Friday, July 19, 2013

Game Time

Simon Niedenthal is a guy with some interesting credentials: “BFA in photography, an MA in Medieval English literature, and a Ph.D. in interaction design.” He’s also an associate professor of interaction design at Malmö University in Sweden and has published a paper in the most recent issue of Eludamos - Journal for Computer Game Culture. His immediate topic is the use of scent in digital games but he goes much deeper than that.

Niedenthal is very good at putting game scent into the bigger picture:
Playfulness is one way in which we reclaim our humanity, and smell is one of our most basic channels for engaging the world.

Yet the history of designing mediated scent experiences is a litany of failure. Not only did media experiments such as AromaRama, Smell-O-Vision and the DigiScents iSmell computer peripheral sink without a trace, they have been mocked in retrospect, as if the effort to engage smell in media and computational forms was in itself laughable.
The mockery continues—Niedenthal pulls examples from deep in gamer online discussion groups—yet so does innovation in digitized scent technology. And the public remains curious. Will game designers ever get it right? Is it even possible?

Niedenthal’s historical review of the field is excellent. He covers everything from “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” to “Leisure Suit Larry,” and is up-to-date on scent technology. Perhaps because of his background in the fine arts and literature, he doesn’t climb onto the techie hobby horse of “immersion”:
A naïve understanding of immersion as sensory verisimilitude, however, offers one of the least promising avenues for the development of scent for games . . .
He offers a way forward, but only after acknowledging “some of the difficulties faced by the designer of scent games.” Experience shows that even simple games can become hard to play when they rely on olfactory ability. As for “Spice Chess” . . . well, forget about it.
One of the essential tasks of designing smell into games is to help players develop a basic smell connoisseurship adequate to the challenges of the game . . .
Niedenthal’s recommendation for game designers is straightforward:
The scent challenges in games should be kept simple. Rather than seeking to establish the “meaning” of a scent in relation to what is seen on screen (the pitfall of naïve immersion, complicated by the difficulty of synchronizing visual and olfactory stimuli), or seeking to draw upon the inherent “meaning” of scents (rendered nearly impossible by the great individual and cultural variability of scent associations), the designer ought to plan to establish scent associations within the game itself, and view the game, essentially, as a learning system.
Niedenthal offers a couple of examples where scent might be engagingly applied. One is called “Sillage” and involves a quest for characters who are never directly seen—the game relies on the inherently sad and nostalgic character of smell that is too often neglected. Another example is “Scratch Me, Sniff Me,” which plays on the possibilities of bodily intimacy that lurk in any scented game. Finally, he points game developers toward “abuse, power and transgression” as a promising area.

Hmmm, let’s see . . . Fartcheesi? Stinktionary? Trivial Purfume?

Wait, I’ve got it! How about Sniff My Butt,” a game of Russian roulette played with a squeezable, farting Cartman doll?

If you are thinking about using smell in games (electronic and otherwise), art installations, or any other interactive medium, you should do yourself a favor and read Niedenthal’s paper. For some reason, he chose to write it in clear, entertaining English, instead of Academic Gibberish. [You mean he doesn’t attempt to recontextualize the metaphrand and situate it within a hermeneutics of post-colonialism?—Ed.] [Exactly.]

The study discussed here is “Skin games: Fragrant play, scented media and the stench of digital games,” by Simon Niedenthal, published in Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 6:101-131, 2012.

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