Chapter II: Aesthetics of Miniature Worlds
Figure 1: A Miniature Garden.
Shigeru Miyamoto, designer of Super Mario Bros., often mentions his “miniature garden” aesthetic in interviews with journalists. Probably attributing this curious phrase to a mistranslation from Japanese, journalists never fail to not ask the question “what do you mean by that?’’ Miyamoto, without a doubt one of the greatest game designers, is telling us one of his fundamental design principles, and nobody bothers to ask him what he means. What follows is an attempt to interpret the phrase “miniature gardens’’ with respect to games using materials on Japanese gardens, literary microworlds, constructionist microworlds, play, and game analysis.
A garden has an inner life of its own; it is a world in flux which grows and changes. A garden’s internal behaviors, and how we understand those rules, help us to wrap our heads and hands around the garden. The intricate spaces and living systems of a garden surprise, delight, and invite participation. Gardens, like games, are compact, self-sustained worlds we can immerse ourselves in. Japanese gardens often contain a multiplicity of environments and places, such as mountains, oceans, or forests that we can look at, walk around, or interact with. Gardens are a way to think about the aesthetic, cognitive, and representational aspects of game space.
A miniature garden, like a snow globe, model train set, or fish tank, is complete; nothing is missing, and nothing can be taken away. Clear boundaries (spatial and non-spatial), overviews, and a consistent level of abstraction work hand in hand to make the miniature world believable, complete, and tractable for both the author and player. Miniatureness makes a garden intelligible in the mind of a player, and emotionally safe in his heart. Miniature scale, clear boundaries, and inner life help players to wrap their heads, hands, and hearts around a world.¹
¹ “Miniature garden’’ most likely refers to penjing, miniature landscapes in containers. “The Chinese word penjing denotes a scenery in a container’’ [84, p38]. “Tree penjing or shumu penjing is called bonsai in Japan and the West’’ [84, p46]. My aim is to interpret the phrase with respect to game design.
2.1 Micro/Macro
Figure 2: Micro & Macro
Miniature worlds offer simultaneous micro/macro readings. When looking at a model train set we perceive both an overview and ground level view. A model train set invites participation at the macroscopic scale, where the entire system is intelligible, plastic, and safe, as well as mental participation at the microscopic scale, where each train car can be walked into. This simultaneous play at micro/macro scales is a key pleasure of models. Using micro/macro views to engage people in unfamiliar worlds is a technique discussed later, in Inviting Participation.
The aesthetic of micro/macro readings is evident elsewhere. A flower is beautiful to look at, and a time lapse video of a flower growing is fascinating in a wholly new way. The same aesthetic of multiple scales and their interplay is also present in Go. Tension and balance is evident in the arrangement of stones engaged in an intimate battle, as well as the visual tapestry and high level strategy of a game. Scale change in Go also marks a shift from a geometric to an organic aesthetic, and the transformation from one to the other is a source of continuous, surprising pleasure.
SimCity, Go, and SimAnt are games which encourage reading at multiple scales. Go and SimCity both have spatial structures at multiple scales that are intrinsically related and self-similar.
2.1.1 Overview
Figure 3: Overview
Miniature gardens are scale models of bigger phenomena. Fish tanks and gardens are scale representations of systems bigger than people. A fish tank is your own private ocean, and a garden is not just domesticated wilderness (a farm), but a scale model of wilderness as an aesthetic object to be designed and explored. If the garden is miniature, it follows that overviews of it should be accessible. Conversely, overviews help create the sense of miniatureness.
Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda provides both spatial and temporal overviews at multiple scales. In addition to using a bird’s eye view to describe the game’s main action, Zelda incorporates maps to provide an overview of both a single dungeon and the entire world. The omniscient side view of Super Mario Bros. functions similarly:
Figure 4: Overview via omniscient perspective in The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros..
Temporal overviews can be built by repeating activity landmarks. Rescuing princess Zelda requires collecting each piece of the triforce, and an overview of the collected triforce is a measure of one’s progress in the game. To gather each piece of the triforce, the player, acting through Link, must: find the dungeon’s entrance and enter it; discover a treasure; find keys, a map, and compass; defeat a dungeon monster; collect the triforce piece and exit the dungeon. This cycle of action repeats for each dungeon. Combined with the material side effects of collected triforce pieces, treasures, and dungeon keys, repeating action landmarks provide an overview of game scope, and locate the player within the game’s progression.
