Roughly speaking, video games were first introduced commercially during the waning reign of arcade games, chief among them pinball. Smacking a steel ball around on a tilted table, without any adornment, can get pretty dull pretty fast, unless you’re a cat, and maybe even then. So pinball makers designed incredibly elaborate, multi-sensory environments for you to smack the ball around in. . . buzzers, bells, lights, sirens, ramps, multiple balls. . . stimulation galore.
Enter pong. That little blip translating slowly across the screen. The little line grandiloquently called a ‘paddle.’ Dink. Wait. Dink. Thus was born the penis-envy of the video game world: stimulation envy. On one hand, video games could do what mechanical arcade games could not, at least not very well—create an alternative reality. A video ping-pong game. A video tank fight. But the video game was a poor—very poor—cousin to the real world it was simulating. So for the next several decades, the driving force behind video game design and development has been largely, well, getting a bigger and better one. More realistic games, better graphics, more bells, whistles, lights, sirens and ramps, more fantastic worlds, more realistic action, culminating in multi-million dollar console games that are entire worlds unto themselves. But how much does size matter? Or is it how you use it?
Tommy (aka, the pinball wizard), was a pinball genius precisely because he could not perceive all the bells and whistles (he can’t hear no buzzers or bells, don’t see no lights are flashing. . . ). Similarly, though our real world environment is rich with stimuli, part of the challenge of neural function is filtering a good portion of that out. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task that you don’t notice things you normally would, like a grumbling stomach, music or tv that gets completely blocked out, a person talking to you? Much of the stimuli in video games is often completely extraneous, put there to make the game more interesting, stimulating, but contributing little to nothing to the actual game mechanic. The beauty of pong is that it distilled the action to its essence (unfortunately, a fairly dull essence). In current games—I’m thinking more phone and tablet based games—there seems to be a divergence between games that adopt the pinball ethos (crazy, sensory overloading bells, buzzers and lights a flashing) and those that adopt a minimalist, revisioned ‘pong’ ethos. This is more than a mere aesthetic choice—it is not a superficial, decorative frame around the game mechanic. It is the canvas upon which the game is painted. The interface is the guts of the mechanic, not the other way around. In the next blog post, I’ll argue for minimalism, at the very least as a design process, regardless of how big the final product ends up.