Tuesday, August 21, 2007


An Introduction to Video Game Gardening

I've been struck by an idea, and I think it's worth writing down.

See, I've long been fascinated by the idea of gardens, of creating and maintaining a location that's meant to make you feel something just by entering it. I'm especially enchanted by the idea of gardening with things that aren't necessarily plant life. There's the rock garden, the placement of stones to evoke a certain feeling from the viewer. There's the water garden, a place where the appearance and sound of moving water touches and calms the mind. There's the Zen garden, where sand and stones are raked into patterns to simulate the movement of water around islands. You could even argue that feng shui is a sort of gardening -- the positioning and coordination of furniture to create harmony in the minds of the people dwelling in a room.

So why not gardening with video games?

The seed for the idea came to me from the Penny Arcade comic about Olympus, Gabe and Tycho's dream arcade. The concept art and descriptions for this fictional place are tantalizing, but what particularly stuck with me was the description of the classic arcade machines: "Like an electronic grove, a copse of lovingly tended arcade classics glow in the perpetual night." It's an evocative comparison, and to a video game enthusiast, it's quite apt.

Video games make you feel something. They have a beauty and an ability to manipulate emotion that goes beyond their interactive nature. You can look at a Pac-Man arcade machine and feel something. You can look at a Wii or a PS3 or a DS Lite or an Intellivision and feel something. Emulation is unsatisfying because there's more to a video game experience than simply running code. There are all sorts of intangibles at play, and what you get in the end is often more than the sum of its parts.

So this idea that I'm going to call video game gardening is about creating an environment and an experience. It's not just about putting together a game library or an entertainment center, but about making physical, interactive poetry. It's about aesthetics, harmony, and focus.

And before we get any further into my delirious little fantasy world, yes, I'm aware that I am really, really overthinking things. All I can say in my defense is that I'm a fanatic and this is my hobby. If you don't want to read about it, you have other options.

Let's begin.

An Example Video Game Garden

There is a corner of my home where a comfortable armchair faces a faux fireplace. Just behind and to the right of this chair is a tall floor-standing lamp that casts a warm, comfortable light on the chair and the space immediately around it. To the left of the chair is a small endtable which supports a desktop water fountain and a scented oil warmer. To the right is a cabinet with a surface that comes up to about shoulder height when you sit down in the chair. On this cabinet rests my white DS Lite, four game cases which hold three game cards each, and a set of earbud headphones in a spool case.

I have thirteen DS cards to choose from, carefully selected for their aesthetic value and the feelings they evoke when you play them:

Super Mario 64 DS
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon
Elite Beat Agents
Wario Ware Touched
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice For All
True Swing Golf
Brain Age
Club House Games
Picross DS
Cooking Mama
Nintendo DS Web Browser

The theme for this collection is elegance, simplicity, and comfort, to match the location where I'll be playing these games. Many genres and many different kinds of experiences are represented with very few games, and they achieve a sort of balance between various spectrums of the video game experience. There are fast-paced games (Wario Ware and Elite Beat Agents) and slow-paced games (True Swing Golf and Club House Games), deep games (Super Mario 64 DS and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon) and casual games (Cooking Mama and Nintendogs). There are deep narratives, quick fixes, and even access to the almighty Web.

It's my first attempt at a video game garden, and I'm very pleased with how it turned out. And it's given me some ideas for how to think about video game gardening as an art form.


It's tempting, especially when you've been collecting games as long as I have, to just start piling up lots and lots of games, just in case you would want to play them. Similarly, it's tempting to make a console-based garden by cramming all of your systems together on a shelf and daisychaining all of the output wires together.

There's two problems with this sort of haphazard arrangement. First, it hurts the aesthetic value of your garden. It takes a little more effort to make a long tangle of wires or a large pile of discs and cartridges look attractive. Second, having too many options available hurts the focus of your garden. The purpose of a video game garden isn't about trying to make the biggest and best collection, but about selecting games that "feel right" together. Maybe you own 30 Playstation discs, and they're all top-tier games, but do you really need to have each and every one available at a moment's notice? Chances are, a collection that size will have five games that see regular rotation while the rest gather dust.

If you have fewer games available, you'll get more out of them. I've noticed that there are several games that I really enjoy that I simply won't play unless it's about the only thing available to me. By simplifying the selection in your garden, you can prevent these sorts of games from being overshadowed.


To get the most out of a smaller collection of games, you have to think about the way that games harmonize. Think about a video game arcade with a Pac-Man machine next to a pinball machine. What sort of image does that paint for you? How do the two machines compare in your mind? Can you get a sense for the different experiences these machines would offer? How do those experiences feel when they're directly next to each other? Do they complement each other? Is there conflict or harmony between them?

Now replace the pinball machine with a Donkey Kong machine. Is the feeling different? The same? Better? Worse? What if you'd replaced the pinball machine with a Street Fighter II machine? The Simpsons arcade game? A DDR machine? Each juxtaposition paints a slightly different picture.

Think about the feeling that you want your garden to evoke. Is this garden going to be a place for solitude, or will you be entertaining large groups? Do you want to evoke excitement or calm? Competition or exploration? Casual games, deep games, quick games, long games? Or do you want a broad spectrum? Carefully planning the "ecology" of your garden -- finding the right balance between different kinds of experiences -- will greatly enhance its effectiveness.

As you select games, think about the way they harmonize. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of your games and how they complement each other. Think about the way they overshadow each other -- would you ever play Game X if Game Y is right next to it? Do they feel right together? You may find that your garden has a better overall feeling if you exclude some of your favorite games to enhance the attractiveness of other games in the garden. Remember, this isn't a list of "desert island games", it's a group of games that work well together. Rejecting a game doesn't mean you'll never play it again, it just means that it doesn't work well with the experience you're trying to create.

Consider Your Environment

Lastly, what does your gaming environment look like? Is it clean and orderly? Is the lighting effective? Is there sufficient seating for both players and spectators? Is the seating comfortable? Does everyone have a clear view of the screen? Is there sufficient surface space for drinks and snacks, if those are a part of your gaming sessions? Is the room as a whole homey and comfortable?

Is your setup accessible? Is it easy to switch between games? If you have more than one console, is it simple to switch between them? Do you need a remote control to switch between video outputs, and is it easily accessible? If you don't have wireless controllers, how do you deal with cord tangling? How do you store controllers -- especially peripherals like light guns and dance mats -- when they're not in use?

So that's the idea behind video game gardening in a nutshell. I think it's an idea that has a lot of potential for the especially obsessed video game fanatics out there, and indeed, I suspect that the activity has been practiced for a long, long time before I came up with my cute little term for it. I've seen pictures all over the place, people who are showing off their various video game collections and rec room setups. People obviously don't need me to tell them to be proud of the aesthetic qualities of their game setups.

The only thing I've really brought to the table is the idea that less is more when it comes to putting together a video game collection. But I think it's the most important part, and it may be the key to ending this obsessive video game gathering that I've been complaining about for so long.

That'd be nice, eh?


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