Constructing the Space of Possibility


Constructing the Space of Possibility

Partha Desikan

Have you had a hand at designing games? If you have, or even if you have now developed an itch to try your hand, the following sensitive and insightful analysis by David Sudnow (page 117 in the book ‘Pilgrim in a Microworld', published by Warner Books, New York, NY, 1983) will catch you where it tickles and tingles. David is just trying to bring his readers into the space of designed interactivity through detailed descriptions of what he experienced – physically, psychologically, emotionally – as he played the video game known as Breakout.


In the event that you have not heard of Breakout, this is the way Wikipedia defines and introduces the game:


Breakout is an arcade game developed by Atari Inc. and introduced on May 13, 1976. It was conceptualized by Nolan Bushnell and Steve Bristow, and influenced by the 1972 arcade game Pong. The game was ported to video game consoles and upgraded to video games such as Super Breakout. In addition, Breakout was the basis and inspiration for many books, video games, and the Apple II personal computer.

In the game, a layer of bricks lines the top third of the screen. A ball travels across the screen, bouncing off the top and side walls of the screen. When a brick is hit, the ball bounces away and the brick is destroyed. The player loses a turn when the ball touches the bottom of the screen. To prevent this from happening, the player has a movable paddle to bounce the ball upward and back into play.

The arcade cabinet uses a black and white monitor. However, the monitor has strips of colored cellophane placed over it so that the bricks appear to be in color.

Now here is Sudnow's ecstatic and graphic account:

I'd catch myself turning my chair into a more en face position vis-à-vis the TV. An obvious delusion. Maybe I could rest one elbow on the set to help feel the angle of my look and deepen a sense of the scale of things. See it from this side and that; see the invisible backside of things through an imaginary bodily tour of the object. Nonsense!

 If only I could feel the impact of the ball on the paddle, that would certainly help, would give me a tactile marker, stamping the gesture's places into a palpable little signature, so I'd feel each destination being achieved and not just witness the consequences of a connect shot. Nonsense!

Nonsense, just your eyes way up top, to be somehow fixed on things in ways that can't feel them fixing, then this silent smooth little plastic knob down there, neither near nor far away, but in an untouchable world without dimension. And in between all three nodes of the interface, there is nothing but a theory of electricity. So fluid, to have to write your signature with precise consistency in size within the strict bounds of a two and three sevenths of an inch of space, say, while the pen somehow never makes contact with the paper. There's nothing much to hold on to, not enough heft in this  knob so your hands can feel the extent of very minor movements, no depth to things you can use to anchor a sense of your own solidity.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman use the above nugget to ponder the possibility of a game designer anticipating and actually crafting such experiential possibilities from the players, if not the designer's, angle. In their book, ‘Rules of Play', (published by the MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004, pages 66 and 67, they express their empathy and solidarity with the likes of David Sudnow, who wishes he could reach out and touch the electronic blip of his Breakout paddle. They throw out their hands and confess, however, that the game designer has his limitations. He cannot, like Sudnow, directly craft the possible space of his creation. But he can indirectly (only indirectly, mind) construct the space of possibility. Game design is an act of faith, they point out, in the rules you create and lay down, in the players who will play your game, and in your game itself. You will never know for sure, whether the game you lovingly created will in turn create meaningful play. But a proper understanding of key concepts like design, systems and interactivity especially, can help bring you as a designer, closer to a meaningful outcome.


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