Moving Parts: the Interdependence of Game Play and Social Dynamics in Digital Games

Daniel Soltis

Moving Parts is a hybrid physical/video pinball game that uses simple rule variations to elicit different kinds of social interactions between players.


Classes Thesis

Moving Parts is a hybrid physical/video pinball game designed to evaluate some of the effects of simple variations in rules, mechanics, and scoring on social dynamics between players. It consists of a two-player pinball table with physical buttons and plungers, and a video display projected onto the tabletop.

Working from an underlying simplified pinball game, different game variations can be played on the table at different times. These variations are intended to elicit different kinds of play--collaborative play, synchronized movements, direct competition, strategic give and take, etc.

By running these games as variations on a single theme, with players in physical relation to each other but acting through the rules of a digital system, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the ways that one-to-one human social relationships may be mediated and influenced by shared participation in digital systems.

Traditional (non-video) games are social events, with relationships between the players forming, informing, and enhancing game play. In contrast, the stereotypical video game is a solitary activity, with a player interacting with rules, fiction and/or narrative as presented and refereed by a computer.

Recent years, however, have seen the development and increasing popularity of highly social video games and combined physical/video games. Massive multiplayer online games provide a combination of strategic game play and complex social interactions between large numbers of simultaneous players. Physical video games, such as Guitar Hero and Wii Sports, allow players to physically perform games in ways that are intelligible and entertaining to other players and/or watching friends. Transmedia games, such as alternate reality games, offer a combination of connecting with many other players and integrating a virtual game into the fabric of daily life.

In these games, however, the relationships between social interactions and gameplay mechanics are not always clear. In some games social interaction is integral and necessary to the game play itself, such as the need for cooperation between groups in strategic battle games. In other cases the social interactions occur about or around the game rather than in the game. For example, in Guitar Hero the musical, rhythmic and mimetic aspects of game play enhance the game for viewers and may help the player feel more performative, but the game in and of itself can be played and won alone and could be played on a handheld controller with no mimetic performance.

In particular, there is little discussion of the in-game social dynamics of smaller-scale multiplayer (2-4 player) video games.

How do the rules and gameplay mechanics of small-scale multiplayer hybrid and video games affect social interactions between players? What different kinds of in-game social dynamics are possible? How might game mechanics specifically enhance social experiences of these games?

Drawing on my interests and prior work in the relationships between physical interfaces, virtual systems, and performance, as well as game design intended to affect relationships and move players through space, I have designed a hybrid physical/virtual game as a tool for approaching these questions.

User Scenario
Two players see the pinball machine and--from looking at the physical design, reading the instructions, or watching other players--figure out that they need to stand at opposite ends of the table facing each other.

As is common with digital games, the players are unlikely to fully read instructions, but they probably know from experience with other pinball games that the ball is launched when they pull the plunger, and that the core mechanic of the game is to use the flippers to prevent the ball from being lost on their side.

Depending on whether they read the instructions and their expectations and desires of pinball, they may have accurate or inaccurate expectations of the goals and activities in this specific game. Players may first approach a cooperative game as a competitive one regardless of the game's rules, or they may not realize how they can affect play on the other player's side of the board.

As they play, they become familiar with the underlying rules and the possibility space of this particular game. They revise their goals and start to develop a strategy--they may do so individually or they may speak to each other about it. If one player is more familiar with the game than the other, he or she may give suggestions or instructions. The players also develop a sense of how the other player relates to them in terms of game play.

Some days later, the players may return but find that the game is slightly different--the goals and rules for interaction have changed. As they learn this game, they develop new strategies and discover new ways to relate to the other player.

Moving Parts is a hybrid physical/video pinball game designed to evaluate some of the social impacts of simple variations in rules, mechanics, and scoring. It consists of a two-player pinball table, physical buttons and plungers, and a projected display. Players face each other from opposite ends of the table and play simultaneously.

The combination of physical and video game is intended to elicit a tension between players’ expectations of social interaction (physical interface, positioning of players relative to each other) and solo play (projected video display). Similarly, the game of pinball offers expectations of solo or turn-taking play, while simultaneous two-player play involves the social act of passing a ball back and forth between players. Further, pinball is in and of itself an entertaining (and sometimes panic-inducing) game. This offers some benefits (the game has a life of its own, so that social interactions are part of the game rather than the game itself) and some challenges (pinball tends to be fast-paced and somewhat confusing, so in order for rule variations to be intelligible they must be very clear and be integrated into where players focus their attention).

The base game of Moving Parts is a simplified game of pinball, with primary elements including a few walls and several bumpers on the screen. The game contains four levels. At the beginning of each level, bumpers are hidden from view, and they become visible when hit by the ball. When all the bumpers have been revealed, the level is cleared and the next level appears. The game ends either when all balls are lost or when all 4 levels have been completed. While all games are scored, the game is designed for game state to be ascertained from looking at the board itself as much as, if not more than, from looking at a number.

From this base game, a number of rule variations have been used to create different variations of the game, each designed to elicit a different type of social interaction between players—starting with simple collaborative and competitive dynamics and building up to more complex give-and-take relationships. Elements that vary include who controls which flippers, how and when balls move from one side of the board to the other, control of the appearance and disappearance of walls, how many balls are in play at one time, and how players are scored.

The game is available to players on the ITP floor for a period of approximately 2 weeks, with new rules variations introduced every 2-3 days. I am gathering a combination of informal and formal feedback, both playing the game with others and soliciting comments from people who played the game when I was not present.