The progress overview is a trope of other Miyamoto titles: Super Mario Bros. is divided into eight worlds with four levels per world, and the current level and world number is always visible. The fourth level of each world’s cycle is always a castle. Super Mario Bros. 3, in addition to locating the player in a sequential world structure, spatializes each world into a series of locations on a map. Mario 64 opens with the camera revolving around a castle, a space that encompasses all of the game’s play spaces via an ingenious system of hyperlinked paintings. Player progression in Mario 64 can be measured by castle traversal and visitation. Collecting stars is how one opens up parts of the castle, and the number of stars collected locate the player within the game at the local and global scales: How many more until I open the next section of the castle? How far through the game am I?
Figure 5: Overview via variations on a theme.
A key property of games is recombining familiar elements into novel configurations. Each Zelda dungeon repeats the same basic activity pattern, Go’s tiny rule set and materials yield startling complexity, and Super Mario Bros. is a huge and engaging world built out of a small number of elements and rules. Variations on a theme can be used to provide players with an overview of a game. Introducing the rules and elements of a game gives an overview of a game’s possibility space. It is for this reason that players can quickly get a sense for the size and shape of a game’s possibility space.
Figure 6: Overview via variations on a theme in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros..
The first screen of Super Mario Bros., like many of the single screen games that preceded it, contains almost all the dynamics the player will encounter throughout the game. Unlike single screen games such as Donkey Kong, Mario’s world unfolds across a landscape of spaces, but an overview of game possibilities through variations on a theme is still provided. The first screen of Mario is a simple and comprehensible overview of the game’s action, possibilities, and surprises: Mario jumps and moves; bricks can be stood upon; some bricks contain unpredictable presents; enemies harm Mario; enemies can be jumped upon and killed; objects ricochet; left to right traversal; Mario transforms by touching magical tokens; big Mario can break some bricks from below; there are coins to collect; some activities are elective; some obstacles must be jumped over. All of this is packed into Mario’s first screen.²
² Technically, this is the second screen of Super Mario Bros., but the first one is empty.
Figure 7: Overview via tour.
Another means for conveying an overview is taking players on a tour, either by luring players along a path, or presenting a fly-through. Doug Church describes Mario 64’s use of the first method:
Often the first star (typically the easiest to get in each world) has been set up to encourage players to see most of the area. So even while getting that first star, players often see things they know they will need to use in a later trip. They notice inaccessible red coins, hat boxes, strange contraptions, and so on, while they work on the early goals in a world. When they return to that world for later goals, players already know their way around and have in their heads some idea about how their goals might be achieved, since they have already visited the world and seen many of its elements [13].
This type of overview, like variations on a theme, teases the player with a game’s possibilities, and arouses the player’s exploratory impulse with glimpses of potential rewards and intriguing contraptions. Super Mario Sunshine uses the fly-through technique to give players an overview of its sub-worlds. These worlds open with the camera flying through the space, from the traversal goal back to the starting location. An overview of the world’s space, path, goal, and landmarks are established via overflight.
Compact scale can also be communicated without recourse to an overview. Many of the inhabitants and happenings of the Mushroom Kingdom, the setting of Super Mario Bros., resonate a sense of the miniature through scale: Mario travels through pipes and plays with mushrooms, turtles, plants, and fish who are all his size. The Mushroom Kingdom’s scale sets the stage for power reversals enacted by Mario’s changing size.
Figure 8: Overview via summary.
Another technique for conveying an overview is with a summary. The black screen that appears before each attempt at Super Mario Bros. locates the player by summarizing player lives, coins, score, level, and world.
2.1.2 Abstraction
Figure 9: Abstraction.
Miniature worlds are abstractions. A model train set is not a real rail system, but a model which captures the right details.
Will Wright points out that while playing games, people engage a game in their head, and what counts is this mental world. “So what we’re trying to do as designers is build up these mental models in the player. The computer is just an incremental step, an intermediate model to the model in the player’s head” [63]. His explanation of this concept works like this: somebody walks into a game store and looks at the cover of your game’s box. Based on the front of the box, they start playing a game in their head, and if that game is interesting, they’ll pick up the box and look at the back. They then play a new game in their head, closer to the one you’ve designed. If they like that game, then they’ll buy the game and take it home.
