I tend to write some type of essay or blog post about this topic around once every year. Like most of my views, my opinions on game design are constantly being revised and developed. This post may not accurately reflect all of my current or future beliefs about design.
You can read an updated version of this post at Gamasutra.
Normally I would start a discussion like this by going over some definitions. That’s a little bit tricky with this topic, because what I’m trying to do is explain some of the origins and reasons behind the definitions and heuristics that I use. There are only a small number of things I want to clarify before getting into the actual interesting bits of design philosophy.
As a standard disclaimer, I want to be very clear before I get started that outside of specific contexts, I believe words are unimportant. We use them to accurately and precisely convey ideas to each other, but there’s no inherent moral reason why one set of audible sounds ‘means’ one thing over another.
If allowing games to be an all-encompassing field is necessary to have a smooth discourse, so be it. If games must be defined as a very narrow and direct type of interaction with a player, then so be that instead. What I’m trying to say with all of this is that while I’m going to very shortly make up a lot of terms and a fair number of definitions to go along with them, none of that is the point of what I’m writing here.
Classifications are valuable in that they allow us to apply heuristics and rules to how an object or system behaves. It goes without saying that your personal classification systems may differ from mine, but that does not necessarily mean you will disagree with what I’m saying.
When defining games, I use the word in a very broad sense. I realize that many people define games to strictly refer to gameplay: as a set of choices, or an expression of agency, or as a series of voluntary challenges leading to a set reward. I don’t think those people are incorrect, but the vast majority of video games now incorporate more than pure gameplay, and are consumed, I believe, not just for core gameplay but for their secondary elements as well.
As such, it would perhaps be more accurate for me to use the word “media-experience” in place of “game,” but for the vast majority of people reading this, the second word is much clearer. I don’t believe that the principles I discuss here are exclusive to games, so whenever possible, I’ve tried to use general language.
For better or for worse, I pull a majority of my personal philosophies from my theological beliefs, which heavily shape my approach to game design and media in general. When I first started forming my views on media, I was doing so primarily from an angle of personal development.
I was interested in figuring out how media affected me personally, and what that meant from a theological standpoint. In opposition to a more nihilistic view of entertainment, I didn’t and don’t believe that games are purely chemical experiences, or that everything can be neatly reduced to simple sequences of actions and rewards. Pulling from some of my own theological beliefs, I instead came up with two theories.
If I have a strong desire for something, and I don’t have a reason to suspect that the desire is wrong or evil, I should be able to satisfy that desire with something real. Fantasy shouldn’t be better than reality, just more focused.
If I find myself wanting something on an extremely deep fundamental level, it means that there’s something about reality that I don’t understand yet, and by examining objects and mediums that invoke that yearning, I can learn more about it.
Using my own reactions to games, books, movies, and genres as data points, I started refining those theories and using them to figure out how I preferred to view the world and how I actually viewed the world. Based on discrepancies between the two, I started to figure out what my more basic goals in life were.
By the end of school, I had added a third theory to the list, based around an, again, theologically motivated belief that some goals and desires are shared universally among people as a whole:
If certain desires are built into everyone, the difficulty in communicating those desires is a problem of translation, not of content. In other words, it might be difficult to find a way of talking about something in a manner that resonates with an audience, but it shouldn’t be difficult to find things worth talking about.
Or, more simply put:
If you can figure out how to accurately convey complex ideas, you should be able to consistently make games, books, and movies that resonate with people on deep levels.
When I initially came to RIT it wasn’t to make games, even though I was in the Game Design and Development major. I liked programming, but also other forms of graphical work, and I was a fairly good artist. My plan was to pursue a programming job, but get an artistic set of skills in case I wanted to fall back on illustration or animation.
Once in the GDD major however, I started to immerse myself more in gaming culture and theory than I had done previously. Where before games had been a very private activity, I was now running into more people that were both regularly playing and talking about games, and were doing it in a social way. On top of that, classes were also regularly bringing up game design, and I was getting frustrated that when I either agreed or disagreed with people, I didn’t have clear terms and explanations of why.
I re-assessed a number of my views on media, and ended up forming a final more unifying theory that brought together many of my previous thoughts:
Games not only “should” reflect reality, the best experiences already do in some way. The experiences that mean the most to people must, in some way, be exploiting a legitimate desire, and the best of those experiences will find ways of relating that desire back to the real world.
