Friday, January 11, 2008

Lost in the Microcosm

In my previous post about Homo Ludens I made the point that all play involves the construction of a microcosm. I want to expand upon this idea a bit.

Simply put, a microcosm is a toy world. It operates under its own rules and logic, which may or may not approximate the way the real world behaves. Some entities within a microcosm may be represented by real objects (a pawn from a chess set, for example) while others may exist as pure abstractions (a child’s imaginary friend). But even when a real thing is incorporated into a microcosm, its real-world properties are trumped by the abstract functions assigned to it. In a game of chess it doesn’t matter if the pawns are ivory or wood or beer-bottle caps; their physical reality is immaterial to their “pawn-ness”.

The arbitrariness of the real-world components of a microcosm is related to Saussure’s observation that “the signifier is not the signified”. In semiotic terms, you could say that an actual soccer ball is a signifier for a signified abstract “ball entity” that exists within the microcosm of a soccer game.

(I should say as an aside that I’m not a big fan of semiotic analysis when it comes to videogames. It usually seems to revolve around how videogames relate to reality, dragging in Baudrillard’s notions of simulations and simulacra. As a working game designer I’m much more interested in how microcosms function in and of themselves, and much less interested in how that behavior translates into real-world meaning.)

One thing to note is the interesting real/abstract inversion between the signifier and the signified. In linguistics we’re used to thinking of the signifier as an abstraction and the signified as a real-world object. The classic example is the word “tree” and an actual tree. But when we start looking at play we discover many situations where real-world objects are used as signifiers for entities within the microcosm – poker chips, soccer balls, hopscotch squares. This holds true even for types of play beyond games:

“Pretend you’re a monster, Daddy!”

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