The key insight here is that a game, despite the fact that it is a working system with moving parts, rules, and processes, is still a representation. Wright points out that a consistent level of abstraction is key to building believable worlds:
One thing that we found in playing with The Sims is that it’s pretty important that you have a consistent level of abstraction. It doesn’t make sense to have everything highly detailed except one aspect and then have it abstracted. So in fact you want the entire world and the entire representation to be abstracted at almost the same level. At which point it holds together very nicely. It’s kind of hard for you to go into a system and then be filling in the blanks of this one component, while everything else is highly detailed. So in The Sims, even the building is fairly abstracted. You can only put a wall within about a meter. The objects are somewhat abstracted in terms of selection: you don’t have the full selection that you would really have in a furniture store. The granules of interaction in the game are kind of abstracted. So having that consistency, in your head, you fill in the blanks really well. And this is something that kids do quite well of course. You watch kids playing with toys. They’re doing it all the time, very naturally. And even adults are doing that much of the time, with reading books, for example, where there are a lot of blanks to be filled in. [63]
Violations of abstraction consistency, such as carefully placed detail, can have powerful effects. While SimCity’s primary level of abstraction and representation is at the scale of a city overview, representations of life at the microscopic human scale, such as cars, the newspaper, or the query tool (how many people passed through this train station?), provide carefully architected and intimate glimpses into a rich and detailed world that exists only in the player’s head. An artist drawing a tree would never render every leaf; one or two leaves are drawn on the tree in detail, and that is enough to form a complete tree in the viewer’s head. This is a kind of hide-and-reveal where something wanders in out of view through scale rather than space. The human life of SimCity wanders into and out of view with careful placed reveals of the city’s microscopic life.
2.2 Boundaries
2.2.1 Frames
Figure 10: A World, Framed.
A miniature garden also has clearly defined boundaries. It fits in your backyard, a dresser drawer, or in the park. A fish tank has transparent walls that frame a miniature ocean. Boundaries can be ludic as well as spatial. Play is bounded in a separate ontology where the real world doesn’t matter, and play doesn’t matter to the real world. The boundaries of a world establish player expectations, which can then be subjected to play, teasing players into moving beyond a world’s apparent boundaries. Playful violation of world boundaries and player expectations is described later in Worlds in Flux and Trespassing Across Worlds.
Will Wright uses a spatial metaphor to describe the state space of a game or system, and he describes a game with clearly defined boundaries as creating the effect of wandering around on an island with a visible shoreline. The boundaries of a game should be visible from the inside looking out: players should have a clear sense of what is and isn’t possible. Doug Church describes how clear boundaries in Mario 64 create the sense of a complete, internally consistent world:
By offering a very limited set of actions, but supporting them completely, the world is made real for players. No one who plays Mario complains that they want to hollow out a cave and make a fire and cook fish, but cannot. The world is very simple and consistent. If something exists in the world, you can use it [13].
Player expectations can be called upon to make a world feel richer and more alive. SimCity establishes player expectations, and then makes good on them. Giving power to a neighborhood causes more people to move in. Miniature worlds live by establishing player expectations and then meeting them. A model train set establishes expectations through its appearance, and meets them when the cars motor around the tracks.
Clearly marked boundaries frame levels, worlds, and dungeons in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. The Legend of Zelda marks the spatial boundaries of its miniature garden world with a shoreline, mountains, and other particularized barriers. The start and end of a dungeon in Zelda is demarcated with discovering its location and conquering the monster. The spatial boundaries of Super Mario Bros. are clear: the world is one screen tall and scrolls from left to right until you get to the end of the level, which is always marked with a staircase and flagpole. Super Mario Bros. 3 marks the end of each normal level with a kind of ragged black curtain and simple chance game:
Figure 11: End of level markers in Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3.
Boundaries can be ludic as well as spatial: falling off the bottom of a level in Super Mario Bros. or touching another creature without landing on it will kill you. These boundaries are tidy and clear, and are visible from the inside of the game looking out, just as the shorelines of Wright’s island are visible from the beach.
