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Don’t Ask What, Ask Why

June 20th, 2012

As geeky online people we tend to get caught up in definitions a lot. I’ve done it plenty in the past, and will likely get into pointless debates about it in future. But ultimately I do think definitions aren’t very useful, and trying to lay out your own definitions is futile. Definitions are made by communities and groups over time, not by individuals, and tend to mean different things to different people. And they change greatly over time. Arguing over definitions is usually about arguing what to exclude from a particular group, and is ultimately always a negative affair.

Keith Burgun recently made an article on Gamasutra about the need for a definition of “game”. It follows on from a previous article. Both are good thought pieces, but I don’t find them very useful overall. Because I’m not so interested in the Whats, I care more about the Whys.

Why do people play games? Lots of people have different motivations, and some like unique combinations, but there has been a significant amount of research done into this which shows there are some main groups. From my own previous readings and personal thoughts these are:

  • Ludism – The rulesets and logic behind game interactions. On a primitive level this is puzzles, but on a more complex level this is about ambiguous choices. This is what Keith is primarily interested in I feel, and me too – roguelikes are all about these base gameplay interactions, often cutting out all other elements entirely. But many games are very light on ludism, presenting only one choice or making the choice obvious – a problem made by real-time games which rely on reflex rather than choice. If videos games want to have ludic appeal then I think they should look more at board games, which have had tremendous focus on this area of interest for a long time. One of the most important elements of a ludic game is score, as this is a direct reward piece for ludic success. Many games will replace abstract score systems with gold, loot, experience points or other measures of success.
  • Aesthetic – What looks, feels and sounds good. As an entertainment medium games can give us fantastic interactive stimulus that can be engaging all on its own. Something like Proteus is a beautiful example of an almost pure aesthetic game. Note I still call it a game – it has choices and interactivity, but the “reward” for gameplay choices is an aesthetic one, not a ludic one. Aesthetic is a big reason why AAA games are so successful, but the indie games movement has helped push new aesthetic ideas into the foreground, especially in breaking away from the idea that more realistic is better.
  • Narrative – A story, or sense of a story, with progression and change over time. Many play the likes of JRPGs just for the stories, with the interactive nature of the medium helping them feel more immersed. But games needn’t have traditional linear or even character-based narratives. The space for game narratives is very open and unexplored, but there are many obstacles to doing it right. The domination of conflict-based games is one problem, as is the prevalence of linear, single-solution games which don’t push the idea of interactive narrative very well. Plus traditional narrative techniques like dialogue or textual exposition don’t work well in games. Narrative exposition should come from the gameplay itself, and this is where I hope future focus will be.
  • Exploration – The freedom to find new and interesting things is a big motivator for many people to play games, especially those with huge, open worlds like Skyrim. Geographic exploration is one part of this, but there are also things like SpaceChem which appeal to the experimental mind. And it needn’t be epic – check out Small Worlds as a lovely little exploration piece.
  • Creativity – The ability to make and modify to your own ideals. Minecraft is obviously the current king here, but it has been around for a long time in various simulation games. It can scale from small tinkering to mass creation. Creativity is often its own reward in a game, and one can marvel in the results of one’s own making. But in some the act of creation can produce ludic tools or can be tied in with exploration.
  • Social – A vastly expanding element of play, social interaction can be a big motivating reason to play games. Drawsome is almost purely a social game, for instance, and helps push the idea that social interaction needn’t be split into the just competitive or cooperative. Real interaction with real people has its own special appeal, and being able to play with others (especially friends) can change the nature of a game.  Sometimes an otherwise dull game can become much more engaging when you can play with others (see Diablo).

There are probably other reasons people play games, and new areas will be invented in future, and of course in each there are a wealth of different styles that variant groups will prefer. But when designing a game you should know which of these elements you want to appeal to, and to what extent, and how you want to reward these impulses. It’s also important in advertising your game to show where the appeal lies. These are the reasons people will be attracted to your game, and why they’ll keep playing.

