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Layers of Player Understanding
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Layers of Player Understanding

July 5, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

This model explains, from a ludic perspective, the layers of understanding a player can obtain experiencing a heavily designer-authored game. Each layer of this model is based on interaction and how interaction is presented to the player and utilized by the player as they engage with the experience.

This model aims to be a tool for developers to use in crafting their experiences. By looking through the lens of interaction and breaking down how that changes the knowledge a game communicates, a clearer picture emerges about how interaction at its different layers guides the player's learning and understanding of the game.

Presentation Aesthetic

Presentation Aesthetic represents the sensory information revealed to the player usually expressed through the audiovisuals. This is the core layer for this model, as it is the first exposure the player has to the experience.

This layer also represents how interaction is presented to the player. Often the feedback from an input by the player is outputted by the system via audiovisual information. This is not limited to, but includes the shapes and styles of the visuals, the ambient sounds and musical score, and the written and spoken text -- these all communicate elements of the experience.

Even abstracted board games such as chess communicate elements of medieval warfare based on the shape and names of the pieces. The shape of a knight compared to a bishop may communicate aspects of their behavior. The black and white pieces denote a clear distinction between the two players. Even the physical texture of the pieces could reveal historical information. The information presented through the aesthetic can communicate elements of the ludic nature of the game that can be utilized to teach the player.

As an example, this is the layer that most trivia games operate on to educate the player. To successfully learn what the trivia game is trying to teach only requires the player to have knowledge of the questions and their answers usually presented as text. Trivial Pursuit is a test of knowledge; moving around the board using the pieces does not teach the player about the categories of geography, science, or nature. The board and the pieces are there, at least in part, to break the monotony of reading all the question and answer cards.

By observing all the methods by which sensory input is presented to the player, developers can utilize each method for a specific lesson to be taught. The board game Twilight Struggle uses the historical time period between 1945 and 1989 as a backdrop for two players, representing the U.S.A. and the USSR, to compete for influence and control over the various countries and regions of the world.

A historical photo accompanies each card in the game. This photo is not related to the mechanics, nor is it required in order to play the game, but it does provide another avenue of communication about the historical Cold War setting the game takes place during. The turn counter equates to the years between 1945 and 1989 represented by a picture of the leader that was in office during that year. Again, this knowledge does not aid the player towards completing the game, but it does afford an educational knowledge about the time period. The historically accurate map of the world including country borders used by the game's board conveys a geographic knowledge the players may learn from.

From a more ludic perspective, the values of each country's stability number reveal each country's relative ideological government stability, independence, and power. Twilight Struggle does a great job of conveying a variety of historical information by exposing the players to a variety of visual information as they play the game.

However, the shape of the cards and board are a standard rectangle. This shape could have been another opportunity to impart additional information at the potential detriment to the overall experience. Also, the physical texture and feel of the smooth cards don't contribute to the historical setting. Of course, it is up to the developers of the game to determine which of the many methods they wish to utilize for communication. The key is evaluating all the potential options the game's presentation aesthetic affords information at this layer of player understanding.


Moving beyond the presentation aesthetic, Mechanic adds interaction. A mechanic is a single instance of an input that causes an output feedback either between the player and the system or entirely within the system. Understanding what and why that input has that specific feedback yields knowledge for the player. This ability to affect the game in a fundamental way is the first layer that incorporates interaction and feedback into a player's understanding of the ludic experience. At its base, the player learns what the rule for the input and output are. Once learned, the player may begin to question why a particular input has that particular output. Answering that question suggests a certain logic for the player to grasp.

A simple example of a mechanic is a headshot in a shooter. In many shooters, a headshot deals more damage to the target than a body shot. The player learns that being shot in the head is worse than being shot in the body. Of course, that is not the most accurate interpretation compared to a real life scenario, but every mechanic informs the player about the rules of the game space. These rules taught in the game space can be used to teach certain rules the developer may want to educate the player about whether about real life logic or game logic.

Many puzzle games, such as Portal, slowly introduce new ideas and concepts to the player. Test Chamber 10 of the game teaches the player about the game's mechanic for conservation of momentum. By exploring and discovering this concept, the player is afforded additional information about the game's internal logic.

That same notion of exploring and discovering the game's internal logic may be utilized by a developer intending a certain knowledge, such as Newtonian physics, be taught to the player that may be tested later by another mechanic. In later test chambers, the player must use a weighted cube's momentum just as the player observed his or her own momentum being conserved between portals.

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