What is casual significance?

Exemplary Work, Interactive Design, Music

Different Trains album cover

Casual significance is when easy-to-read things point to hard-to-grasp things. Like the taste visualization in Ratatouille.  Or Different Trains. Or the color organ in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They take a stab in the dark, doing things you’d like to build theories around but shouldn’t, and as such they enable you to walk into the unknown with joy and confidence.

I admire Steve Reich’s Different Trains as much as any piece of music written in the latter half of the 20th century because it speaks in a unique language that’s totally specific to its content and yet whose fluency is easy to adopt and understand.  Even though it contains constant abrupt shifts in tempo and harmony, even though it takes a programmatic stance on the connection between speech and melody, even though it references the Holocaust, it succeeds in doing all of these things simultaneously while remaining highly accessible to the untrained ear.

My kids have heard the first, joyful movement of Different Trains, and they love it. They enjoy the voices, the repetition, the rhythms, the sound effects, even though it’s like no other piece of music they’ve ever heard. They haven’t been exposed to the subsequent movements yet, and they have no concept of the overall theme of the work, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re ready, and what will pull them towards it is simply the way in which the work’s strategies unfold in time. That’s casual significance.

So what would casual significance look like in the interactive arena? We’re quickly becoming surrounded by the casual; EA recently stated that they see the casual market as the biggest opportunity in gaming. Most of these games are fun diversions and nothing more, which is fine. The burgeoning “serious games” market is definitely a kind of casual significance, but significance in that context is usually defined solely as social responsibility. I wholly support the growth of serious games, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here.

No, when I talk about casual significance I’m talking about easy-to-read interactive experiences that point to the mysteries of the human condition. Those mysteries might be sensual, or spiritual, or philosophical, and the goal of the experience is not to teach a class about them, but simply to point to them. I love how visual music and synaesthetic works tend to put you in this space instantly and almost effortlessly.

Shining Flower, the CD-ROM I profiled last week, is probably my favorite existing example of this in the interactive realm (though its actual interactivity is meager), as it nails the M.O. of casual significance—simple things pointing to deeper things. Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus come close, but as much as I admire them I think their game mechanics are too prominent to truly classify them as “casual” experiences.

Works of casual significance are high on aesthetics and groove, low on guilt and training, and they index hidden depths. They’re what I wish I was playing when I play the Wii.


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