Clear boundaries reinforce the sense of an overview and compactness by helping us relate ourselves back to a garden’s global structure. Although your view at any single moment is limited to one screen of a Super Mario Bros. level, the visible edges of a level’s top, bottom, beginning, and end afford our cognitive mapping into a larger space. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda support cognitive mapping with mechanisms such as edges, regions (worlds, overworld, underworld, dungeons, forest, mountains, graveyard, desert, etc...), nodes (warp zones), and landmarks.³
³ Kevin Lynch describes how edges, landmarks, nodes, regions, and paths afford cognitive mapping in The Image Of The City [40].
2.2.2 Hide-and-reveal
Figure 12: Hide-and-reveal.
The panels and gutters of comics provide incomplete views into a world reified in the viewer’s mind. Panels and gutters in comics, implicit or explicit, are a manifestation of the more general principle of hide-and-reveal, and the mental closure it activates. This mental closure can be playfully manipulated, as Miyamoto does so well, to tease, goad, and lure the player into imagining and looking for alternate worlds.
Scott McCloud argues out that we piece together a world’s action and life in the gutters between panels [48]. Hide-and-reveal is the spatial equivalent: it is a kind of teasing that places the conceivable and reachable states of a world in flux, puts them into play, and tickles the player into exploring the discrepancy and discovering what is hiding on the other side of the rabbit hole, up the beanstalk, below the manhole, through the pipe, behind the door, in the castle, or around the bend of the path. Overviews show us an entire world, and make it feel complete and safe; hide-and-reveal creates infinite worlds that invite exploration of their secrets.
David Slawson, in Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens introduces miegakure, or “hide-and-reveal,” as a playful technique for creating the illusion of a larger garden within a smaller space. Slawson quotes Tadahiko Higuchi, who describes the operation of miegakure in landscapes as relying
heavily on the principle of overlapping perspective and involves making only a part of an object visible, rather than exposing the whole. The purpose is to make the viewer imagine the invisible part and thus create not only an illusion of depth but also the impression that there are hidden beauties beyond. Miegakure is, in short, a means of imparting a sense of vastness in a small space [75, p117 quoting Higuchi, p84].
Slawson goes on to discuss this careful manipulation of boundaries:
One effective way of achieving this, as was mentioned earlier, is to design a meandering watercourse or path so that it now and then fades out of sight behind an object such as a hill or a tree or a rock to reappear at a greater distance from the viewer [75, p118].
The Legend of Zelda does in fact contain a river which wanders in and out of sight, as it meanders across the map and out of the garden. Games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Cosmic Osmo all make use of portals such as doorways and pipes to interlink disparate spaces and pathways, and succeed in creating a sense of vastness and surprise within a limited space:
In the case of a path, at each turn a new vista is revealed and a new one suggested by the point where the path fades out of sight beyond yet another bend. ... A device like this almost demands that the designer have a genuine sense of play, and revel in the way the garden can at turns entice and then surprise the observer [75, p118].
The effect of hide-and-reveal arouses an exploratory impulse in the viewer. Glimpses of a larger space tease you towards hidden pathways, seemingly unreachable spaces, and the potential pleasures of an infinite space. Comic panels are windows to look through, but hide-and-reveal makes passageways for traveling through.
If clear boundaries establish the perimeter of a game’s island, hide-and-reveal plays with its boundaries and player expectations by providing glimpses onto secluded beaches, secret paths, and additional, hidden islands. Pushing aside statues, burning bushes, and bombing walls often reveals secret rooms, caves, dungeons in The Legend of Zelda. Boundaries in Zelda and Super Mario Bros. not only create complete worlds, but are barriers players can test, and hide-and-reveal encourages them to do so.
2.3 Life
Figure 13: Life.
The dog that had terrorized him [Miyamoto] when he was a child attacks Mario. “I am especially proud of the dastardly, repulsive characters,” he says. Miyamoto’s dream was to make games that created worlds in which game characters could be more like players’ companions, seemingly independent. “Perhaps they can even be ourselves at other times in our lives,” he explains obliquely [73, p52].
Gardens are sites of endless recombination and amazement. A single creature or plant can manifest itself in an infinite number of ways as it grows, transforms, and interacts with other garden inhabitants. Familiar elements like grass, ants, trees, and flowers recombine in a kaleidoscope of immense sensual beauty, surprise, and wonder. Ant hills poke up in the most unlikely places; grass grows in the gaps between concrete slabs; vines climb up trees and doors of houses; squirrels and birds use whatever materials they can find, such as leaves and twigs, to build nests in trees, or maybe even the windowsill of your home. Ants and squirrels run off carrying accidentally discovered treasures. Delicate and surprising ecologies and interdependencies lurk everywhere as organisms of all sizes grow, transform, and adapt. Gardens are not only responsive, but demand human involvement: we must pull up weeds and plant seeds.
