[Phantom Fingers is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column on 'the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player' by writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne [aka Eric-Jon Waugh], whom you may know as a co-founder of seminal game site Insert Credit. First up, an introduction...]

We are all inhabitants of our own reality. On the one hand we're kind of like sponges, absorbing everything around us and integrating it, whether we care to or not. On the other hand, deliberately or not we shape our worlds to reflect our own inner structures.

Whatever we may carry into a situation, experiences physically change our neural pathways. Repetition, familiarity, reinforces a link, like sketching over a line again and again until it becomes solid. Likewise, the way we position furniture, leave piles of papers or empty cans, what we choose to clean and how, what projects we leave unfinished, what we ruin, what we fix, what we wear down; how we choose to break up and break in and use the space given to us, it all imprints our environments just as emotions crease our aging faces.

In effect, our inner and outer worlds build up a feedback loop. As we carve out our place in the world, we settle into the spaces we carve, reassuring ourselves with their familiarity while we use those bold lines, so often scribbled over, to brand ourselves inside and out. This, we tell ourselves, is how the world works.

This is why videogames are so interesting; they are, in effect, bottled external worlds, into which we can momentarily plug our inner worlds to see what happens. Each game is a little feedback loop, allowing the player both to imprint his actions into a world, to leave his little mark -- even if only in a high score table -- and to absorb, from a simplified sketch with no social or practical consequences, a new way of being, a new way of doing things.

Some people are more concerned with leaving their mark, others more with expanding their horizons. Some give more, some take more. The point is that in their essence, videogames encapsulate this dynamic between the two. They are a study in cause and effect; the easier those worlds are to affect, the more useful a response they give, the more the player owns actions and consequences alike, the more satisfying the experience.

Grasping in the Dark

The growth of the art has, historically and logically, been tied to the expansion and development of its depiction of touch. Again, it's all ping and pong -- the game sends out a volley of information; you respond within the narrow response channel alloted; the game presents you a new set of circumstances, partially of your own creation.

The less abstracted the call and response, the easier it is to own one's actions, and the more profound the consequences to those actions. It's one thing to send and receive morse code from a lonely office atop a lighthouse; it's another to explore a hidden garden or to spend the night in the arms of a lover.

What I mean to explore in this column, bit by bit and largely for my own amusement, is the growth and curious development of that relationship between the gameworld and the player. Most of this rumination will be historical. Sometimes I'll be unable to resist projecting into the future. Not everything I cover will be strictly relevant or important to the larger point. Basically I just intend to prod how this theory plays out, from game to game, era to era, dead end to pure revelation.

I might as well start at the beginning, since I'm going to keep reflecting back to it.

Pong (1972)

You and I know this isn't really the start, though from a practical standpoint it might as well be. Before Pong we had Computer Space and SpaceWar! and the Magnavox Odyssey. Still, there are two very good arguments for Pong as the practical beginning to this discussion. For one, Pong is the first videogame that reached a wide enough audience to popularly define the concept. For another, the basic form of Pong is exactly the same as that of the Odyssey, and indeed of Tennis for Two, the little-remembered oscilloscope game that started it all. It's just stripped down and packaged a little better.

The very first videogame concept, and the one popularized in Pong, involved sending a packet of information back and forth, according to a simplified form of physics. That is the entire message: keep returning the packet, keep communicating, keep reaching out, and you remain in the game. You get to keep calculating your moves, exploring the physics, exploring your opponent's strategy within the same bounds, immersing yourself in the game's world.

It's not much, granted. Yet that little knob opens the door to a whole new world, a whole realm of causality and consequence and meaning -- however small that meaning might be -- both divorced from and analogous to our daily reality. Both in its automation and in its curious state of being (for lack of a better term), this realm is different from pure fantasy, or the passive escapism of film or literature, or even the intellectual transcendence of a traditional sport or game. As abstracted as they may be, the rules guiding this system operate largely of their own accord -- much like the laws of our own external worlds -- yet both unlike film or recorded music and like a real world, this automation both responds and lends meaning to the audience's own prods.

Just as every ping on a SONAR scope sketches out a bit more of the sea floor, allowing a sailor to explore, to communicate with the untouchable world below, the player's every ping sketches out a sense of potential inside that computer screen, just outside of reach. Understand the world a little better, understand the physics of the bounce; learn to guide the ball just a bit, and maybe next time you can remain in the world a bit longer.

That prodding, likewise, puts the audience in the position of an explorer of a realm beyond immediate grasp. There are real things moving, real laws operating; there is a static system in place behind that glass, and yet the realm, the videogame itself, has no physical form.

There is no direct way to reach through and put the realm's laws to a practical test; it's a phantom consisting of nothing but abstract information. You've got your light dancing on the screen, and you've got the changes to those light patterns depending on the twiddling of a dial. Video, and... well, if you want to call a set of rules a game, that's fair enough. By that reasoning, everything new and unknown, anything there is to understand and master, is a game.

Again, as far as escapism goes, Pong is fairly shallow -- yet in context it provided a practically unprecedented experience. Whereas Computer Space just puzzled its few customers, the simplicity and immediacy of Pong was enough to cause a cultural sensation. The first Pong machine broke down for all the coins it accepted from soused-up patrons. Anyone could understand and play, whether young, old, or drunk to high heaven. The concept was clean enough to appeal to either gender and any social standing. For years afterward, to the public every videogame, whatever its rules, was "Pong". It was as generic and primal a concept as cellophane or Kleenex.

When we're talking about the form of a videogame, Pong is in every sense -- historical, practical and metaphorical -- our Ur: it's a single packet of information, and you don't even have any direct control over that packet. All you can do is keep reflecting it back, trusting in providence, and studying the laws guiding that packet's flight. In effect all you can do is tread water -- and yet that was enough to get the public's feet wet, and engage its imagination. So it's also our starting point culturally, and from the way people obsessed on an individual level, it's also our starting point emotionally.

I'm going to keep harking back to this example, so just remember the power of even the most rinky-dink, indirect of probes into the unknown. This is our frame of reference for everything to come.

From here on the history of successful game design is a study in metaphorically drawing the player ever further into the screen -- minimizing the distance between action and reaction, player and gameworld. Since the actual channel between player and gameworld is little wider or more sophisticated than it was in 1972 -- or at least in 1985 -- the traditional solution is load any response to the player's clumsy prods with as much constructive information as possible, then to blur the edges with as much razzle dazzle as technology to distract the player from his or her own limited potential.

The next big step took four years to realize, and was sufficiently nuanced as to found two completely different disciplines and philosophies of design.

Next time on Phantom Fingers: The Series: Breakout

[Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne is a writer most recently hailing from Brooklyn, New York. When he manages to detach his brain from his keyboard, he spends his hours concocting bagels and exploring the deep places of the Earth. You can sponge up more of his work at gloaming.aderack.com. ]