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Layers of Player Understanding
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# Layers of Player Understanding

July 5, 2013 Page 2 of 3

# System

A System represents all possible inputs and outputs within a given construct as well as all the internal feedbacks between various rules within the game. Made up of various Mechanics, a System provides a sense of logic to the game's simulation. Understanding all the possible interactions within the system communicates the fundaments of how that system operates. If the system of rules is an accurate representation, or simulation, of the reality being addressed by the game, then the knowledge of the system conveys the logic of that reality. As a player learns more mechanics within a given system, the player develops a framework for how all the mechanics interrelate.

This interrelation between mechanics is a central component of the system's thinking approach to problem solving. Observing the multiple and long-term feedbacks from a given input create awareness towards complex problems the game may present. System here refers to any group of Mechanics. A distinction is not made between a game's overall system and its various sub-systems. This layer focuses on the inter-relationship between different inputs and outputs internally within the game. These may be affected by the player's inputs on the system, but are also feedbacks within the game itself based on its internal set of rules.

In the game Lunar Lander, the relationship between thrust and gravity changes depending on if the player chooses Earth, the Moon, or Jupiter. Understanding how the thrust input by the player changes the output of the Lander based on the choice input of interstellar object, the player grasps the idea that gravity on the Moon is weaker than on Earth which is weaker than on Jupiter.

Through understanding the connection between interactions, the player may draw associative conclusions enriching their understanding of the experience.

Heavily simulation-based games such as SimCity or Microsoft Flight Simulator focus on this to create complex situations for the player. Games with an internal ecosystem that governs the state of the game have internal mechanics that yield a number of possible internal results based off their relation with other mechanics.

Many developers that fall under Tadhg Kelly's simulationism lens of game making create complex sets of interactions that lead to near infinite possibilities. As the player discovers these possibilities and determines why a possibility occurred in the system, the player starts operating on the System layer.

In terms of system thinking, the importance is outlined in Daniel Aronson's example of crop damage by insects. He explains how the immediate feedback of using a pesticide on a particular Insect A in the short-term decreased crop damage, but in the long-term the crop damage increased. This was the result of an unforeseen input of that particular insect keeping another insect's population down.

In this example system, there are many mechanics at work including Insect A's feedback on the crops, Insect B's feedback on the crops, and Insect A's feedback on Insect B. In this example applied to this model, learning all these mechanics help the player understand the problem at large and potential long-term consequences of adjusting each population at the System layer as each mechanic alters the state of the game.

# Tactic

Tactic is the player acting on the system by choosing a specific input after understanding other possible inputs in order to achieve a desired output. By understanding the current state of the game and understanding the system and how each different input will alter the current state of the game, the player can plan and take an immediate action to alter that state based on which input they choose.

Knowledge of the entire system is not needed, but knowledge of at least two possible inputs is needed to provide a sense of choice. Acting on this choice is a Tactic. For a player, understanding the tactical options are the point at which players begin to feel a sense of agency because they are presented with meaningful choices they have become aware of by understanding the interrelations within the system. Player agency here "is the provision of capability for a player to act meaningfully and with visible effect in a game," as described in this piece.

The board game Pandemic is a good example of the player making tactical decisions. On a player's turn they are able to perform only four actions. Usually the state of the game is so volatile that the player must deal with the short term problems presented at the start of their turn. Because of the way the outbreak deck places previously drawn locations back on top of the deck, the player is aware of what problem cities have a high potential of being drawn at the end of their turn. As a result the player makes immediate choices to deal with the specific problem cities in the current state of the game, changing the game state in an immediately apparent way.

Because of the engagement that comes from a sense of agency, this layer of interaction is an important layer for the player to understand. Analyzing what this layer teaches in a developer's own game provides an opportunity for the developer to capitalize on this engagement by determining what the tactical choices the player can make are at any given moment. On a moment-to-moment basis, a developer could determine what meaningful choices are presented to the player and how best to communicate the feedback of those decisions on the game state back to the player in the short-term.

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