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Persuasive Games: Disjunctive Play
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Persuasive Games: Disjunctive Play

November 18, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

How Many Players?

An ongoing debate rages about which is "better": single-player or multi-player games. Well-known MMOG designer Raph Koster has argued that single-player games are an "historical aberration" wrought by unconnected computers. People, the argument goes, have played games together since the dawn of history as a way of testing roles and enacting traditions.

Theorists of play like Johan Huizinga and Brian Sutton-Smith have made similar observations, studying the ways play is central to human culture rather than set apart from it.

Scholars, players, and the general public alike have observed how popular multiplayer experiences, from World of Warcraft to Facebook, both improve and change the way we relate to other people. Indeed, one of the tired aphorisms of today's technology business culture is the promise to help people "connect with your friends."

Most video games take one of a few tacks regarding play with others. Some games, like Super Mario Bros., are solitary, with multi-player experience limited to spectatorship (BioShock) or hot-seat-style sequential play (Asteroids).

Others focus on competition, whether through strategy (Diplomacy) or combat (Super Smash Bros.), synchrony (CounterStrike) or asynchrony (Scrabulous).

Still others focus on collaboration (Rock Band) or co-creation (Little Big Planet). Recent trends in social networking and massively multiplayer games might suggest a fourth kind of experience, that of socialization. And many games include variants or modes that cover solitary, competitive, and collaborative play.

But there are many more ways of understanding how people relate to each other than just through solitude, competition, collaboration, or socialization. Between is such a game.


The concept of the "other" has a long and complex history in philosophy. Building on the thinking of Freud and Hegel, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan advanced the idea of the other as a key organizing principle of the self. French philosopher Immanuel Levinas argued that the Other remains forever unknowable.

For Levinas, the Other serves as a fundamental grounding for ethics. These thinkers understand Others in a radical way: the other is not just "someone else," but something infinitely different, so much so that the chasm between self and other can never be traversed, mended, or united.

From this frustration comes the concept's power. Unlike collaboration or competition or indeed solitude, the concept of the Other reminds us that individual existence is comprised partly from disconnectedness.

It is here that Rohrer's game takes root. Its title, Between, already suggests that the game deals with the space separating the two players more than the common goal that appears to unite them (constructing a tower of blocks).

When the game begins, the player has the initial impression that the second player is unimportant; no trace of the other character appears on screen. As one completes the lower-level blocks, this sensation continues, until the reality of the blocks with secondary colors presents itself.

Here, temporarily, the player feels as though a collaboration with the second player will be both fruitful and facile: all that is needed are enough secondary color blocks to allow the solitary construction of the tower.

But then, and quickly, disappointment sets in: one player cannot simply request specific blocks from the other; rather, a complex and unseen process generates shadow blocks based on the structure the other player builds. This structure too remains unseen.

The resulting experience is where Rohrer's characteristically sophisticated treatment of human experience through seemingly simple game dynamics takes root. Both players will likely wonder, perhaps aloud, what kind of game would make progress so inscrutable.

The two may even try to strategize, carefully sharing moves in an attempt to trace the edges of the computational process used to generate counterpart blocks on the other player's screen.

But this process too has its limits: eventually compound blocks must be created across multiple screens in the game, increasing the cognitive load of both players to the breaking point.

Between does not try to create identification through collaboration. The game aims to create a relationship between two players that focuses both on the chasm that separates them as human beings, rather than on a common foe, or one another as foes, or as a medium for social interaction.

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