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Abstraction in Learning Games

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

I was asked to write about abstraction in games for the Filament blog, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. Let me start by offering some hippy dippy nonsense that you will probably roll your eyes at, because you’ve already seen The Matrix. I think it’s useful though just to give you context.

Begin Navel Gazing

An abstraction is, of course, an expression of…a thing, that is not the thing itself. Since we make games about a thing, you can (and should) see each of our games as an abstraction of the thing that we’re trying to express. So far, so good. A book, a sign, a sentence spoken aloud…all of these are symbols we create to represent the thinking of a thing.

A famous zen parable cautions us with the Buddha pointing to the moon with his finger, and warns us not to confuse the finger with the moon itself. The finger is a sign post indicating a truth, and it’s folly to assume that the sign post and the thing itself are one and the same. Of course, the light we see bouncing off the moon is also not the moon…it’s important to remember that we can slice off intermediary layers of abstraction between us and “the thing itself” more or less indefinitely.

Depending on how nihilistic you want to get, you can say that everything is an abstraction, with our limited sense offering limited reports of the world around us, each painting an abstraction of the ephemera we drift through, until our heart shorts out and the brain stops constructing its symphony of fiction to ourselves. Let’s not go that far, though, it gets pretty depressing pretty quickly. Let’s just say that as humans, we’re constantly crafting, interpreting and sharing symbols that give us a fabric of ideas that we interpret as the world. Neat!

So yeah. We’re awash in a sea of synthesized sensory reports that we interpret as reality. Given that we’re going this far, I’m just going to state here that the article is going to assume that these reports are in fact derived from things that actually *are*, and that our senses give imperfect reports of those thing. The alternative would just be to fall back on shadows on a cave wall yadda yadda…but that doesn’t really get us very far if we want to see ourselves as active agents in a world that has some consequence. And I do.

So let’s go a little further and define an abstraction as a symbol crafted, on purpose, for the purpose of reporting a piece of information to someone else. The symbol is made not to be the thing, but a representation of that thing. It’s also important to note that the abstraction itself has an intent that is *less* than the thing itself- it’s highlighting some facet of the thing that is considered a relevant or useful piece of the thing.

For example, let’s return to the moon. If I wanted to impress upon you what the moon looks like, I could just point at it, or draw a picture if it was cloudy that evening. Assuming I’m not a horrible artist, this is a decent abstraction of the moon, for the purpose of getting you to understand it’s appearance. But if I wanted to impress upon you some other aspect of the moon (let’s say its size), I would need to change that abstraction. I could draw it next to the earth and the sun, and show you its relative size, or I could show you a diameter measurement to give you a quantifiable understanding. Both would probably be helpful if I wanted to give you a fuller picture.

End Navel Gazing

But what if I wanted you to understand what it might be like to walk on the moon? Or how the moon affects the tides? Or its orbital path through the solar system? A more complicated abstraction would be warranted.

And that’s where games come in! Consider these three takes on teaching about the moon through game mechanics:

If I wanted to show you what it might be like to walk on the moon, I could use a game to craft an identity for you on the moon itself. We could put you in the role of Neil Armstrong, and ask you to hop from crater to crater, getting an immediate sensory feel for the sensation of gravity to compare against your terrestrial experiences.

This is because games are uniquely powerful in expressing a sense of identity– the interaction and rules of play let us create abstractions where you can take on the role of someone else, and consider the world from a new specific perspective.

If I wanted to show you how the moon affects the tides, I could put you in the role of the moon itself, giving you the ability to change your distance and location relative to the Earth, sloshing the oceans around as you will.

This is because games are uniquely powerful in expressing verbs– games let you create rules that give you capabilities and the ability to take actions that would otherwise be impossible, letting you use your own will and new capabilities to explore new ideas.

If I wanted to show you how the moon travels in orbit around the Earth, I could create a game that lets you see the entire Solar system in motion, letting you reverse time and travel throughout it, experimenting with the planets and their moons in their journey through physical space and time.

This is because games are uniquely powerful in expressing systems– games can craft complicated simulations and interdependent rules, and allow you to see how those rules interact with each other in unexpected and complicated ways.

These are of course fairly simple examples. Good learning games draw upon all three strategies in some sort of synthesis to try and create a multifaceted abstraction that delivers a player experience that is complex, important, durable and useful. It’s hard.

But it’s fun to try!