THE IMPORTANCE OF ABSTRACTION

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Natasha Chuk is a New York City-based scholar of media objects, technology, and philosophy, as well as an independent curator. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts and The New School.
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INTRODUCTION

Definitions of what constitutes a game have recently surfaced in discussions among many video game designers and critics in response to a noticeable trend toward abstraction in design, subject matter, and gameplay. As a result, there are opposing positions on the issue, marking a division between purists, or formalists, and experimentalists in the gaming community. Though abstraction in video games has always been a core element of their makeup and players’ engagement with them, the term has more recently been relegated to identifying the non-gaming aspects of video games that favor a guided experience over strategy-fueled competition and pushing visual aesthetics over realism. They also tend to be the creative byproducts of small or independent design studios, further placing them on the outside of the mainstream industry and its dedicated following. However, it is fair to say that videogames have matured to a point where this seemingly dramatic offshoot is part of their growth and, moreover, an indication that video games can and perhaps should exercise the freedom to engage any and all creative techniques afforded them, regardless of their imbalance. Nonetheless, clashing views remain over the definitions of ‘game,’ ‘goals’ and ‘abstract’ as they relate to video games, which may be better left discarded altogether, if not further clarified.

This essay builds on this particular area of development in video games and addresses the importance of abstraction in this medium by drawing on the work of Jesper Juul, Alexander Galloway, and others, and thus on the relevance of video games from a game theory perspective. A short qualitative analysis of two video games, Jeppe Carlsen’s 140 (2013) and Starbreeze Studio’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013), is included to demonstrate how abstraction can be used in unique and interesting ways and can increase player agency, engagement, and authorship in ways that have not yet been fully tested. The former visually alludes to early video game aesthetics, but also amplifies updated mechanics that allow for more highly developed movement, transformation, and player outcomes specifically through sound. The latter, though more linear in terms of narrative and gameplay, utilizes a key feature of abstraction to heighten a player’s sense of loss and difficulty by disabling a portion of the player’s game control after a major narrative event unfolds.

THE BENEFITS OF THIS DISCUSSION

This discussion feels especially timely since new interest in and experiments with abstraction have taken root in the last decade or so, and it is important to recognize the complexity and brevity of its use as well as its implications. By focusing on the definitions, histories, and applications of abstraction in video games and elsewhere, the benefits – which include but are not limited to player agency, transformation, and active engagement – are better placed in view. Moreover, careful consideration of this core element of gaming places this continuously evolving medium among the ranks of other cultural artifacts, which have demonstrated the expressive power of abstraction as a creative tool and, as a result, helped usher the development and growth of their respective medium.

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Pacman

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Q*bert

 

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Tetris

With this in mind, some background on the term abstract is needed, which will be used in two general ways in this discussion and helps to contextualize the occasionally used term abstract games. The first relates to the act or final state of removal from another form. Abstract as an adjective denotes a separation from a concrete reality. An example of this is an abstract idea, which is derived from something that was not determined based on firsthand experience, but rather through the concept or imaginary formation of it. As a verb, to abstract indicates the removal of something, as in its omission.  As a noun, an abstract is a shortened form or summary of a greater object, as in the creation of an abstract of an essay like this. Already, this word encompasses a varied range of uses and understandings, but it also serves to define the second meaning, which is tied to the description of a type of visual art that seeks to break away from traditional representation of physical objects, usually through the relationship between forms and colors instead of recognizable imagery. This second definition explains the genre type described by Mark J.P. Wolf (2001) as “abstract games. ”They are “Games which have nonrepresentational graphics and often involve an objective which is not oriented or organized as a narrative” (117). He offers examples like Pac-Man, Tetris, and Q*bert as games that have “little or no narrative.” Like the abstract art that inspired this category, these games are abstract because they promote shapes and color over clearly delineated stories and, by extension, easy orientation from the audience as to their meaning. It is not important to know the uncertain species that are Pac-Man or Q*bert and why they have enemies, nor is it important to understand the unfair laws of gravity in Tetris or the reason for the ever increasing descent of shapes you are tasked with managing. However, these games have clear-cut goals. While they may be abstract in Wolf’s terms, they are only abstract narratively and visually speaking. These are markedly different from the games that have more recently toyed with aspects of abstraction that question or overturn the gameness of video games, marking a return not to these early models but to a different kind of abstraction in video games. Pac-Man, Tetris, and Q*bert are undeniably games because they offer players definitive goals. This forces us to consider more closely the definition of goals.

