Until now, I’ve been discussing formal game design
- abstract simulations. But we rarely see truly abstract simulations
in games. People tend to dress up game systems with some fiction.
Designers put artwork on them that is suggestive of some real world
context. Take checkers for example - abstractly, it’s a board game
about entrapment and forced action, played on a diamond-shaped grid.
When we say “king me” in checkers, we’re adding a subtle bit of
fiction to the game; suddenly it has acquired feudal overtones and
a medieval context. Usually, the pieces have a crown embossed on
This is similar to word problems in math class. The
fiction serves two purposes: it trains you to see past it to the
underlying math problem, and it also trains you to recognize realworld
situations where that math problem might be lurking.
Games in general tend to be like word problems. You
won’t find many games that are pure unclothed abstractions. Most
games have more in common with chess or checkers - they provide
some level of misdirection. Usually there are metaphors for what
is going on in the game.
While metaphors are fun to play with, players can
basically ignore them. The name of the unique checker piece that
has made it to the other side is basically irrelevant, mathematically
speaking. We could call the regular pieces chickens and the crowned
ones wolves and the game would not change one whit.
Games, by the very nature of what they teach, push
toward this sort of understanding. Since they are about teaching
underlying patterns, they train their players to ignore the fiction
that wraps the patterns.
in 1976, a company called Exidy scored a first in video game history:
its game Deathrace was taken off the market because of public
concerns about the game’s violent nature. Deathrace was loosely
based on a movie called Deathrace 2000. The premise involved
driving a car to run over pedestrians for points.
Deathrace was the same as any other game that involved catching
objects moving around the screen. If you looked at this game today,
however, with its crude pixilated graphics and its tiny iconic people,
you wouldn’t be particularly shocked. After all, countless other
gore-fests have come along that make the game look quaint.
don’t think debates about the suitability of violence in the media
will disappear. Much evidence shows that media have some effect
on how we act. If media didn’t have an effect, we wouldn’t spend
so much effort on using it as teaching tools. But evidence also
shows that media aren’t mind-control devices (of course they aren’t,
or else we’d all behave like the people we read about in the children’s
stories we read in elementary school).
however, have always viewed this issue with some perplexity. When
they defend their beloved games, they use one of the most self-defeating
rallying cries in history: “It’s only a game!”
the wake of school shootings and ex-military people decrying first-person
shooters as “murder simulators,” this argument doesn’t carry a lot
of weight. Academics who disagree with the portrayal of games as
damaging to children tend to muster learned arguments about privileged
spaces and magic circles. Much of the public dismisses these arguments
as coming from an ivory tower.
there’s a very good reason why the gamers are incredulous.
games train us to see underlying mathematical patterns. The fact
that I can describe Deathrace as being a game about picking
up objects on a two-dimensional playing field is evidence that its
“dressing” is largely irrelevant to what the game is about at its
core. As you get more into a game, you’ll most likely cut to the
chase and examine the true underpinnings of the game, just as a
music aficionado can cut past the lyrical content of different types
of Latin music and determine whether a given song is a cumbia
or a marinera or a salsa.
over pedestrians, killing people, fighting terrorists, and eating
dots while running from ghosts are all just stage settings, convenient
metaphors for what a game is actually teaching. Deathrace
does not teach you to run over pedestrians any more than Pac-Man
teaches you to eat dots and be scared of ghosts.
of this is to minimize the fact that Deathrace does involve
running over pedestrians and squishing them into little tombstone
icons. That’s there, for sure, and it’s kind of reprehensible. It’s
not a great setting or staging for the game, but it’s also not what
the game is really about.
to see that division is important to our understanding of games,
and I’ll touch on it at greater length later. For now, suffice it
to say that the part of games that is least understood is
the formal abstract system portion of it, the mathematical part
of it, the chunky part of it. Attacks on other aspects of games
are likely to miss the key point - at their core games need to develop
this formal aspect of themselves in order to improve.
that isn’t what we tend to focus on.
commonest route these days for developing games involves grafting
a story onto them. But most video game developers take a (usually
mediocre) story and put little game obstacles all through it. It’s
as if we are requiring the player to solve a crossword puzzle in
order to turn the page to get more of the novel.
and large, people don’t play games because of the stories. The stories
that wrap the games are usually side dishes for the brain. For one
thing, it’s damn rare to see a game story written by an actual writer.
As a result, they are usually around the high-school level of literary
sophistication at best.
another, since the games are generally about power, control, and
those other primitive things, the stories tend to be so as well.
This means they tend to be power fantasies. That’s generally considered
to be a pretty juvenile sort of story.
stories in most video games serve the same purpose as calling the
über-checker a “king.” It adds interesting shading to the game but
the game at its core is unchanged.
- my background is as a writer, so this actually pisses me off.
Story deserves better treatment than that.
are not stories. It is interesting to make the comparison, though:
Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy.
tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur,
deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
Games are external - they are about people’s actions. Stories
(good ones, anyway) are internal - they are about people’s emotions
both cases, when they are good, you can come back to them repeatedly
and keep learning something new. But we never speak of fully mastering
a good story.
don’t think anyone would quarrel with the notion that stories are
one of our chief teaching tools. They might quarrel with the notion
that play is the other and that mere lecturing runs a distant third.
I also don’t think that many would quarrel with the notion that
stories have achieved far greater artistic heights than games have,
despite the fact that play probably predates story (after
all, even animals play, whereas stories require some form of language).
stories superior? We often speak of wanting to make a game that
makes players cry. The classic example is the text adventure game
Planetfall, where Floyd the robot sacrifices himself for
you. But it happens outside of player control, so it isn’t a challenge
to overcome. It’s grafted on, not part of the game. What does it
say about games that the peak emotional moment usually cited actually
do better at emotions that relate to mastery. Stories can get these
too, however. Getting emotional effects out of games may be the
wrong approach - perhaps a better question is whether stories can
be fun in the way games can.
we speak of enjoyment, we actually mean a constellation of different
feelings. Having a nice dinner out can be fun. Riding a roller coaster
can be fun. Trying on new clothes can be fun. Winning at table tennis
can be fun. Watching your hated high school rival trip and fall
in a puddle of mud can be fun. Lumping all of these under “fun”
is a rather horribly vague use of the term.
people have classified this differently. Game designer Marc LeBlanc
has defined eight types of fun: sense-pleasure, make-believe, drama,
obstacle, social framework, discovery, self-discovery and expression,
and surrender. Paul Ekman, a researcher on emotions and facial expressions,
has identified literally dozens of different emotions - it’s interesting
to see how many of them only exist in one language but not in others.
Nicole Lazzaro did some studies watching people play games, and
she arrived at four clusters of emotion represented by the facial
expressions of the players: hard fun, easy fun, altered states,
and the people factor.