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Persuasive Games: Texture

May 7, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[As part of his regular Gamasutra column, author/designer Ian Bogost (Fatworld) looks at 'texture' in games - connecting the virtual to the real via rumble and physical simulation, from Hard Drivin' to Rez.]

I enjoy the ancient Chinese strategy game Go, although I am hardly an expert. The open-source GnuGO AI built into the computer version of the game I play overpowers me much of the time.

After many years of having gone without, I recently received a Go board and set of stones as a gift. Immediately I noticed the most important difference between playing on the computer and off it: touching the board and the stones.

I had forgotten what a tactile game Go is. The black and white often have a different texture from one another, depending on the type and quality of stones one uses.

The feel and weight of them between the fingers somehow aids the pondering that comes with their placement.

Once the player chooses a move, placing the stone on a real board offers a far more tactile challenge than clicking an on-screen goban. The stones move, so disrupting the board is an easy feat that must be carefully avoided. Traditionally, Go players would hold a stone between the index and middle finger and strike their move, so as to create a sharp click against the wooden board.

Go is a cerebral, minimalist game that exudes purity and austerity. Computer versions of Go adapt these values unflappably. Although purists favor silence in selecting and holding a stone, for me Go is a game of rummaging for a stone in a smooth wooden bowl and stroking it in thought before placing it to mark territory.

These features are not unique to Go, but they are distinctive. In Chess, the pieces rest on the board, or off, never to be touched save to punctuate decision. Although both games are cerebral, Go is far more sensual.

Go reminds us that the physical world -- games included -- have texture. They offer tactile sensations that people find interesting on their own.

Texture in Media

In painting, texture is a more frequently recognized aspect of creativity. The word describes the weave of the canvas, the application of the medium upon it, and the interaction of the two. It is a feature that frequently earns mention among critics and casual observers alike as a fundamental part of the finished work.

Impressionist painters like Vincent Van Gogh used thick applications of paint, partly to recreate the effects of light on the surface of the canvas itself as well as in the subjects represented.

And Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionist work relies almost entirely on texture; Pollock even added grains of sand and shards of glass to his already viscous industrial paints to increase the texture of the finished work.

Van Gogh's Starry Night, Pollock's Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

Other media adopt their own understandings of texture. In the culinary arts, texture refers to the physical sensation of a food in one's mouth, such as the crispness of a cucumber or the slipperiness of an oyster.

And in music, texture is used metaphorically to refer to the relationship between sounds and voices in a piece -- as if they were layered through time like paint on a canvas.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Great article.

Chris Remo
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This is a great piece. It's a topic in which I have long been extremely interested, and here it is laid out eloquently and with plenty of good context. Bravo.

Shahar Eldar
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This is a very good article, but as much as it discusses texture in it's sensory form, there is also texture that is provided through gameplay and interaction that is left unmentioned.

This is the texture that comes from the way every interaction around the player reacts, the little details that accumulate to provide the game's "feel".

In games like grand theft auto it's the feel of the cars, how their weight affects their acceleration, how walking through a crowd slows down your character, and how everyone notices your character and reacts to it. It can even be the feel of the menu and buttons, how long it takes for each new screen to pop up in a game that relies on those (strategy games, RPGs).

I see that texture is there visually, aurally and tactically but very few people talk about gameplay as having texture, even though the best games have gameplay that is as carefully crafted as any painting.

Ian Bogost
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Chris (and anon), -- Thanks!

Shadhar -- You're right, these are great examples. I'd probably stuff them into the category of "texture as effect" here. Anyway, thanks for the suggestions.

Christian Nutt
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Texture is something I've very much pondered over the years. What makes the combat in Devil May Cry or Zelda feel good but the combat in other games that have a sword feel so terrible? How do those developers successfully create the feel of an impact without any sort of feedback (and I generally turn off rumble!)

It's an interesting question because I've played some hack and slash games that have absolutely terrible feel-of-play and some that have amazingly good feel, but it's hard to figure out what makes it so...

Georgia McGregor
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Texture in architecture refers to both the visual and tactile quality of a material. Given that game-spaces are not coporeal environments, lacks materiality, games offers only the visual component. In fact games ingnore quite a wide range of sensory information, from smell to propriproception. Videogames can be thought of as phenomenologically sterile (in architecture phenomenology is about the sensory qualitites of architecture - what Pallasmaa calls an architecture of the seven senses).

Ernest Adams notes that most tactile feedback (through rumblepaks etc) is associated with game events and not the game environment. There are after market devices (such as the Novint Falcon) which promise to address the haptic sterility of game-space, but videogames are still predominatly audio-visual experiences. What I find interesting about haptic potential in games is the ability to code information haptically - imagine a RTS game where the tactile feedback gave you data about your opponents base instead of little health bars above the buildings, or

Michael Kelley
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I really enjoyed this article and agreed with what Georgia McGregor had to say. The problem that I see developing in video games particularly is that as immersive as they may be, they are still constrained by the mediums of audio and visual. This limits the boundaries of what games can be. As haptics become ever more sophisticated (see Butterfly Haptics new mag-lev device) the expansiveness of what can be expressed within games and how we can interact with virtual worlds will offer ever greater posibilities for desingers and gamers alike.

Jim Barrett
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Dr. Ian Bogost, a recent seminar guest in HUMlab and a professor at Georgia Tech has as part of his regular Gamasutra column discussed 'texture' in games. Ian gives an excellent account of texture, "tactile sensations that people find interesting on their own", in relation to the haptic qualities of computer games. He talks about Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez (2001) one of the most imaginative games I have come across and a skillful mix of textual synesthesia and kinetic participation.

I wrote about texture in my last thesis chapter but have since removed it from the draft. I use 'texture' in a very different sense to Ian's use of the term, but there are related areas. The main area of commonality between the texture of Bogost and the way I describe it is in relation to what Ian writes is "as if they were layered through time". I use layering as a way of describing the "procedurality" of digital texts (Murray 1997) in terms of reception