DEFINITION OF GAMES AND GOALS

Jesper Juul offers some valuable insights on this subject in his book Half-Real. According to him, “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable” (36). All of these conditions are met in the abstract games described by Wolf. However, Juul also states that, “An abstract game has rules, but no fictional world. Many traditional non-electronic games are abstract, but very few video games are abstract” (131-132). According to this definition, Pac-Man and Q*bert may not be abstract at all, as it can be argued that they have rules and a fictional world. Tetris, on the other hand, has rules but the design of its fictional world is weak. As a player, you do not control a character, nor do you interact with an environment that might be imagined as a reality. Tetris thus represents a visually abstract game with clear-cut goals. But without narrative, character development, and goals, what is left for a video game?

In another essay, Juul discusses a relatively recent shift away from goal-oriented games. He writes, “The last few decades have seen many things described as ‘games’ that either do not have goals, or have goals that are optional for the player” (2007). He identifies games like The Sims and the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, whose open world environments allow for open engagement, exploration, and experiences that exceed the framework of fixed goals. Juul continues, “Removing or weakening the goals of games affords a wider range of player experiences: where competitive multiplayer games or traditional action games force players to focus on optimizing their performance in relation to the goal, these games let players make decisions based on other criteria.”

These other criteria could mean any number of things. In the case of the GTA series, players can access a nearly seamless and convincing fictional world in which exploration is encouraged through countless activities and actions whose realism is communicated through striking visual language. By no means are GTA or The Sims abstract aesthetically, but it could be argued that their realism, either through photorealistic graphics or simulations of real-world activities, make up for their de-emphasis of clear-cut goals. In fact, to make sense of such open and expressive games, Juul draws on the complete theory of video games, which generally states that games have goals, provide challenges to players, and encourage a state of flow. He describes flow as a highly positive mental state that players reach when met with a challenge that requires skills, clear goals, and feedback. This flow state indicates a pleasant state of play driven by intense focus that can produce a temporary loss of self-consciousness and an altered sense of the passing of time. He notes that flow is contingent on the quality of the challenge, which corresponds to the individual player’s skill level and, I would add, personal taste: it cannot be too easy, or it results in boredom, nor can it be too difficult, or it encourages anxiety. In short, this theory states that video games require a clear-cut goal in order to situate players in a state of flow, an ideal balance between challenge and reward, which produces a feeling of enjoyment. However, the complete theory of video games overlooks the nuances of game design, player engagement, and player experience. Or, rather, it requires additional explanation to fully encompass what games can do. According to Juul, it is important to also define ‘goals’ in video games: some are obligatory, some are optional, and all vary greatly in terms of difficulty and how well they appeal to individual players. With this in mind, it is worth examining the definition and character of  ‘goals’ of video games far more broadly than locating a quantifiable objective centered on trial and error and a system of triumph and rewards.

MACHINE ACTIONS AND OPERATOR ACTIONS

On a very basic level, the goal of any video game is interactive engagement in a designed space. Alexander Galloway identifies two basic types of action in video games: machine actions and computer actions. He writes, “Machine actions are acts performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while operator actions are acts performed by players” (Galloway 5). This simple reminder that video games involve a physical interplay between computer and player underscores video games’ most basic feature: abstraction. Put another way, “Locating a power-up in Super Mario Bros. is an operator act, but the power-up actually boosting the player character’s health machine is a machine act” (Galloway 5). If we can overlook the fact that Super Mario Bros. is a video game with clear-cut goals – and thus fulfills the requirements of the complete video game theory – and focus instead on the mechanics of the power-up, these two types of action in video games describe the complex relations between virtual and physical acts. Video games are already abstract, not because they are expressive and goal-less, but because they are designed to bridge the gap between the virtual and physical worlds.

This brings us back to Juul, who identifies three distinguishing features of abstraction: “abstraction as a core element of video game design, abstraction as something that the player decodes while playing a game, and abstraction as a type of optimization that the player builds over time” (2007). In other words, understanding video games means understanding the different levels of abstraction with respect to the player’s interaction with the game and its effects on the player. The strategic use of abstraction can be used to withhold information, challenge the use of player intuition, encourage experimentation, and many other outcomes that may have little to do with narrative goals.