Gardens are dynamic living systems, full of secrets, autonomous agents, transformation, and emergent behaviors. A garden has an inner life all its own. It is a world which goes on without you. Pre-digital games require human agency to animate them, but digital games are animated with the breath of computation, so garden is a tidy metaphor for self-animating systems. Not only are they dynamic, but gardens are reactive to human touch in a variety of ways, just like computers.
Both The Sims and Lonely Time, a lovely story-game by Takeshi Sakai, are self-contained, working miniature worlds teeming with life. The charm of simulation is that of a miniature train set: not only does the miniature world contain artificial mountains, trees, tracks, and trains, but it works; the trains move along the tracks and even emit smoke! My sims run around, get tired, go to sleep, and when they wake up, they have to go to the bathroom. In Lonely Time, I can enter the sliding rice paper doors of the bath house, lather up and rinse in the shower, and enter the communal tub. If I don’t shower, then the man already in the tub will yell at me. I can order soup at the ramen restaurant, choose what extras I want, and consume each item in the soup individually. The restaurant even has other diners, and the waitress washes the counters! If I forget to pay, I end up in jail.
Scale and boundaries in both The Sims and Lonely Time set expectations for how detailed the world and its moving parts will be. Expectations for completeness are established, and nothing is missing. The neighbors come and visit your family in The Sims, for instance, and Lonely Time’s world is filled with children at play, mothers and their babies, cats, and a romantic interest. These are miniature worlds teeming with an inner life of their own. Like a snow globe, model train set, or Japanese garden, nothing is missing, and nothing can be taken away.
Part of the simulation pleasure of Lonely Time is cross-cultural: I have a miniature Japan on my laptop. The Sims in Japan (SimPeople) probably has a cross-cultural appeal as well: care for and play with miniature Americans. Playing with miniature people is sure to entertain.
The moving parts in Lonely Time are largely situated in a dramatic universe. The game opens with an animated manga infused introduction, where a single salaryman comes home to find his cat missing. There’s a lonely alleyway where you can sit, watch the sunset, and pine for things lost. A love interest works the cash register at a ramen restaurant. A playground serves as the stage for children at play, and a romantic encounter in the evening.
A system’s capacity to surprise is a key criteria Will Wright uses to evaluate its interest and life. Wright uses mechanics such as cellular automata and system dynamics to create worlds full of life and surprise. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda surprise players with worlds full of playful ambiguity and secrets.
World designers can draw upon a variety of techniques for creating illusions of life. Lonely Time and The Sims are unpredictable, living systems. Lonely Time makes use of story scripting and some simple dynamics to generate unpredictability and life. The Sims uses noise and threshold decision making mechanisms, like those described by Braitenberg [10], to give sims believable behavior and intentionality. System dynamics and cellular automata are used in SimCity to give its miniature cities life. Ken Perlin uses procedural noise to create the effect of life, a signature aspect of living and real things. The appearance of a drawn figure’s balance, known by artists to be key in creating believability, is recreated in Perlin’s three dimensional characters with procedures that dynamically balance body pose [64].
Games such as SimCity and Go call upon players to construct living things that will stand on their own against perturbations, feedback, or attack. Wright advises not making systems which are too sensitive to environmental fluctuations, as things players build in such systems are overly delicate, and will eventually die, much to the player’s disappointment (personal conversation).
The aesthetic of life stems from a key pleasure of simulation and fictional worlds: making and playing autonomous, vibrant worlds.
2.4 Inviting Participation
2.4.1 Intelligibility & Plasticity
Figure 14: Intelligible and Plastic Miniature Solar System.
This person can get their head and hands around this solar system because it has clear boundaries, it’s miniature, an overview is accessible, and the mechanics are abstracted.
Miniature gardens are scale models you can tinker with, and games are miniature worlds that fit in your hands. The world is big, scary, and uncontrollable, and games are systems which are so small that you can be the cause. SimCity transforms the inflexible and imposing built environment into a miniature city that you can build up, run like a model train set, and then smash to bits, like a child playing with wooden blocks.
