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Persuasive Games: Gestures as Meaning
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Persuasive Games: Gestures as Meaning

June 30, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Making Gestures Matter

Train offers an important lesson in physical design: the way a player responds to a gesture is at least as important as the way the game responds to such a gesture.

But Train is a tabletop game, not a digital one. Is it even possible to translate the gestural ambiguity of such an experience into a video game?

The answer may lie not in Train's form, but in its method. The game embraces ambiguity at every turn, refusing to connect any dots. It never makes an argument about the Holocaust.

It never even takes a position on whether or not the efficient movement of people from station to terminus ought to be praised or condemned by its players, whether they should adopt the role of Nazi officer in order to grasp his plight or if they should reject it as morally reprehensible.

Instead, the game creates a circumstance in which the gestures a player performs -- lining up passengers, loading and unloading them, moving trains to a death camp -- are allowed to reverberate uncomfortably.

One of Will Wright's contributions to game design is his elevation of ambiguity to a first-order design principle.

Even in simulation-heavy games like SimCity and The Sims, players are afforded tremendous interpretative freedom as they imagine what's going on behind the walls of their buildings or in the minds of their sims. In simulation, abstraction doesn't just simplify implementation, it also affords richer experience.

The same might be true of gestural interfaces. While increased physical realism might allow actions to become more faithful in their specificity, compelling significance doesn't necessarily come for free. Indeed, by abstracting a game's response to gestures, games of all kinds can allow the player a richer interpretative field. And in many cases, interpretation is more interesting than responsiveness.

Consider a much less politically charged example: Dance Dance Revolution. DDR's success as an arcade title comes partly from its honed responsiveness to simple player steps. But its life as a venue for public performance was born from the spaces the game didn't measure between steps, spaces players felt compelled to fill with improvised maneuvers of their own.

Train might then invite questions about the mad dash toward new and improved gestural technology. Wii MotionPlus, PS3 Wand, and Microsoft Natal all assume that higher resolution, greater fidelity inputs will result in more compelling games. And they will, in part; certainly the precise physical properties of Train are intrinsic to the gestural meaning they impart.

But the speed of development and release of new hardware platforms also offers excuses not to explore the tools we already have.

Perhaps the souls of our games are not to be found in ever-better accelerometers and infrared sensors, but in the way they invite players to respond to them. After all, Brenda Brathwaite was able to plumb the depths of dread, exploitation, and complicity with wooden tokens and plastic trains.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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