Player Roles: Observers and Participants

Player Roles in more detail: 

  • The Observer : 

There are important distinctions between the two roles that are worth examining in more detail.  Let’s begin with the observer.

As stated above, the observer evaluates a piece of media on behalf of the participant.

He/she makes decisions both about  whether a piece of media is worth engaging with and what conclusions should be drawn about the media and the participant once the experience has ceased.

The observer largely fulfills two purposes: firstly, to protect the participant from unhealthy or low-quality experiences and to direct them towards healthy, high-quality experiences; secondly to translate an existing experience back into a language that can be applied within reality.

Because of the nature of his/her roles, the observer is most active when an experience begins and after it ends.  The observer will periodically check in during an experience to weigh it objectively and to reevaluate whether or not the participant should be allowed to engage.  When the observer blocks a piece of media, the consumer refuses to become invested –  he/she becomes more critical, analytic, and derisive of the work as a whole.

Assuming that the observer allows the participant to become invested in the work, he/she will also serve as a translator after the experience has ended, helping the participant to transition back into the real world and incorporate the perspective they gained into their overall worldview.

When the observer is ignored or unable to perform his/her functions, the consumer loses the ability to accurately evaluate what they see.  Both exposure and closure are important roles for the observer: failing in the prior makes a consumer more likely to become invested in media of poor quality or to ignore media that they are not immediately familiar with, failing in the latter role make a consumer more likely to become obsessed with a franchise, and to engage in pure escapism.

Note that competent execution and technical excellence are not the only measures the observer uses when evaluating media.  He/she nearly always takes multiple aspects of a work into account, including the possible benefits of its worldview, the possible dangers of its worldview, and the social benefits of engaging with the work.

  • The Participant :

While observers are usually skilled at analyzing a piece of media and pulling out lessons or evaluations of the experience and reactions to it, observers aren’t in a position to explore media or to learn from it.  In order to fully understand the intricacies of a system, the individual components must be treated as a purposeful, cohesive whole.

Thus, the participant treats a piece of media like it is an objective reality – their end goal is to, in a sense, live in the creator’s world. Because of this, the participant is allowed greater freedom than the observer to form biases about their experiences and to like or dislike parts of the experience.

While an observer might consider authorial intent when evaluating a piece of media, a participant speaks purely in terms of “like” and “dislike”.  It’s important to note that disliking a component of the media, or choosing to engage with the media in a unique way, or avoiding a component of the media, does not mean the participant is no longer engaged.

Remember, the participant’s goal is to treat a game/experience like it is reality.  In the same way that I may dislike a component of the real world, or may try to work within a system to change it, or may avoid a component of the world around me, I do not treat its existence as a purposeful flaw.

This is a subtle, but incredibly important difference – I can not say that gravity has been poorly designed; nor can I say that it was a pretty good idea.  Gravity is, regardless of my thoughts of it.  I may say that college/work/socializing is annoying, or frustrating, but no part of the reality around me cares about my views nor should it.  Reality is separate, and larger than my opinions of it.

Working within the system: approaching a job from a new perspective, forming a routine every time I get up in the morning, avoiding something that is harmful to me: this is a highly positive way to interact with the real world around us, and the participant may mirror these actions within a game – adjusting difficulty, avoiding an encounter or exploiting a flaw, or choosing not to exploit a flaw to make the game more enjoyable.

While the observer might claim that a system must be experienced, “in the same manner it was designed”, a participant is under no moral or intellectual obligation to follow that advice or to align his/her goals and play-style to that constraint.  The participant is in no way obligated to care or even acknowledge how a game is meant to be played.

Despite this freedom, and in some ways because of this freedom, the participant can not make judgement on the inclusion of any element, or the exclusion of any element from any piece of media.  They are unable to form opinions on the work as a whole, or express thoughts on what the work should be.  Every idea the participant has is experienced in the context of a game-world as reality, and mirrors the way that they approach the real world outside of said experience.

When most prospective players thinks of their ideal play-experiences, they  usually envision themselves taking the role of the participant – even though they might not put it in those words.  Players (I am speaking in generalities here) wish to place themselves in a position where they subscribe to a certain worldview or possess a series of beliefs, either because that worldview is satisfying to them or because it enables them to achieve some goal.

Understanding player motivations in terms of “states” or “beliefs” is a fundamental part of what I would call Worldview-Centric Design, but it falls outside of the scope of this essay.  What’s important to understand is that this theoretical end-goal for the player can only be achieved when they give control of the experience over to the participant.

Observers act as gatekeepers, participants fuel enjoyment.  And, for the ideal designer, it is hoped that observers then wrap up everything and contextualize it after the experience has ended.

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