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Layers of Player Understanding
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Layers of Player Understanding

July 5, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3


Once the player has a feeling of agency and is making tactical short-term decisions, the player begins to plan a series of tactics, or inputs, affecting the long-term state of the game, which is Strategy. Abstracting away from the acting aspect of interaction, Strategy is the point at which the player begins to theorize how to change future states of the game based on a series of interactions. The player makes predictions about how their sequence of tactics will alter the state of the game beyond the immediate feedback from each input as other factors, such as inputs from other players, interfere with the immediate and direct feedback from an input.

Using Twilight Struggle again as an example, the game uses strategy to communicate the intentions and tensions surrounding the Cold War. For example, knowing that in the future the game will score the balance of power in African countries, both players will plan on how to alter the influence in that area. When the game begins, neither player has any influence in those countries. An example strategy is using the immediate tactic of performing a coup in a southern country with a low stability number that is geopolitically connected to other easy-to-influence countries on the game board. By doing so, in the future the player may slowly spread their influence north.

Of course, by performing a coup the immediate feedback of the DEFCON level lowers putting the game close to the Nuclear War end state. Alternatively, the player may also choose instead to claim enough control over the Middle East to have the flexibility to spread influence south.

In either scenario the player is planning which course of actions to take in order to control the key battleground states in the area such as Nigeria, Zaire, and Angola that greatly affect the game's scoring. These strategies are altered as opponents also attempt to control these areas.

These alterations force the player to take new immediate tactical actions in order to achieve a long-term strategic goal that via the aesthetic metaphor for the action informs about the potential thought process and intentions of the behaviors taken by the U.S.A. and USSR during this time period.

The immediacy of the feedback provided by a system is a central component that separates Strategy from the previous layer, Tactic. Realizing what the player discovers by acting on short-term goals compared to planning long-term goals provides distinctly different sets of information a developer could teach.

Just as a System of inputs comprises multiple Mechanics, a Strategy of decisions comprises multiple Tactics. Although similar in terms of meaningful decision making, this distinction between Strategy and Tactic is important because of the difference in thought process a player engages in while operating at these two layers. Both the immediate impact and eventual impact a player theorizes are opportunities for a developer to provide distinct experiences and knowledge.


Information outside of the game space may also influence a player's understanding of how the state of the game will change. This external knowledge is the Context surrounding the game. This context could be knowledge assumed by the player based on layers of understanding from a previous game in the same franchise or from understanding a similar game.

This contextual knowledge may also apply to the player's understanding of other players' behavior in other games or other instances of the same game. Even understanding human psychology can inform the player on how to strategize within a certain game. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe the game space as "the magic circle." Information outside of the boundaries of this magic circle creates a cognitive frame. "Cognitive frames create contexts for interpretation and affect how we make sense of things," such as the state of the game.

Using the prior example of headshots in a shooter, being familiar with this mechanic in other shooters will influence the player in assuming that mechanic applies to the current game as well. Here the context affects the Mechanic layer of interaction as it is communicated via the Presentation Aesthetics. The entire game space and all prior layers of player understanding may be impacted by the external information the player brings. A tactic that was useful in a previous game encourages the player to assume that same tactic will yield a similar result in the sequel unless the player is taught otherwise.

An example of using external knowledge to influence a player's choices comes from the psychological elements surrounding the simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Explained in a passage from the World Rock Paper Scissors Society page, "knowing that there is always something motivating your opponent's actions; there are a couple of tricks and techniques that you can use to tip the balance in your favour." These tips and tricks such as suggesting a throw before the game begins, outside of the magic circle, are components of contextual information outside of the game space that can affect strategic choices.

The web series Extra Credits discusses the idea of cyclical imbalance in the game League of Legends. They explain how players may choose a certain champion because of how powerful they are against the average champion, leading many players to choose that particular champion. That same champion has a weakness that can be exploited by players who choose another specific champion. This understanding of the current evolving state of the meta-game provides contextual knowledge an informed player uses to adjust their Strategy.

It becomes a challenge for developers as players develop this understanding, because a player may or may not have that contextual knowledge. Everything from how complex to make a tutorial, how walkthroughs have changed classic adventure games, and issues with accessibility for new players are all affected by how much contextual knowledge a potential player might have. In relation to the rest of the model, the challenge is compounded as every layer is impacted by this contextual knowledge that will alter how and when the player will understand the intended learning.


By acknowledging all these layers a player may learn from, a developer can craft specific experiences to communicate specific information at different times. These layers could be used to craft a more engaging or informative experience by incorporating how each of these layers uniquely affords knowledge to the player.

Based on interaction as an input with an output feedback, each layer provides unique learning opportunities for the player. The core layer, Presentation Aesthetic describes how interaction is communicated to the player. The next layer, Mechanic is a single instance of interaction. System is all possible interactions. Tactic is a choice of making a single interaction. Strategy is planning for multiple choices of interaction. The final layer, Context is using outside information to influence the players understanding and usage of these interactions.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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