Abstraction is the key to intelligibility and plasticity. Seymour Papert writes that “Newton ‘understood’ the universe by reducing whole planets to points that move according to a fixed set of laws of motion” [62, p117]. Miniature worlds have a plasticity unavailable in the “unintelligible limitations of matter and people” [62, p118], and the “assumptions and constraints” of a microworld, its abstractions, afford exploration “of a chosen microworld undisturbed by extraneous questions” [62, p117]. “[The] microworld is stripped of complexity, is simple, graspable. ... the child is allowed to play freely with its elements” [62, p162]. Abstraction enables malleable, comprehensible worlds. Consistent abstraction establishes expectations about what is possible in a world; meeting those expectations generates intelligibility. Abstraction imbues miniature worlds with intelligibility and plasticity, features that invite play.
Intelligibility and plasticity is how players get their heads and hands around a world.
2.4.2 Safety
Figure 15: Is This World Safe?
It must feel safe to experiment with a miniature garden. Caillois argues that play exists in a separate ontology, a domain in which what happens does not leak into real life [11]. The sense of a complete, closed world with clearly defined boundaries helps build this sense of safety, which Murray argues is the experiential function of the fourth wall in fiction and drama [52]. In the case of miniature gardens, overview, abstraction, and scale help to build this fourth wall. The Sims is a dollhouse world which feels safe to play with because of its scale and boundaries. The magic threshold of the fourth wall structures experience so that we obtain the pleasure of feeling terrified or elated, while cognizant that we are safely outside the fictive world. We participate richly in the miniature garden, but the fourth wall reminds us of the world’s status as fiction.
There is an emotional facet to experimentation and the feeling of safety. Miniature gardens are safe in a way that a zoo or forest is not. A miniature garden fits in the palm of your hand, and doesn’t contain sentient beings. It is doubtful players would feel comfortable torturing families in The Sims if the game was more realistic. The Sims as dollhouse world is miniature and abstract, and this abstraction invites manipulation and creates an emotionally safe space for experimentation. The stylized and exaggerated representation of Grand Theft Auto 3 functions similarly for most players. Toru Iwatani wanted Pac-Man to be a play space that invited the participation of females, and settled on cute ghosts for the game’s monsters [36, p141].
Safety and life help players get their hearts around a world.
2.4.3 Syntonicity
Figure 16: Syntonicity.
Players enter and exit microworlds through syntonicity. Syntonicity establishes strong bidirectional knowledge channels between ourselves and microworlds. Syntonicity helps us make sense of new microworlds, and import knowledge from a microworld back into the real world. Syntonicity not only works to make microworlds intelligible and plastic, but is a means by which we can learn from microworlds [62, p63].
Will Wright’s games often use the interplay of micro/macro to map the player into the simulation and encourage participation. When playing SimCity, I mentally insert myself into my city’s streets and look up and around at the surrounding buildings. This ground level scale, our position in the real world, helps me understand the simulated city and its needs: the citizens need somewhere to work; sims need somewhere to sleep; people must have a means of getting from place to place. SimCity’s dynamic representation makes good on our expectations: we zone houses, people move in, and the activity, populace, and traffic of the city increases, magical transformations that are intelligible and consistent with our expectations. Simultaneously, through the game’s overview, abstraction, boundaries, and scale, the city is transformed into a miniature garden. The ground level view creates intelligibility, and the macroscopic overview creates a plasticity unavailable to even the most authoritarian city planner. Insert some roads to help this section of the city develop; plant some residential seeds in the hope that homes will grow over here. The rigid and imposing built environment of the real world is magically transformed into a safe, intelligible cartoon miniature which fits in the palm of your hand and can be manipulated as such. The interplay of micro/macro is a key pleasure of making and playing with models and miniature systems such as gardens, model train sets, ant farms, model airplanes, and miniature cities.
A similar interplay of scales is at work in The Sims. The Sims, like a dollhouse, affords a mental mapping between the player’s understanding of the real world and the microworld. It is straightforward to think about dolls or sims as people with needs and emotions like hunger, tiredness, or loneliness. The Sims and SimCity, when we first come to them, are intelligible at the micro scales, but their plasticity comes from their use of macroscopic scale; these worlds are miniature, malleable, and safe. Although we enter SimCity from the micro-scale, we exit at the macroscopic: playing and manipulating a simulated city leads to an understanding of the built environment as a dynamic entity.