CELEBRATING ABSTRACTION

Building on these ideas, it can be said that challenging how far video games can take any element of abstraction may serve to create a fictional world in which any virtual experience can be guided, which may be the only goal of the game itself. Abstract aesthetics and the absence of narrative, as in the case of Tetris, are acceptable because of the game’s clear-cut goals and scoring mechanism. But what if a player could explore those shapes and forms differently, without the task of organizing them, or passing through levels that track progress, and instead has the chance to study and appreciate the shapes and their relation to one another and their virtuality? One could argue that there are moments such as these in any of the GTA series games, wherein a player discovers an enjoyable activity and repeats it out of pleasure, not obligation. This is a valuable and unique aspect of gaming. This is what Julian Küklich (2006) refers to as aesthetics of control, which in some ways mirrors Galloway’s ideas. Küklich writes, “The pleasure of digital games can be said to derive from the equilibrium between the player’s control over the game and the game’s control over the player” (108). This symbiotic relationship between player and video game is enjoyable in itself. Moreover, Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinksa (2006) describe another aesthetic feature of video games derived from cinema that is worth mentioning: video games produce a variety of audio-visual spectacles and sensations that are “designed to create a ‘wow’ reaction that entails a subtle dialectic between awareness of spectacle as impressive artifice and being ‘taken in’ by, and thus ‘taken into’ the fictional world of which the image is a part” (124). Examples of this “pleasure based on delight in the quality of imagery, for its own sake,” are found in games like Flower (2009), Journey (2012), Red Dead Redemption (2010), and Skyrim (2011). With this kind of valuable aesthetic potential, it is difficult to fault a game whose primary goal may be to offer players the pleasure of audio-visual spectacle and interactive sensation.

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Flower

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Journey

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Red Dead Redemption

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Skyrim

ANALYSIS

Because the medium of video games offers unique experiences, their ‘hermeneutic’ value also may lie in environmental or emergent narrative constructs. The former allows meaning to come through in the fictional environment, and the latter through player experience. Each of these relates to goals in the broadest sense, but nonetheless guides and shapes players’ experiences through strategically designed game elements. Questioning games that seemingly have no point or present environments in which the player is not expected to do anything specific is not only subjective, but also misguided. Experience in games that favor abstract qualities can create meaningful experiences akin to those demonstrated by other abstract art. There are many examples of abstract games that come to mind, including Rod Humble’s The Marriage (2007) and Jason Rohrer’s Passage (2007). 140 and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons specifically demonstrate two things: first, how the application of abstract aesthetics can be used to reinforce the unique qualities afforded to video games and create meaning; and second, the ways in which abstract elements can be incorporated in more traditionally narrative-based games.

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The Marriage

 

 

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Passage

140

140 is a platform-based game and therefore has clearly defined goals; however, it is markedly visually abstract and relies on musical synchronization to help orient the player’s position and determine movement. The player’s avatar is represented by two-dimensional geometric shapes that alternate between a circle, square, and triangle, depending on whether they are stationary, moving forward, backward, or jumping. In keeping with this visual aesthetic – which recalls the visual style of abstract artists Barnett Newman, Joan Miro, and Alexander Calder – enemies and obstacles are also represented through simple two-dimensional graphics. 140 offers a version of a narrative through the language of sound, specifically electronic music that occasionally references 8-bit music or chiptune musical aesthetics. While the gameplay is relatively simple, mirroring the structure and difficulty of an old-school platformer, it engages strategy through sonic cues and patterns, re-orienting the player toward sound against a minimalist but richly saturated visual backdrop. This musical journey allows the player to build a soundtrack through movement and interaction with obstacles and enemies in a visually stunning space, all while creating a synaesthetic experience.

