Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Games Are

We are back in the arid territory of theoretical game design. In this post I present a systematic approach useful for discussing games. Several terms are introduced and defined where necessary.

Just like atomic theory with its electrons circling the nuclei, this is just a model. The intention of the model is to give the user a better understanding of games and a way of thinking about them. As such it is useful for predicting outcomes. The most interesting outcome being whether a player has "fun" playing a game. The model focuses on video games, but it can just as well be used to describe non-electronic games, like football, chess, poker or ludo.

Games consist of
  • a simulation background
  • rules
  • and goals
The rules generate the journeys towards the goals by constraining the player. Rules carve journeys out of the possibility space.

For a game to be fun
  • the goals have to be worth the journeys
  • the journeys must not be frustrating
  • the journeys need to keep the player's mind busy
A frustrating journey is a journey the player doesn't think he should have to make. Frustration is experienced when the player believes that things are not like they should be; it automatically sets in the more a player thinks about the design of a game. Important tools to fight frustration are expectation management and immersion.

The central challenge of game design is to create journeys that keep the player's mind busy. A game that fails at this is “boring”. A list of ways to keep a player's mind busy is this

  • Information gathering (learning, exploring, ..)
  • Comprehension
  • Pattern matching
  • Analysis
  • Educated guesses
  • Memorizing and Recalling
  • Coming up with courses of actions
  • Thinking through a course of action
  • Decisions, choices about efficiency

  • Tension, climaxes
  • Gain and loss 
  • Anger, happiness, sadness
  • Anticipation of learning, gaining or losing (curiosity, greed, desire, hope, fear, …) 
  • Investment, self-restraint, development
  • (Sinful) consumption 
  • Feedback
  • Decisions, choices about style
  • Emotional attachment
  • Disappointment
  • Regret
  • Disgust
  • (Sudden) Constraint/ Freedom
  • Sexual arousal
  • Surprise (in-context or out-of-context, e.g. "fishes in rivers? woa!")
  • Amusement, Humor
  • Annoyance
  • Cognitive dissonance (Not behaving consistently make one think)
  • Morality
  • Worry
  • Beauty (e.g. graphics, music)
  • Rhythm, the song
  • Acting (e.g. "what if I were him?"), self-exploration
  • Revelation, wonder (e.g. Civ quotes)

  • Tribes
  • Fame
  • Guilt
  • Honesty
  • Humiliation
  • Love
  • Hate
  • Obligation
  • Pride (also for others)
  • Embarrassment
  • Reliability
  • Status
  • Envy
  • Loyalty
  • Responsibility 
  • Ownership
  • Joking around
  • Shared Experience
  • Disappointment
  • Deception
  • Individuality 
  • Empathy
  • Spanish Shame (embarassement for sb. else)
  • Schadenfreude
  • Revenge
  • Mercy
  • Contempt
  • Gratitude
  • Hatred
  • Loneliness
  • Pity
  • ...

  • electronic controllers
  • physical activity
  • body control

There is some overlap, for example between emotional and social activities. The social category is what distinguishes social/MMO games from single player games.

Frequent readers will feel reminded about a rather lengthy series of posts I wrote several weeks ago. In the coming days I intend to do basically the same thing in a more structured way. I will also get back to less theoretical posts eventually; don't worry.

I am interested in feedback; especially negative feedback. If you think that this is lame, boring, irrelevant, has been done before, is insufficient, superfluous, etc please feel encouraged to voice your opinion. Feel free to use strong words.

Here are the links to all follow-up posts in that series:
2) What Games Are: Expectations
3) What Games Are: Chess
4) What Games Are: Raid Bosses
5) What Games Are: The Point
6) What Games Are: The Other Point
7) What Games Are: Conclusion


  1. R. Bartle's post I cannot agree with 100%, because it contains one fundamental flaw. Quoting:

    and at the moment there are more people playing games who don't really get games than there are people playing them who do

    In order to play and have fun in a game you don't need to "get it". Quite the opposite, I'd say. On average, kids "get it" a lot less the adults, and have a lot more fun.

    Returning to your model: there's a problem you'll find. Fun is subjective and it changes with time. A game which I was finding fun yesterday bores me to death today. This will be very difficult to model, since it's not just "repetition" which is boring, there's also context (=, e.g.: friends, or comparison with other games).

    Other random comments:
    - your definition of "frustrating" is extremely vague, to the point of uselessness.
    - keeping the mind busy: not necessarily, a lot of people like farming because it's relaxing and most definitely does NOT keep the mind busy. Of course, not sure it could be considered a "game".

    Hmmm. I thought of something else reading, but now I've forgot it :)

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Helistar. I'll try to consider them while I write the next few posts.

  3. I think this study has some potential. But it will require us all to look at where games come from as we know them today and their original intent compared to today's.

