Abstraction

Game Idea: Rummy The Red, a Paladin-Wizard-Apprentice uses an arsenal of spells and items to banish the Goobs, golems from another world that have been sent to this one to collect resources for their dark master Bort. Most levels are castle-like facilities (the sort that Goobs like to build), though there are some outdoors levels where bushes, cold and cliffs add additional challenges.

Most Goobs are Worker Goobs who either gather or expend resources in the process of transforming the world to better suit Goobkind and Bort’s grand design. But some Goobs are Battle Goobs who will fight back. Battle Goobs engage in numbers, and use weapons and tactics utilizing the local layout to corner, disorient and neutralize Rummy. Our hero’s objective is to banish as many Worker Goobs as possible before the Battle Goobs overpower him, and then escape, if possible. The challenge will be to determine when the Battle Goobs are gathering strength and retreat early.

Does this sound like a good game? I’ll get back to it momentarily.

It occurred to me the gameplay of the Thief series of games distilled down to its basics becomes Pac Man, where your objective is to collect all the dots while evading the baddies trying to stop you. Later iterations of the same motif use symbols with intrinsic value (coins, gems, stars, etc.) As more story is added, it’s clear the player isn’t taking what’s his, but it’s okay because the the enemies are (designated) baddies. Thief takes this dynamic and applies it to a darker, more human-based milieu, though you’re still evading antagonists and finding and taking all the valuables, with the same motivations of collecting them all and achieving a maximum score.

The Rummy the Red game, above, is same logical scenario that is followed by a rampage killer. In this case, it’s abstracted, transformed into a different setting. It’s brightened and softened (the opposite of dark and edgy). it’s painted in bright primary colors with opponents with funny names. The goobs may not even be humanoid, but as abstract as the Pac Man ghosts.

This notion, that games run along a spectrum of abstraction to, well, non-abstraction is hardly new. Chess started as a device (according to some narratives) by which a prince explained to his mother why it was necessary that he wage war against his brother’s armies and ultimately order his brother’s death. I don’t know whether the mother found this explanation acceptable, but the local sages were impressed, at least with the presentation.

Does it really matter whether games have us stealing gems from or killing Goombas (not necessarily these Goombas), or whether we are violating the houses of human beings to kill them and take their stuff? The folks at Valve did us the service of putting such a juxtaposition into sharp relief.

How dangerous is this? Considerably, but as I’ve discussed before, not where we expect. When it comes to rampage killers and terrorists, they actually disconnect from that part of the brain that is fed by gaming (So say expertier experts than I am. We’re still going on very little data.) Your five-year-old playing Spyro The Dragon isn’t going to decide that he’s entitled to all the shiny things around the house that remind him of gems. Nor are kids swayed to think guns are not dangerous because they are used excessively in a Looney Tune.

And then, our governments’ militaries and officials and allied news agencies are very skilled at describing violence in abstract terms to soften its visceral nature. It’s easier to think about and endorse crimes against humanity when they’re expressed as extrajudicial detention, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation. The Final Solution (die Endlösung) remains the most infamous example. I grew up regarding the strategic weapons of my nation as a necessity. Only in the hands of others did similar weapons become weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, such strategic weapons were never used. (To this day US strategic weapons are — even if we no longer call them that — of all WMDs, the M-est.)

Our discourse by officials and news media remains lousy with abstract terminology. It remains a valuable tool by which the fucked-up shit that we do official policy is discussed without half the audience retching in disgust and shock.

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