Empty spaces full of meaning: elision as production

Our last meeting was, as expected, a raging success! Many thanks to all who came out to take a look, push some buttons, and talk some trash.

We kicked the evening off with a little single-player goodness: Playdead’s Limbo was on the menu, and it was delicious. I dropped a screenshot into my last post, but you’ve really got to see the game in motion (and hear the audio!) to get a sense of what its got going on. Teaser trailer, I choose YOU:

We had a few people in attendance who hadn’t played the game before, and one of them (UO alum / designer Chris Birke) even volunteered to play through the first few puzzles for our viewing and discursive pleasure. What resulted was an absolute blast: discussion wandered freely among topics such as the game’s visual presentation; the extremely sparse but incredibly effective scoring and sound effects; the simplicity of the control scheme; and, of course, the design of the game’s many puzzles. Many a bear trap was sprung, much to our collectively cringing delight. Thanks for playing us through it, Chris!

Our tournament game was Pac-Man Championship Edition, with some pretty simple rules: one game each, high score wins. Castle Crashers (w/ potty humor in full effect) kept the masses busy while we rotated competitors through Pac-Man CE. When the dust settled, Jon Paull blew away the field in a dazzling display of dot-eatsmanship. Speaking purely for myself, his dominance was a little disheartening. In a depressive fit, I refused to snap a pic of his score. Just take my word for it: he ruled, we drooled, ’nuff said.

One day, Jon. One day.

We wrapped up the evening with a discussion of the concept of elision, and its use within a critical framework that formulates excluded design elements as negative spaces that are ultimately (at least) as instructive as the design elements and/or objects present in a given video game. This is a talk I had given once before, and it was great to have another opportunity to chew on this stuff. Many thanks to all who participated! The discussion was very instructive, and left me with a lot to think about. One day soon I’ll write the whole thing up and post it along with my slides. Until that day, here’s a distilled version of some of the main points:

Basically, I stole a couple of ideas (and an image!) from Austin Kleon’s excellent post, “How to Steal Like an Artist.” It has some great advice (like “Steal these ideas!” which I did almost immediately), but I had trouble reading it because I was supremely distracted by this pic:

On its surface, it’s simple: the respective horizontal and vertical stripes of the two parents’ shirts add up to the horizontal and vertical stripes on the child’s shirt. But I barely noticed that, because I couldn’t get my eyes off all those empty spaces. I felt that the gaps between the objects in the photograph were clearly telling the more interesting story; but it’s a difficult story to see, because we generally find it much easier to talk about objects than to talk about spaces. We like to describe something, and have difficulty attaching a description to nothing.

The thing is, there is a whole lot of nothing in video games. There are gaps everywhere you look: even in the most expansive of open-world games, the list of things you cannot do (and things you cannot see, and things you cannot be, and etc.) will always far outweigh the list of things you can do. We can understand those things you cannot do (nor see, nor be) as elided. They could have been included, but they were not.

This is important for two reasons that inform each other: First, because patterns of elided ideas are instructive regarding the production process. A video game is an object produced by a design team / studio / publisher / whatever, but it is also a culturally produced media object. Cultural and political forces guide the creators, as does culturally and politically influenced evaluation and feedback from playtesters throughout the production process. The ideas left out are the ideas that are collectively devalued by these individual and collective actors.

Second, because patterns of included ideas tend to produce vectors of cultural and political thought. These vectors ultimately shape who we collectively are. Elided ideas tend toward the opposite: they gather and collect as empty spaces among the framework of the culturally validated. Just as inclusion might shape who we are, elision very much shapes who we are not. The status quo tends to reproduce itself, recursively invalidating challenges to its dominance by systematically formulating a framework that simply does not acknowledge their existence.

The status is NOT quo!

The real problem with elision is that it generally takes a great deal of effort to even spot it. This is because we are caught in the problem of trying to examine a value system in which we ourselves (to a somewhat varying degree) participate. Value systems tend to insulate themselves from deconstruction, and the difficulty of seeing these cultural empty spaces is a large part of that insulation.

Once again: we tend to talk about objects, and find it difficult to describe spaces. Yet we are a product of those spaces: they define the possible, our possible, as much as the objects surrounding them. I believe there are some truly valuable ideas in those spaces, and I hope we can look carefully enough to spot them.

Give it some thought. I know you played a video game at some point today; what did it show you? What did it leave out?


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