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140

Though there are clear-cut goals in this game, and advancement through each level is the objective, in-game failure translates as musical dissonance and temporary disruption. Falling or getting hit by an enemy shape is a possibility, which means skills are definitely required to advance in this game, particularly responding to the rhythm and texture of the music. But in this abstractly designed game world, players can return to the last checkpoint and the musical journey resumes. 140 effectively reinforces both the pleasure of interacting with a game as well as the pleasure derived from the visually and sonically stimulating environment crafted by the game design. Moreover, this game takes the spectacle and sensation to the next level as it encourages players to contribute to and shape its stunning audio-visual aesthetic, all the while ushering along the possibility that one player’s musical mistake is another’s player’s victory. 140 thus contributes to the idea that meaning and pleasure are derived through a player’s subjective interactive engagement with the game, and enjoyment also stems from the creation of spectacle and sensation.

BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a very different game but employs a highly abstract feature to not only advance the game’s narrative, but more importantly to uniquely immerse the player in the game world and effectively draw attention to the bridged gap between the virtual and physical worlds.

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

This puzzle platformer adventure game builds a story around two boys who go off on a journey to try to help save their father’s life. More importantly, the game design emphasizes the differences between the two boys through the game controller, which is divided appropriately to control each brother individually. The older brother is the stronger of the two, but each is uniquely qualified to do certain tasks in the game. As such, players respond to in-game information and the qualities of each character through a third-person perspective, and command each through corresponding controls.

As the game progresses, players develop empathy toward both characters that are figuratively and literally in their care. After a series of tragic events, eventually one of the two brothers dies. In keeping with the controls setting established at the outset, the thumbstick that controls the now deceased brother is, for the remainder of the game, disabled. Critics have applauded this game for its storytelling, pacing, and ability to communicate through interaction, but it arguably does more than that.

Managing the control system throughout the game already proves challenging; it seems to encourage a particular skill of puppeteering rarely required by a video game. Each brother has to be understood by the player rather intimately to gauge his reactions, strategies, and general performance. As such, the physical reminder of their differences and unique strengths seems to take a noticeably physical toll. By disabling the control for the lost character, there is a deep sense of mourning, not only for the fictional character as a player and on behalf of the surviving brother, but also for the actions and physical multitasking that are no longer required of you as a player.

Though rather simple and in many ways a logical choice, this controller setup is an exercise in effectively incorporating abstraction. Already managing a world and characters that are not physically present but require your physical input and action as a player, among other things, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons forces a visceral response, in addition to the possibility of an emotional one, to the character’s death. Players feel the physical loss of a character that was never tangible but had always been tethered by this symbiotic relationship between human and machine, to the device they handle. To reinforce the virtual loss, a physical one takes place: as a result, half your controller is disabled, and one hand is no longer needed. The effect is palpable and makes adjustment to this shift difficult to overcome, mirroring, of course, the surviving brother’s reaction to the loss. With this in mind, the game does not stop at showing loss in audio-visual narrative terms; it simulates loss beyond the realm of the game’s story and into the player’s hands.

CONCLUSION

In closing, abstraction is not only a fundamental ingredient of video games, it is also integral to the shaping of players’ ideas, experiences, and impressions during and after gameplay, not least a key element. The question of abstraction in games today is both a sign of their growth and the potential for further developing creative possibilities. These uses of abstraction call to mind the work of philosophers like Henri Bergson and Jean-Paul Sartre, who in their own ways examined the values of intuition and experience. With this in mind, the abstract, which in itself lacks rationalism and progress-driven storytelling, celebrates the experiences it creates, which might reveal a deeper understanding of reality. Video games are uniquely positioned to do more than tell stories: through them, stories can be felt through action and visceral reactions, or simply through the pleasure of their design and the guided experiences they create.

 

Works Cited

Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Jesper Juul: “A Certain Level of Abstraction”. Situated Play: DiGRA 2007 Conference Proceedings. Edited by Akira Baba. Tokyo: DiGRA Japan, 2007. 510-510. Print and web. Available online at http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/acertainlevel

Jesper Juul. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005. Print.

Jesper, Juul. “Without a goal – on open and expressive games.” Videogame, Player, Text. Edited by Barry Atkins. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. 191–203. Print and web. Available at http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/withoutagoal/

King, Geoff and Tanya Krzywinksa. “Film studies and digital games.” Understanding Digital Games. Edited by Jason Rutter & Jo Bryce. London: Sage Publications, 2006. 112–128. Print.

Julian Küklich. “Literary theory and digital games.” Understanding Digital Games. Edited by Jason Rutter and Jo Bryce. London: Sage Publications, 2006. 95–111. Print.

Wolf, Mark J.P.. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Print.