Monday, 12 December 2011

Super Mario miniature garden game dynamics

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 andSimCity both have spatial structures at multiple scales that are intrinsically related and self-similar.

continue from 2.1.1 Overview - make sure include 2.4 inviting participation
Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons

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