Papert describes this kind of bidirectional transference of knowledge as syntonic learning, and he catalogues three syntonic modes. Something is body syntonic when it is “firmly related to children’s sense and knowledge about their own bodies. Or it is ego syntonic in that it is coherent with children’s sense of themselves as people with intentions, goals, desires, likes, and dislikes” [62, p63]. A microworld has the property of cultural syntonicity when it concretely connects with cultural practice. Angles in Logo are culturally syntonic with navigation: “The Turtle connects the idea of angle to navigation, activity firmly and positively rooted in the extraschool culture of many children” [62, p68].
The Sims taps into all three of these syntonic modes; the behavior of a sim is intelligible as a result of our understandings of our bodies (body syntonicity), material needs, and desires (ego syntonicity). The suburban setting and material concerns of The Sims affords a cultural syntonicity. These syntonic relationships make the game both intelligible and meaningful. Playing The Sims leads to a changed understanding of ourselves, human relationships, material things, and the role of architecture.
While Papert’s primary interest in syntonicity is educational, broader aesthetic and cultural transferences are possible. Will Wright describes this operation in The Sims:
I’ve seen a lot of people in testing start out by doing their own family, but very quickly they’ll diverge, into either a fantasy of what they would like to see their life turn into or this voodoo doll thing, like “Let me see if I can kill myself” or “What happens if my sister gets sent off to military school?” We wanted people to read a lot into this by giving them the right level of ambiguity. We were trying to facilitate as much interpretation of the story as possible [74].
In addition to body, ego, and culture syntonicity, a microworld might have material syntonicity, and resonate with our knowledge of materials such as water, sand, or dust. Many game microworlds rely on game genre syntonicity: play requires leveraging game convention knowledge.
The syntonicity of Miyamoto’s miniature gardens is quite whimsical. Besides the obvious body syntonicity Mario and Link build upon, Miyamoto appropriates and transforms a wide variety of cultural material for the construction of his worlds. Stories about hero journeys and rescuing princesses are drawn upon in both Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda to create narrative syntonicity. Link encounters magical helpers, descends into dungeons to recover treasures, and must vanquish an evil villain to rescue the princess Zelda.
Super Mario Bros. has more in common with how we process Alice in Wonderland than SimCity. Super Mario Bros. builds upon and then challenges our understanding of the stuff of our daily life: Mario collects coins, travels through pipes, can be eaten by flying fish, and is transformed by magic mushrooms. Exploring Miyamoto’s miniature gardens teaches us little about system dynamics, but transforms our relationship to the world in a different way. Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom, and our own world are dynamic places filled with chance, danger, secrets, magical transformations, unstable boundaries, and invertible power relationships.
Syntonicity makes worlds that are intelligible and meaningful. Safety distances players and worlds, but syntonicity brings them together.
2.4.4 Scripting Play
Figure 17: Dog With Ball Scripting Play.
Syntonicity is one tool to draw upon when scripting the interactor, the term Murray [52] uses to describe how a participatory world explains itself and encourages action by the player. The Sims scripts the interactor in a number of ways. Sims are people with needs (body and ego syntonicity). Objects in the environment can be manipulated to address these needs, and visual representations of objects script the interactor to their purpose and use: you call people on a telephone, fridges contain food, and showers clean people. SimCity’s RCI (residential, commercial, industrial) demand meters script the interactor’s activity by indicating what a city needs. The city’s RCI needs are ego syntonic: the city can be conceptualized as an entity with needs, desires, likes, and dislikes. The need indicators of SimCity and The Sims script interaction by giving an overview of state and needs. Players adapt their play to this feedback: the city needs more residential zones, I better build more residential areas; my sim is hungry, I should feed him.
Player action in The Legend of Zelda is scripted, in part, through a narrative syntonicity that calls on our knowledge of myth and hero stories. Pac-Man scripts player action through representation. One generally runs from ghosts, and the chomping action of Pac-Man indicates that he eats things.
Games also script us to explore and create. Hide-and-reveal scripts exploration by teasing players into imagining hidden spaces. SimCity scripts the player into building things by presenting incomplete cities which need intervention.
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Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons Chaim Gingold © 2003