Skeuomorphism and Demographics in “Star Wars: Assault Team”

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I. A Digital Deck-Builder?

The impetus for this post game from the strange occurrence of my playing of a digital game. Unlike many game thinkers and writers, I have never been very attracted to playing video games. I will as a social thing of course, and I’ve tried one or two big-title games, but I don’t own a game console, and haven’t ever bothered to soup up my PC enough to run serious computer games. The last video game I played with any intensity at all was Roller Coaster Tycoon. I was 11.

But I was browsing the app store and noticed in the headline bar, a Star Wars title. I love Star Wars, so I tapped, and found the game described as a “deck builder.”

This intrigued me. Deck building is fundamentally a real-world, analog pursuit. You build a deck, and the bigger and better that deck is, the better you do in the game. Think of games like “Dominion,” or “Magic: The Gathering.”

I was intrigued enough to download the (free) game and play it for a while.

II. What is Skeuomorphism?

A brief term check: Skeuomorphism is a design term for the decorative repurposing of that which was once functional. For example, the Apple watch has hands and a face. It doesn’t need those things to function, but having them reminds us that Apple is entering their product into the line of things called “watches.” Car hub caps sometimes have spokes. They do not need spokes as wagons once did, but they remind us of wagons, and bring up the relevant cultural associations.

The connection here is obvious: “Star Wars: Assault Team,” with its digital cards and decks, is skeuomorphic.

III. Gameplay in “Star Wars: Assault Team”

The game unfolds in a few parts. The most “play” oriented part of “SW:AT” is the battles. The player’s characters (at first, just Han Solo) enter an animated world where they engage in turn-based combat with computer-generated enemies or other players. This part is minimally skeuomorphic. These characters appear in small card-like boxes at the base of the screen, while enemies appear as animated figures in the middle ground. Gameplay animations do not hearken to the idea of cards. Minimally skeuomorphic at best.

The notion of skeuomorphism gets interesting, however, in the “secondary” sphere of the game: Team management. Once you’ve played a few missions, you have earned credits (in-game money), characters, and training items. Between missions, the game encourages training and reorganizing your “assault team” to better take on new missions.

This part of the game is where the card feeling comes into the design and the text. Your mission team consists of four slots at the top of the screen, and you drag and drop boxed images (cards) of other characters into and out of your team. “Cards” in the “team area” appear as “cards” at the base of the screen during the battle phase of play.

Some of the training items even include text self-describing as cards! “Train a Rebel Medic to Level 5, then use this card to promote him to Tier 2,” says the text associated with one “card.”

This level of reference to the game as a card game astonished me. The design of the game works well enough without explicitly referencing the play of games like “Magic: The Gathering” (although the strategic  placement of the colon in “Star Wars: Assault Team” can’t be entirely coincidental). Why retain the skeuomorphic conceit?

IV. Nostalgia

My contention is that “SW:AT” is a game of nostalgia. Set in the Star Wars diegesis between the first (Ep. IV) and second (Ep. V) films to be released, it aims at an older audience than other games might. As such, it uses touchstones that those players might recognize. Those touchstones are non-digital: Card games.

The recent release of “Star Wars: Commander,” set in a similar diegetic timeframe, bears this out. “SW:C” is a mirror of smartphone phenomenon “Clash of Clans,” and contains no (in the brief time that I spent exploring it) mention of cards, decks, boards, or other analog gaming paraphernalia.

By setting both games in a diegesis more familiar to older fans, Star Wars (and Disney, who now owns it) signals its fidelity to the original trilogy as it moves to release its new trilogy. As one of these fans, this shift away from the silliness of the prequel trilogy makes me more excited about the upcoming movies.

As someone who thinks about games, I was glad to see game designers using such subtle formal cues to attract and hold my attention. I’m not even that old, but I am someone not very comfortable in digital gaming spheres. The skeuomorphic notion of the “deck builder” caught my interest long enough to make me a player of “SW:AT.” At least for a little while. I’m starting to get bored with game, and will move on to other non-digital games soon.

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