroying all bricks a game like this one results in victory, advancement, or even just another set of bricks to be broken for points. However, an anti-smoking game (an unambiguous reading thanks to the “Quit Smoking” text in the corner) should not treat smoking until the lungs vanish as “winning at smoking.” Instead, the player can win by dodging the ball when the game starts – winning at smoking, according to this implementation, means not starting.

Numerous other mechanics from Breakout were stripped because they seemed tangential to image or its message. Among them: paddle shrink upon hitting the back wall, bricks worth variable points based on depth (scoring, in general), ball speed increases due to depth reached or number of consecutive hits, and discrete (rather than continuous) paddle angle segments.

To find out what people read into the image-as-a-game, rather than the game-as-an-image, I posted the game to Kongregate and Newgrounds. For comparison to responses and discussion over the original image, the Reddit thread is a decent starting point.

Player Assumptions

Many responses did not display an understanding of the nature of the work done here, suggesting that particle effects, power-ups, and so on would help make it a better game. This is of course partly a function of audience (self-identifying videogame players), and largely a matter of context (anyone at a Flash entertainment site is in the mood for entertainment, and likely to interpret their experiences through that lens).

This is somewhat unfortunate, because it means that many players, rather than interacting with the game in search of meaningful interpretation, set about to achieve the traditional goal of clearing all blocks, like so:

That takes nearly 40 minutes to do.

Not particularly evident in the original ReClark Gable image is that drawing lungs at this fidelity requires a lot of bricks: 994. Compare that to the 104 bricks in Atari 2600 Super Breakout (8 rows of 13). Many of the comments noted the game’s length, either as a criticism of the game (“too long”/”boring”) or within the context of the game’s message (“Man it takes FOREVER to kill yourself by smoking”). Curiously, “FOREVER” here seems to be based on comparison to other online gameplay experiences, rather than real-time; if cigarettes made our lungs completely disintegrate after 40 minutes, that would be quite fast indeed.

Players that went for a cleared board also noted that, eventually, images took shape that look nothing like lungs. Here, I’m tearing away at what appears to be two island nations:

That point is correct: the longer the game is played, the more the concept seems to break down, or fall into the background. Does this mean that the opening set up – effectively, the still image – is doing the work, and playing only interferes with the message?

On the other hand, understanding the intended meaning of a game with a message often involves winning at it. The longer someone plays this particular game, the more certain it is that they are not winning and have not caught on to the point. This was especially an issue in this situation since the feedback on player direction is delayed, subtle, and contrary to clear convention.

The original Breakout has an on-screen score display demonstrating that each brick removed represented progress, with bricks closer to the back wall awarding more points. In this way, the player gets coaxed toward hitting the back wall, which initiates a breakout in the classic game. (Achieving breakout by hitting the back in Breakout causes the ball to only bounce upward, instead of only downward, until it next touches the paddle. This mechanic was dropped for QuitSmoking as tangential to its message.)

Because score tends to demonstrate incremental advancement toward some greater reward or goal, including a rising score would not have made sense here anyway. However an increasingly negative score, going down with each lung brick broken, could have spelled out more clearly and immediately to players that the goal of the game isn’t to destroy all bricks. Without any score numbers to provide granular feedback, players acted on the assumption that what they previously learned through score reinforcement in similar games fits here too: brick removal means forward progress.

A Series of Generated Images

The longer the player keeps the ball in play, the more bricks get knocked away, producing a series of images, one of which (in theory) could be the exact same arrangement in ReClark Gable’s original depiction. However even if that exact same brick configuration appears, is it experienced the same when we’re the cause of it? If nothing else, there is surely a difference between the image being one of many passing states, vs the totality of what is ever presented.

Also worth consideration is that the player has a purely subtractive effect on bricks. They can be taken away, but never added nor moved. A side effect of this is that only subsets of the starting bricks are possible images – combinations of the 994 bricks being either present or destroyed. Naturally, physical collision mechanics make many of those theoretically potential configurations less likely than others (or impossible, such as a hole in the center of a thick ring). The lack of precise control over the ball tends to yield uneven edges.

Were a more geometric or clean figure hidden deliberately in the bricks, as say a key or a smiley face, even a few imperfections or incorrect hits could disturb the image. However since the hidden image in this game is the crispy, tar-destroyed lungs picture that we’ve seen in so many anti-smoking campaigns, any image of lungs with the bottom and edges unevenly carved away produces a similar enough image to recall the intended memory.

Missing Metaphor

As a quick aside: is the ball in this game “poisonous smoke”?

It is kept between the lungs and the cigarette, and it is what does damage to the lungs, so in terms of its role, the ball being smoke functionally makes sense. Representationally and behaviorally, however, the ball looks and acts in no way like smoke.

Does it matter whether it’s smoke, or pure abstraction that steadily delivers damage to the lungs from the cigarette?


The sensation of playing ball-and-paddle games is not so much like attacking, as it is like juggling. To this point, the original static image suggests a more direct attack than playing the game does. In the constructed snapshot it’s on a one-way course for the lungs, though in play it’s a constant back-and-forth.

Attacking isn’t necessarily only shooting, Pinball games – digital as well as analog – have long contained enemies to be “shot” or “hit” with the ball. Because pinball paddles rapidly accelerate a ball, it seems more like an attacking mechanism than simply keeping the ball in play. Here, in Super Pinball: Behind the Mask on SNES, the Wizard board contains an enemy that can be “shot” (top-right):

That digital pinball table is modeled closely after the layout of a real 1991 pinball table by Williams: Terminator 2, in which instead of a demon there’s a T-800 metallic skull with glowing red eyes to be attacked with the ball.

Perhaps an anti-smoking game modeled after pinball, with cigarettes for paddles and lungs for bumpers, might hint at a more aggressive and direct attack on the organs than this Breakout metaphor.

Closing Thoughts

When Alleyway came out on Game Boy, and there were levels arranged to mimic the sprites of classic characters, did we think of the activity as killing Mario or Koopas? At some basic level, we of course realized that the part we were breaking corresponds to his leg, or his head, as when eating Animal Crackers, or biting into Ninja Turtles heads purchased from the ice cream man. Though there is a dramatic differences between recognizing some part as represented, and thinking of the representation as the part represented.

Did any fan or player of Super Mario Land ever refuse to advance in Alleyway, on account of not wanting to hurt Mario, or out of concern that doing so might cost a life?

Play Quit Smoking

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