[-empyre-] Figure Ground

George Karalis gsk52 at cornell.edu
Wed Mar 27 16:02:25 EST 2013

Hi all,

I want to bring up a "mainstream" computer game I came across during
my research last year that I've found theoretically engaging.

The game is "Figure Ground" by puzzle designer Scott Kim, part of the
1992 collection "Heaven and Earth" for the PC. The original programmer
Ian Gilman released an online remake a few years ago:

The goal essentially is to move colored squares around in a grid on
the left to match the configuration of squares in a grid on the right.
Once squares of the same color are placed next to each other, they
join together to create a single figure that can only be moved as a

The game gets interesting in the second set of levels, "Desert." The
white squares that previous represented ground upon which the black
squares move now can move themselves. Blue and later green squares
layer to create new figure/ground relationships.

This game, of course, is based on the figure-ground illusion (e.g.
Rubin vase), but how can I resist making the connection to McLuhan's
figure/ground? While the game begins with the (fairly) simple task of
building the figure on a set ground, soon ground and figure become
relative. Understanding the figure becomes the task of understanding
the ground, which itself is a figure with its own ground. The figures
and grounds cycle, converge, and displace one another. This system not
only speaks to the unsettled nature of digital games, it harks back to
fundamental media theory:

"We all live in this new resonating simultaneous world in which the
relation between figure and ground, public and performer, goal-seek
and role-playing, centralism and decentralism have simply flipped and
reversed again and again" (McLuhan, 1975).

George Karalis
Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences
College Scholar Class of 2013
gsk52 at cornell.edu

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