A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

29 Mar

“A rose is a rose is a rose” is a quotation from Gertrude Stein, an American neurosurgeon who was best known for her automatic writing and poetry.  She kept some pretty impressive company, ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.  Stein broke down language and worked to show how patterns of speech still inferred meaning even when individual words were disassociated from their meanings.  According to Stein herself, “Words had lost their value in the nineteenth century, they had lost much of their variety and I felt that I could not go on I had to recapture the value of the individual word.”

In Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist he points out that she worked to show that words had no inherent meaning.  Specific to the quote “A rose is a rose is a rose” is the fact that ‘rose’ is simply a construct of language.  As Shakespeare said “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  Stein noted that the Romantics were simply referring to the qualities of a rose when they used the word, but in modern works the word rose may also refer to a more intangible quality such as love, or the heady romanticism of a bygone era.  Basically, what Stein found was that she could not disassociate a word such as rose from its meaning.  It’s such a strong signifier that it cannot be deconstructed — the equivalent of my saying ‘don’t think of an elephant’.  It’s impossible not to think of an elephant, isn’t it?  Just the same, all of the things the word rose signifies are rooted deeply in the history of our language, and it’s not easy to just forget and think blankly of nothing when you hear the word rose.  Here’s another example of Stein’s work, so you can get a sense of it.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Hang on, what does this have to do with games?  Well a few days ago I snapped rather offhandedly that the way in which some amount of people are taking Resident Evil 5 at face value (gathering that it has racist undertones), disproves the thinking that games cannot produce a congruous meaning in its visual imagery and mechanics — change the visuals and change the meaning.  First of all it was a mistake to use the term ‘face value’.  More correctly people are judging a book by its cover, inferring too much from too little in a way that the author never intended.  It’s a game constructed to be digested at its face value, but more on this much later.  This blog is a stream of my thoughts, and I don’t claim to have figured everything out from the outset.  So consider this a correction as I grow to understand this issue more and more.

But back to the argument posed by the folks at Game Design Advance.  At the face of it I seem like a dunce; well of course if you removed the black people from RE5 it would cease to be racist, and thus the meaning would change.  But I assure you it’s more complex than that, if you’ll bear with my explanation.

This is the part of the argument I would like to take apart:

Whatever your final interpretation of The Marriage, whatever meaning you ultimately glean from it, it’s undeniable that it relies on its representational layer as much as it does its pure mechanics. After all, the color of the squares seems just as important as the fact that they grow and shrink. The very reality that the name of the game is The Marriage sets up and shapes any interpretation that a player might have. What would a game called Untitled No. 1 that featured shapes in various shades of gray express? Something different, obviously. At the very least the reasonable interpretations would have a much wider range. However, only the colors and the title would have changed, the mechanics of the game would have remained exactly the same.

Now, I’d argue there is a fault in the logic of this theoretical deconstruction of The Marriage.  Recall “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  The Marriage would not be The Marriage if it were named Untitled No.1, therefore the meaning would change, obviously, because it would be something else.  This is a common mistake of theoretical thinking.  

In theoretical physics it is the job of theoretical physicists to construct mathematical models of the universe that are often simplified by a dimension.  The models they produce are not imagined to be real, but are the easiest way for humans to engage a problem.  For example it’s easier for us to think in terms of two dimensions than in three, so a theoretical physicist might create a graph that represents something much more complex.  The model is true in that it can produce the correct solution, but it itself is not a realistic depiction of what it describes.

In the same way it’s easy to see why simply discovering the way in which parts of a game fit together to create an experience could lead someone to believe the game itself is devalued — but knowing how a magic trick is done should not devalue the trick.  The Marriage would not be the same by any other name because as a game it contains more dimensions of meaning and signifies more than a word does.  Changing the name of a game is the same as changing a letter in a word.  A game is the sum of all its parts, and when one part of a game is exchanged for another it becomes another game.  This might sound familiar to some of you, because it’s game development.  Only at the end of the development process is a game a game, only when all the hands that craft it are halted does it become the game it is.  

This is as vain as arguing why it is that a crocodile is not a giraffe.  While it’s true that if a crocodile shed its scales, grew a long neck and made a plethora of other changes it could indeed be a giraffe, we know it will not make those changes.  Why would it, even if it could?  Therefore why should The Marriage be said to have mechanics that act apart from its visuals for the simple fact that the imagery could be changed?  The Marriage’s mechanics and its imagery work in perfect harmony, Game Design Advance puts it quite well:

The Marriage is a very simple game. It features two squares, one blue and one pink, bouncing around a field of color with a variety of circles, some green/gray and some black. If the green/gray circles collide with either of the squares, the squares will grow. The black circles will make the squares shrink. Both squares will fade over time. However, if the blue square collides with one of the green/gray circles its color will become brighter, while the pink square needs to collide with the blue square in order to thrive. Moving the mouse over either square will make them move towards each other, though it will also make the blue square shrink. The mouse will also make any of the circles disappear, but this causes the pink square shrink. If either square completely fades away or shrinks to the point where they can’t be seen, it’s game over. Keep both squares around long enough and they explode into a bunch of tiny blue and pink squares on a gray background.

That gameplay is only that gameplay because of the visuals.  To say it becomes different gameplay with different visuals is true, but it also becomes a different game.  Only the right combination of mechanics and visuals can be called The Marriage.  So it presents no problem; simply produce a game with parts that work well together and meaning is produced.

But enough of that; I think the point has been made clearly — but what of its relation to Resident Evil 5?  What we often forget is that, like any other art, games have an audience that absorbs what games are telling them.  RE5 is out of tune with its audience.  It says ‘this black zombie is a zombie who is black’.  A rose is a rose is a rose.  A cigar is a cigar.  The audience however reads into things more; ‘this black zombie represents an archaic and racist view of black people’.  

This is a horrible thing for complex games like Resident Evil 5 because although graphically they appear realistic the mechanics are still just made to be dumb fun.  Until there is some fundamental change in design they are doomed to be misinterpreted by an audience tempered by the more advanced meanings of other mediums.  But this is a great thing for ‘art games’.  Small simple games that can rely on the way in which people read into very simple imagery.  They can create great meaning with very little effort, because people will infer more than is really there.  It would be harder for art games to seem expressive and meaningful if they were taken at face value — The Marriage is just a bunch of interactive floating shapes, but it works as a game because the simple colours along with the title give it profound meaning.

All things said the Game Design Advance article is a great read, and poses a list of interesting questions; some of which I’d like to address later on their own — it’s just obvious to me that their thinking in this case seems flawed.


One Response to “A Rose is a Rose is a Rose”

  1. Damian Vokes March 8, 2010 at 5:03 am #

    I am just learning more about organic stuff, flowers and plants in general and really dig this post. Thank you for sharing.

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