What is a Miniature Garden?

Chaim Gingold
Originally for Janet Murray's Game Design course

Shigeru Miyamoto, designer of Super Mario Bros., often mentions his "miniature garden" aesthetic in interviews with American journalists. Probably attributing this curious phrase to a mistranslation from Japanese, journalists never fail to not ask the question “Well, what do you mean by that?” Miyamoto, without a doubt one of the greatest game designers ever, is telling us his fundamental game design principle, and nobody bothers to ask what he means. In the absence of a direct explanation from Miyamoto himself, I will attempt to fill in the blank. In the event that miniature garden is in fact an insignificant artifact of cultural mistranslation, hopefully this analysis will nonetheless hallucinate some useful insights into game design.

One way of gaining access to Miyamoto’s miniature gardens is by thinking of them as microworlds (Seymour Papert, Mindstorms). Microworlds are miniature universes with their own laws that afford creative exploration and play. Sherry Turkle describes the computer, video games, and role playing games as world simulations produced through rules (The Second Self). Janet Murray’s vocabulary helps us describe miniature gardens and microworlds as participatory, procedural environments (Hamlet on the Holodeck). While one can play with both microworlds and miniature gardens, Papert’s constructivism explicitly leaves the objective up to the player. An inhabitant of a microworld sets their own goals (which may be exploration with no particular goal in mind), and then goes about playing with the microworld, and discovers how to learn and think about the microworld. While Miyamoto’s worlds do afford open ended play and exploration, they are more like games in the sense that they reward accomplishing certain tasks, like rescuing princesses, and do provide win conditions. SimCity is a microworld in this sense, as everybody imagines their own perfect city, and the microworld’s rules must be engaged to work towards that goal.

We can also think about miniature gardens as scale models of bigger phenomena. Fish tanks and gardens are scale representations of systems which are 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 which is an aesthetic object that can be explored and designed.

But why a garden? Gardens are dynamic living systems, full of autonomous agents and emergent behaviors. 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.

Miniature gardens also afford a transfer of knowledge from the real world into the miniature one. It is easy to interpolate oneself into SimCity, since the concepts of building, housing, work, transportation, and consumerism are familiar to us. This is called scripting the interactor (Hamlet on the Holodeck). Super Mario Bros. affords transference of knowledge, but in a manner more like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland than The Sims. Mario collects coins, travels through pipes, and can be eaten by flying fish.

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, by Will Wright, 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, not unlike a child playing with wooden blocks.

A miniature garden also has clearly defined boundaries. It fits in your backyard, a droor of your dresser, or in the park. A fish tank has transparent walls that frame a miniature ocean. Play takes place in a separate ontology where the real world doesn’t matter and play doesn’t matter to the real world. 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. Super Mario Bros. makes the rules of the garden clear as well: falling off the bottom of the world and 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. Will Wright uses a spatial metaphor to describe the play space of a game or system, and he describes a game with clearly defined boundaries as creating the effect of wandering around an island with a visible shoreline.

The boundaries of Super Mario Bros., since they are established so clearly, become a subject for playfulness and inversion. Chuck Jones’s classic Duck a Muck can invert and play with the conventions of cartoons because the boundaries of the cartoon and its system of representation was established at the time the film was made. Hidden passages take you underneath or on top of the levels of Super Mario Bros., and objects sometimes dangle invisibly in the air. In Level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. you can jump on top of the screen, and run behind the level’s end into a warp zone that transports you to other sections of the game. Miyamoto delights in playing with the boundaries of this miniature garden, but this play is possible only because the boundaries are so clearly defined.

Miniature gardens with clear boundaries also afford a multiplicity of worlds. Miyamoto, like postmodernist authors (Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction), moves us across unstable world boundaries: warp zones, above ground, below ground, dungeons, secret places in the clouds, underwater. A prerequisite for playing with multiple worlds is having the boundaries clearly defined. The last chapter of Boris Upensky’s A Poetics of Composition (The Structural Isomorphism of Verbal and Visual Art) gives a good account of how miniature worlds are created in fiction and art.

It must feel safe to experiment with a miniature garden. Play exists in a separate ontology, a domain in which what happens does not bleed into real life (Callois, Man, Play, and Games). The sense of a closed world with clearly defined boundaries helps build this sense of safety, which is the function of the fourth wall in fiction and drama (Hamlet on the Holodeck). The fourth wall gives us the pleasure of feeling terrified or elated while cognizant that we are safely outside of the fictive world. Level of abstraction is important, too. Abstraction helps build identification (Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media) and encourages the user to play a rich game in their own head (Will Wright). Abstraction also helps to build the fourth wall. We participate richly in the miniature garden, but at the same time the abstraction reminds us that it is only a fiction. The sense of safety in experimentation is also an emotional phenomena. I don’t think that people would feel as comfortable torturing their families in The Sims if the game was more realistic. The abstractness invites experimentation, and makes it feel emotionally safe to do so. The stylized and exaggerated representation in Grand Theft Auto 3 functions similarly.

Miniature gardens, finally, might have something to do with Japanese gardening. Will Wright once gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference on this topic, and here is my synopsis of his synopsis of that talk, or at least one tidbit: Japanese gardens create an illusion of a bigger garden than actually exists with techniques like forced perspective (smaller plants marching off into a distance). Will Wright likes to talk about the game player’s play in their own head, and japanese gardens are designed to create a garden in your head that doesn’t really exist. The cars in SimCity, for instance, are a view onto a rich and detailed city which exists only in your head. The clouds and shrubbery in Super Mario Bros. creates the illusion of a complete self-contained world. A book on Japanese gardens Will Wright recommended to me is David A. Slawson’s Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens.


What to read more on this topic? For a more in depth analysis of miniature game worlds that spells out some of Miyamoto's design techniques, check out Aesthetics of Miniature Worlds, chapter 2 of Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons: Games, Spaces, & Worlds.