So yesterday I’m in the passenger seat while my wife looks for a break in the A3 traffic swinging round the Ham Barn Roundabout. And in the lane to our left is a white commercial van whose graphics include a shiny-looking icon-like image, somewhat like an iPhone app. I stared at it for several minutes as the traffic failed to give us a gap, and my graphic designer hat must have slipped on, because I started analyzing it in my mind.

Rounded edges. Soft emboss. A couple highlights. And a kind of uneven line across the middle, above which it’s brighter and below which it’s darker. All the Photoshop 101 basics to make a small symbol look like a small symbol in a glassy bead. And that thought made me think (as thoughts do): These Photoshop tricks can be applied to anything. Do they really make their subject look inherently shiny, or are we sort of trained to see the subject that way? Put another way, if a caveman saw that image, would he think it looked like a glass bead, or just an image that happens to have a wavy line of darkness across it?

My mind can make anything connect to gaming, and of course that’s where it went next. My Magica campaign is set in Europe in 1199. So you’re there, and you’re one of the 90% of people who live in an agrarian village and toil on the land all day. Your beverages are stored in wooden casks and served in earthenware (or wooden) cups. Your house has no glazed windows—there might be a few in the manor house (might be), but that’s it for the whole village. You don’t own any jewelry, nor does anyone you know. The village church might have a few baubles, as might the lord’s lady. But how often do you get a close look at those? (“Keep your eyes off the lady’s baubles, peasant!”)

So this white commercial van slips though a time portal and ends up in your village. Do you even have a context to recognize the glass-beadiness of that icon?

Well, maybe. You probably visit the local market town a few times a year: It’s no Constantinople, but the odds of a glazed window or bit of jewelry are somewhat higher. Maybe you’ve been on a pilgrimage, to the nearest cathedral if not farther. Glass and jewels abound. Heck, it’s not as if you’ve never seen a drop of dew.

So what’s the moral of this story? Societal context allows for shortcuts in visual media? Medieval people know less than you might assume—or maybe more? Dropping a Transit van into 1199 Aquitaine might make for a cool adventure hook? Or maybe just that the A3 needs a overpass at the B3006?

Am I the only one who derives trivial insights into one’s game campaign from van graphics? What eureka moment have you pulled from a traffic delay?