Or, more simply put:
It it’s popular on a wide scale, it must, in some way, be talking about a “fundamental desire” that people share.
While since then I have refined that hypothesis, I was able to use it to start forming more concrete views on how games actually work.
Just about everything I’m going to say is based around a specific idea: that games and media are primarily tools used to communicate worldview.
What I mean by worldview is a person’s opinions on the nature of reality: not in the form of preferences, or political views, but as a statement about how the world works on a much more basic level. Is the world dynamic, static, or does it cycle through events and repeat itself? Is the unknown dangerous or an adventure?
To say that a worldview is communicated goes beyond claiming that a player will understand what that worldview is on an academic level. On the contrary, most of the time academic communication will never happen. I mean that for the duration of the experience, a player will literally see the world of a game as reality.
Using that world as their basis, the player will reform their own worldviews, and upon exiting the experience, they will either internalize this new worldview and use it to adjust their behaviors or beliefs, or they abandon it and move on.
States of Being
Consciously, or unconsciously, people gravitate towards media in order to enforce a particular worldview onto themselves. Through interaction with a medium like a game, a person is able to place themselves in a reality of their choosing. It’s important for me to note at this point that I’m not referring only to escapism in the narrative, other-world fantasy sense, or only to escapism in the sense of an alternative to reality.
Worldviews are positional: Again, “What is the nature of the reality around you?” That question doesn’t need to be answered only with a setting or story. Is the world predictable and safe, or is it dangerous and adventurous? Is the world enforcing a sense of agency or does it move regardless of the players prompting? Although narrative can play a role in answering these questions, general aesthetic or even pure gameplay can be just as effective.
Another key point to emphasize is that I’m not only referring to highly artistic games. I do believe that people who play casual mobile games or traditional shooters and platformers, are still able to use that media to enforce worldviews upon themselves.
Neither an idea nor its communication needs to be novel or revolutionary to be valuable to someone.
In practice, approaching gameology from the perspective of communication and states of being allows me to more accurately describe what a successful game does to its audience.
As an extension of the idea of gaming experiences being applicable to the real world, I use the term “gratitude loops” to describe how an ideal experience transforms a player over time.
I define a gratitude loop as consisting of three stages:
1. A player is drawn into investing time and energy into an experience in an attempt to activate a desired emotion.
2. Media improves a player’s life in a consciously or subconsciously recognizable way. The player is able to somehow attribute a specific experience with that change.
3. The player holds literal gratitude towards the media or it’s creators, depending on how aware they are of the game’s creation, making them more open to further manipulation.
Gratitude loops are different from traditionally defined behavioral loops because in their most ideal state, they are designed not to refresh an experience indefinitely, but to continually transform it. By their very nature, gratitude loops are self defeating – they require that a player externally experience the benefits of interacting with a medium, which reduces dependence on the original source to get those benefits.
While gratitude loops don’t foster pure repetition, they do foster relationships that can be used to create repetition. These can manifest themselves between a player and a medium, genre, creator, or idea. Past experiences determine not only what a player chooses to engage with, but how they approach and interpret both current and future experiences. The result is that, once they’ve been through at least one cycle of a gratitude loop, a player’s response to a designer’s work will be different than how they would have initially judged it.
Gratitude loops are useful then in allowing a designer to shape future experiences for the player. Each time a player completes a cycle, completing a future cycle becomes easier. Players become more engaged in their experiences, more exploratory, and more forgiving of certain kinds of flaws. Because of this element of trust, they become better listeners to the monologue or experience that the designer wants to give, and more supportive of a designer’s efforts to create these monologues.
The quintessential example of all of this, and one of the best evidences that worldview-centric approaches to media are accurate, is in how fandoms operate: gratitude loops explain a lot about why people and groups of people can have these highly emotionally charged reactions to media.
If you talk to people involved in fandoms, you start to see patterns crop up, even if the fan isn’t consciously aware of what’s going on. Consumers that have gone through gratitude loops externally manifest their internal attitudes through protectionism of the medium, huge amounts of hype over future products, and an otherwise almost unexplainable need to expose other people to the medium and connect with others who have already been exposed to the medium.