    @helistar: I don't think Bartle's statement is false at all. I think the evidence is all around us today that developers are far more concerned with attracting those who "don't get it" with video games than those who do, because those potential customers are so damn numerous! Kids have fun because, as it goes, ignorance is bliss; their limited experiences (youth) means they are less constrained in their creativity and thus find many different things to enjoy. On the opposite, adults have far more experiences on average which all work as barriers to their discovery of "fun" in a game.

    Fun *is* subjective though. That's why I think a series like this will need to really look at games for what they were intended to be, how that purpose has changed.

    For the record, I don't think games exist to be "fun" in the 21st century connotation of the word. People tend to say something is fun based on how amusing and simple it is. As far as games, they are mind sports. They entertain the mind by offering some kind of intellectual challenge. This is the reason there's such wild variation on what people define as fun. Some students find math fun, others frustrating. Same with all subject matter.

    I think this video is exactly relevant to discussing how people qualify "fun":

    There's an abstract lesson to gain from this. First, being perceived (games) as complex, difficult, or challenging means consumers might shy away because it diminishes their enjoyment of it (i.e., feeling as though they are not only gaining from it, but being good at it). As "the masses" get joy merely from succeeding, challenging games are being seen increasingly as not even games.

    We all see this everyday in WoW: "i login to have fun, not wipe 100 times" ...and all other similar statements to the same effect. Fun is being defined as simply succeeding and being praised for it.

    But back to the question of this series on "what games are". I think this question of "fun" is at the heart of what will have to be examined.

  4. Thanks for the long comment, Doone. The way I use the term 'fun' it is what all games strife to be.

    'Fun' is not my starting point; it is the destination. These posts don't build upon any definition of 'fun' - instead they try to define 'fun'.
    What this post (and many others) try to do is pin down how to make games 'fun'.

    'Fun' is the answer of the question "What games are?".

    Is that understandable ? ;)

  5. Ok, I remembered what I had forgot :)

    Did you read anything on transaction analysis? One of the books I read (it was either "Games people play" or "I'm ok, you're ok") contains an initial part on the problem of "filling time with activities", which could be an interesting read. If I can manage to find the book I'll provide a more precise pointer.

    @Doone: there's no "getting it". Either you have fun or you don't. Bartle's statement sounds like: "I have created this wonderful game which according to theory is the best thing in the world, but people don't play because they are unable to understand that they should really play and then they would really have incredible fun. Instead they are playing other bad games and only thinking they have fun.". Bullshit. If peoples flock to a game and have fun there, then it's a good one, whatever the "theory" says.
    In other words: experimental result >> theory.

  6. Interesting lines of thought. I think your outline in many ways gives a generic description of elements that are often part of games/play.

    You open up by saying its a model. I then ask: What is the point of this model?

    You say you are trying to describe what games are - yet you are doing this by describing player emotions. Thus your analysis suffers from swapping analytical level when you scoop up games, play and fun into one and the samething.

    Your initial description (point 2) is close to Jesper Juuls definition of games, and works well enough.

    But already you are making a big leap in definition on point (3): Several players actually seek out frustration in games and enjoy the frustration as part of gameplay (it makes the victory so much better), others are not interested in being challenged at all and find fun in games that is about repetition, simple choices, nice aestethics etc etc.

    Since play and fun is largely about the MEANING put into the activity, not necessarely the activity in it self, making categorizations are very hard.

    The descriptions you give of what engages a player suits quite well with the "gamer" stereotype, but does not really include the variety of playing styles out there. By limiting the scope of your model, it can still be a path worth pursuing.

  7. Thanks a lot for that comment, Kristine. I will need some time to think on what you wrote.

    In the meantime, you might find the other posts in the series interesting. I'm certainly interested in any future opinion you might want to share.

  8. @Helistar: "getting" matters to having fun. Here's a really good perspective to consider as a gamer who theorizes about design:

    In summary, the reason any given gamer type thinks any given game is fun is based on how well he "gets it". Yes, you need to "get it" to have fun.

    @Nils: Now the above is the summary to this wrapper comment :)

    There's a reason we have genres. The "destination" isn't always the point. This is *especially* true in RPGs, where most gameplay takes place on the journey. So we can't accept this outline if we do it on the premise that the goal is the destination. That's not true of all genres. Maybe you should add an extra article to this series about how this model doesn't take that into account. What does this model look like when we *do* take genres into account? Again, they exist for a reason. All games do not follow this model.

    The reason any of us have fun in any game is because we "get it" on some level. That's what's fun: getting it.

  9. Sorry for double post. I meant to post 2 links:

  10. Quick note - I've featured this article over at the Melting Pot. I'd like to link to the entire series instead - any chance of a roundup link?

  11. Added the links to all follow-up posts to the bottom of this first post. You can leave the link unchanged.