[In his regular Gamasutra column, author and game designer Bogost analyzes EA DICE's Mirror's Edge, suggesting why "it presents a new view of our own experience of the world", rather "a window polished to an incrementally greater shine."]
When we use a toaster, or a sweater, or a word processing
software package, we have certain functional expectations. A toaster should
caramelize bread evenly and consistently. A sweater should keep a body warm
without fraying or stretching out from repeated use. A word processor should
help automate the crafting of documents without requiring specialized
Some of our expectations of such objects are cosmetic. We like
our toasters to match the décor in our kitchens, our sweaters to be woven with
the colors and styles of the current season.
But the history of software as a
tool for work has made most cosmetic demands for software relate to matters of
usability: buttons and menus should be in convenient locations, actions should
feel consistent and predictable, conventions set by previous iterations of a
software package should be respected, even if lightly refined.
Windows and Mirrors
In the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), these values of
software design are sometimes grouped under the term "transparency."
A good software tool, like a good toaster, is supposed to show us exactly how
it should be used and then meet our expectations as users immediately and
Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala have
a different way to look at software, especially software that seeks to explore
ideas rather than to serve as tools. Bolter and Gromala point out that the
concept of transparency casts software as a window -- a clear surface that
seeks to disappear as it reveals a functional affordance.
This conception works
well for tools but poorly for art. Instead, the two suggest another metaphor, a
mirror. Unlike a window, a mirror's job is to reflect back on its users, to
give them a new perspective on themselves and their place in the world.
Video games are software, but they are not meant to serve the
same function as spreadsheets. They are not tools that provide a specific and
solitary end, but experiences that spark ideas and proffer sensations. Sure,
video games have interfaces, like toasters have browning levers, like sweaters
have cuffs, like word processors have font menus.
But too often we mistake the
demands of these interfaces (and the in-game actions they facilitate) with the
actions of tools. We gripe when a game doesn't do what we expect, rather than
asking what such an unexpected demand means in the context of the game.