From the Archives - Affordances In Scribblenauts: Enabling Creativity
From The Archives posts are posts which I’ve carried over from my old blogs and sites I wrote for that are now offline so that I can keep a record of some of my better and more important work that would otherwise be lost. They come from the entire length of my time in games writing, so you’ll probably notice a big jump in quality between the really old stuff and the more recent content.
This essay was written in 2014 for a critical game theory unit that was part of my uni degree. It was for a 3rd year unit so the level of expectation was much higher than with my previous game theory assignments. I managed to get a Distinction mark regardless, which I was very happy with. We had to pick one of the early course readings, and tie it into a game of our choosing. I wrote about affordances in Scribblenauts, and how the game's entertainment and puzzles draw on the fact that the player knows how objects behave in real life. It had an 800 word limit which was an absolute pain to work with because I had so much to say. I had almost hit the word count after I'd spoken about a single level in the game, so I had to restructure my piece to focus on just a single case study. Evidently I still did well, but I would have liked to get that illustrious HD mark.
The tagline of Scribblenauts is “Write Anything. Solve Everything” which accurately describes its premise- armed with a magic notebook capable of summoning anything you write into existence, players must utilise creative thinking to solve puzzles and collect magical ‘Starites’ in order to progress through the game. Objects behave the way you’d expect them to in real life- e.g. wooden objects burn, glue can stick objects together, and policemen will chase robbers. There’s a ridiculous number of options to utilise in your puzzle-solving, but the player will rarely feel like they have no idea how to progress. This is because of the game’s utilisation of key design concepts outlined in Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things, namely the idea of affordances, conceptual models and mappings. Through a specific case study of one of the game’s levels, we can see how these concepts come together to form interesting, well-designed puzzles that allow players to stretch their creative muscles without confusing them.
The first action level in the game presents you with a Starite in a tree, and the hint “Get it down”. There are a number of ways to get the Starite, some more evident than others. An obvious idea is to chop the tree down with an axe. The reason we think of this solution is because this is how people quickly remove trees in real life. This single scenario brilliantly illustrates all the previously mentioned concepts. Firstly, it illustrates an affordance because the player has determined the properties of the tree and their tools. Norman describes affordances as “the perceived and actual properties of things”, primarily the important ones that determine an object’s use (Norman 1988, p.9). The purpose of affordances is to allow a user to tell how to operate something just by looking at it (Norman 1988, p.9) - this is evident in level A1-1 because the player has seen the tree and identified it as wooden. Wooden objects can be cut with axes. And so the player summons an axe and cuts down the tree.
This also illustrates mappings. A mapping refers to a relationship between two things, but specifically this is a natural mapping “taking advantage of physical analogies and cultural standard” (Norman 1988, p.23) by applying the functions these objects actually have to the game. The player has conjured two mappings in their head- a mapping between the game objects and their real-life counterparts, as well as between the axe and the tree. The player sees a tree, and links it to what they know of trees in real life. By using an axe to cut the tree down, they’ve identified the relationship between two objects- the axe is used to cut down trees because the tree is wooden, and axes cut wood.
Finally, this level also illustrates a conceptual model. According to Norman, conceptual models “are part of an important concept in design: mental models, the models people have of themselves, others, the environment, and the things with which they interact” (Norman 1988, p.17). They allow you to look at an object or system, and mentally work through how it will operate (Norman 1988, p.12). A well-designed system gives you everything you need in order to understand it just by looking at it and thinking (Norman 1988, pp.1, 13-14). The affordances and mapping in the level allow the user to form a conceptual model of how different items will interact with the space. They know they can chop the tree down with an axe, but they may also think of solutions that don’t involve cutting down the tree. They may instead attempt to bring themselves to the Starite, instead of the reverse. They think of methods they normally use to move upwards, like ladders and stairs- they picture themselves in a real scenario, and because of the mapping between the virtual objects and their real function, they know that the scenario will play out in the same way. They understand how the system works, and can act on that, focusing on being creative instead of worrying about complicated systems.
Throughout the game you’ll encounter less straightforward puzzles than this, but the same concepts still apply. By knowing how objects actually function, players can come up with interesting solutions to a variety of puzzles. The player needs to jump start a broken down car- they summon jumper cables and attach them to a power pole. The Starite is stuck in a narrow passageway- the player can glue a mouse to the Starite, and lure it out of the chamber with cheese. There’s so many creative ways to solve puzzles without having the solution outright stated to them because players already know how objects behave based off their own experiences, and their usage is simplified. Objects are simple to use because they don’t possess a number of complicated functions, and because the controls allow you to easily see and use these functions (Norman 1988, p.25). You don’t have to actually know how to drive a car to use it in the game, you just need to know the standard movement controls.
By looking at Scribblenauts in relation to Norman’s concepts, we can see that it empowers players by allowing them to think creatively and by presenting them with logical systems that can be quickly understood. It also shows that while Norman’s concepts were conceived with everyday objects in mind, they are also very useful to consider when designing videogames.
Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. Basic Books.