Response to “IIP – Semiotic Domains”
By Jasmine Mulliken, Stanford University
“Onwards or backwards. Your choice,” the little yellow cat-sprite reminds you before you commit to pursuing the next path in Semiotic Domains, a game that is both charming and intelligent. As a lifelong gamer, I’ve always enjoyed quest games that incorporate problem solving scenarios unique to particular environments. I remember the trial-and-error process of climbing the mountain in King’s Quest and learning to avoid the thorns on the way to the final castle. I remember the satisfaction of discovering I could move statues in the dungeons of Zelda to open doors or quarantine monsters. The fun of gaming for many players is in the learning. And so I knew this game, whose title, Semiotic Domains, clearly establishes it as one that foregrounds literacy based on interpreting and interacting with the signs of a particular environment or discourse group, was my kind of game.
Academic title aside, the game is very straightforward and I would even say sweet and enchanting. It opens in a classroom, right away establishing its self-reflexivity. Any member of the game designer Krystel Baker’s class will immediately recognize the course number and possibly even themselves in the avatars. But the classroom is only a doorway to another domain, and it’s the teacher, rather than the student, who must learn to navigate the new spaces. Once the player, acting as the professor of the recently emptied classroom, chooses to play a student’s game, the classroom is immediately repositioned into a natural environment, a hybrid computer lab in a butterfly- and flower-speckled clearing in the woods. The symbolic landscape situates the student’s mind as something that grows and changes, and if the classroom is the professor’s natural domain, the sylvan spring forest invites him to revisit a mindspace where the structures are still limitless, without walls or doors, where even “markers are useless, now that there’s no whiteboard.” There is no need or way for him to “write” a reality for students to read because he must now read and interpret the environment, to become a learner again.
The transition immediately evokes James Paul Gee’s introduction to What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy wherein he describes his own experience learning to game later in life. That process amounted to essentially learning a new way to learn, which he explains “is or should be both frustrating and life enhancing” (6). Semiotic Domains provides the opportunity for both but in a landscape that is beautifully nurturing. The sagelike creature helpers, the witty sign posts, and the beauty of the landscape you traverse all indicate that the creator of this game views learning as a joyful endeavor, and that her own experiences learning the concepts she’s worked into every layer of this game must have been positive and most likely bolstered by a supportive and encouraging instructor and learning environment.
The music is enchanting and the imagery is straight out of SNES Zelda: A Link to the Past. When the crystal domain portals emerged on the screen, I was taken right back to the top of Death Mountain and Spectacle Rock where Link frees the seven maidens trapped in colorful crystals. I even found myself dashing into objects, hoping they’d smash or let loose rupees or hearts. But Semiotic Domains doesn’t involve money or hit points or swords or fighting at all. It’s about understanding the environment. The first domain is purely PVE. Other than cat-sprites and sign posts, there is no language-based interaction. The second domain introduces people, and only then do item possessions come into play. Even then, though, a sense of guilt pervades the decision to use the item. The third domain blends a human environment with the help of an animal companion obtained in the previous domain. A final domain caps off the experience by synthesizing the concepts from each of the previous domains, asking the player to use the skills gained in a variety of environments to solve a final puzzle. Once all domains have been traversed, a final sage-cat reveals the full theoretical foundation of the game. The big reveal, though, almost seems unnecessary because the game processes and worlds have all the time been cleverly reminding you–sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly–that you’re in a game and that it’s your choice to be there and participate.
Semiotic Domains, as its title suggests, is richly layered in self-reflexivity. It exists outside of itself, in what Gee defines as the external design grammar of its domain. The creatures that guide you through the game, whom you can choose to interact with or not, know they are “coded” and continually remind you that your game actions are always decisions that affect the narrative’s progress but also that they ultimately represent the decision to simply play and take on the challenge of learning a literacy. In fact, aside from choosing to proceed, or choosing to continue playing, there really aren’t that many choices. If you choose to play, you will eventually win. You can’t be killed by your environment, other characters, or enemies. You can’t make a decision that will result in failure. The only possible failure comes with deciding not to keep playing. But even then, there’s no judgment from the game itself. It’s within the player, just like in the learner, to determine whether the game or the lesson is worth pursuing and whether not to do so amounts to failure. But the sense of achievement that always comes with successfully seeing a game or an act of learning through to completion will almost always be enough to motivate someone who values the process just as much as the victory. If you’re not moving onwards, after all, you’re choosing to go backwards.