Fans see their media experiences as a reflection of the beliefs and worldviews that they value. One becomes tied up in the other – a person insulting a show or game isn’t just attacking an experience that the fan liked, he or she is attacking everything that is represented by that piece of media: the talent of the author, which is in itself an implication that what they communicate could be false, or the genre and message behind the experience, an implication that those who love it are deluded.
On top of this, fans don’t always understand why they like what they do. Most players think of liking games in a moral sense: you should like games that are well-made and well-executed, and you shouldn’t like games that aren’t well-made or well-executed. Without a way to distinguish between a technically-admirable game and a game that is worth personally admiring, attacks on one side of the game are translated into attacks on the other.
So what the heck does all of this mean for Latinforimagination?
As a studio, we define a “good” game as one that succeeds in three areas:
Purposeful Inclusion – Every element of a game should have a reason to exist.
Unity of Theme – Elements in a game should not contradict each other.
Strength of Telos – A well executed game is only as strong as its original purpose.
To succeed in the area of Purposeful Inclusion, a designer must think about why an element exists in a game. Nothing should be added unless it does something. In practice, this may mean rethinking whether or not a game experience actually should have unlockables, or RPG elements, or to be in 3D. It may mean removing mechanics or adding them.
To pay attention to purposeful inclusion is to make a game that is elegant and that feels complete. A designer should feel confident when asked about any piece of their game, that it should exist and be the way that it is.
Unity of Theme states that, since each part of a game exists to serve some sort of purpose, there should be a sense of unity between every part of the whole. For example, Angry Birds works best when its story is trivial and light – a serious narrative with deep emotional investment would conflict with the series’ gameplay and give an experience that felt bipolar.
That’s not to say that a game can’t employ contrast between elements, just that those elements should ultimately work together to make a singular experience overall. The best analogy for unity of theme is teamwork, like in a sport or office. Many small parts work for a common goal, and that goal remains the same regardless of the individual role.
Finally, Strength of Telos anchors a game to the real world. This could perhaps be rephrased as : “games should have a reason to exist.” What a game does to and for people is the most important measure of whether it was worth making.
None of this means that a game must be artistic to be good – just that all games, lighthearted or deep, fun or grueling, serve some type of purpose to the people playing them. Understanding why someone plays your game, and evaluating whether or not your game is benefiting them or harming them, is the crux of good design.
The point of this entire discussion is that, as designers, we can make more sophisticated commentary on the principles of good design by building off of a solid and understandable philosophical base. Thus, we can develop rules that predict how people will respond to given situations.
The Rule of Interpretation:
Unless a design element is explicitly shown to actively conflict with an existing worldview, an audience will interpret it to align most closely with what they already currently believe or want to believe.
The Rule of Risks:
An audience will be less tolerant to new ideas and changes to an existing media formula if they depend upon that media to deliver a desirable worldview or to promote a desirable worldview.
The Rule of Gratitude:
An audience will be more likely to overlook flaws in a piece of media that has invoked a grateful reaction in them at some point.
The Rule of Escapism:
An audience that is unable to invoke a desirable worldview outside of the media in which they first experienced it will increasingly become dependent on that instance of media until either finding an external stimulus or abandoning the worldview.
The Rule of Authorial Relationships:
An audience will be more accepting of overt manipulation if they maintain an attitude of trust or gratitude to the media’s creators based on previous experiences.
The Rule of Confirmation:
An audience will be more accepting of both overt manipulation and targeted morals if they both agree with and have a vested interest in the success of the worldview being shown.
Maybe you agree or disagree with some or all of these. That’s fine. The point is, again, that having a solid base allows us to have more sophisticated dialogues, something that is mildly lacking in current gameology discussions.
I believe that part of the problem is that we’re all approaching these discussions from vastly different paradigms, and rather than figure out the differences in what we believe on very basic levels, we’re assuming that our conclusions on high-level topics should match up regardless.
You don’t need to share any of my beliefs, but if you’re interested in engaging with me on a topic within game design, it’s important for you to understand where the conclusions I’ll draw are coming from. I want to encourage you to figure out what your views on game design are, and to use those as a foundation when you decide your own best practices in the future.