Roguelikes, as I said, tend to be about the ludic appeal, with interesting choices dominating the gameplay. Some have elements of narrative, exploration or creativity too, and a few even have nice aesthetics (and I don’t just mean graphics). I’ve not seen a good social roguelike yet, but I’m sure that’ll come in time.

Finally, on the “What vs Why” consideration, I must also rail against the persistent questioning of “What is a Roguelike?” Far more important is “Why is a Roguelike” – why do we play them, and why are they fun? I’ll maybe write about that another time.

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  1. July 10th, 2012 at 17:50 | #1

    Heh, it’s a great article, better expressed than anything I could do. But I fear it will just make Raph hated by both sides ;)

    July 8th, 2012 at 18:04 | #2


    interesting (and devastating?) riposte from raph koster here: http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/07/06/two-cultures-and-games

    June 28th, 2012 at 12:59 | #3

    @Darren Grey

    Semantics aren’t necessarily petty. What I mean by, say, “balanced” may be entirely different than what you mean, and unless we understand each other there is little hope of communicating successfully.

  4. June 25th, 2012 at 04:32 | #4

    Discussions which devolve into petty semantics are maybe a sign of some pathetic people being involved ;) Definitions should be gleaned from context, or express instance definitions given at the time of discussion. Instance definitions are unfortunately something many people like to argue over, but these tend to be boring people that you shouldn’t waste time with – accepting a temporary definition for the purpose of a single discussion is the only way to move forward with that discussion.

    Perhaps all articles should have disclaimers at the start giving concise definitions of loaded terms, so the whiny twits don’t just fill the comments with their proscribed objections. But alas, the internet is not a good medium for coherent discussion, especially amongst gamer types, so the whole endeavour might just be futile.

    June 22nd, 2012 at 11:42 | #5

    @Darren Grey

    “as a developer his definitions aren’t important to me”

    That’s certainly fair. I agree that his terms aren’t especially useful in and of themselves. He does point to what seems to be a true distinction between different types of interactive systems, though, and I value that.

    I do think defining and agreeing upon terms is worthwhile and I’m actually surprised that these articles saw so much pushback. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been involved in many discussions that end up spiraling into futile chains of “but what do you mean by PUZZLE?”, or “what do you mean by FUN” and so on. Language will always be slippery but I appreciate attempts to refine it.

    Finally, annoying people should rarely be a consideration in your professional or intellectual pursuits… and I’m not at all convinced that annoying people or challenging their beliefs or assumptions actually makes communication “more difficult”.

  6. June 21st, 2012 at 18:58 | #6

    @Erez Ba
    Tournie DCSS doesn’t allow actual social interactions. It’s all rather meta. Still, facilitating competitive scoreboards does add a social element to a game, just not what I’d call a strong one.

    Funny how in cinema the score composers feel under-appreciated, whilst in gaming its people like AI designers that feel they don’t get enough limelight, with attention instead going to the graphics. I was at a conference recently where a speaker highlighted that GDC had 7 AI panel talks, and over 400 graphics panel talks. Stuff like AI and procedural mechanics can form a bedrock for gaming, yet they go so unnoticed.

  7. Erez Ba
    June 21st, 2012 at 18:26 | #7

    Interesting. Although one must consider that as an interactive media, the luddism/exploration/social aspects must take the foreground (probably in that order), with the aesthetic, narrative (which could just be filed under aesthetic) – the backseat. I am still not entirely convinced of a gesamtkunstwerk approach to any media that exhibits – or outright rely on – interactive elements. Heck, I am not entirely convinced of this approach with media that has absolutely no interactive elements (e.g. film composers have been complaining for years that they feel under appreciated with their art taking the backseat).

    And as for a RL with strong social aspect – I would argue that Tournie DCSS is on such, so long as you consider competitive and social to be one and the same (of course they are, and anyone who disagrees is a socialist :P).

  8. June 21st, 2012 at 05:21 | #8

    I’m talking about why people play individual game types, not why they waste time at all. Why this game over that game? What reward elements and experiences are people seeking? It’s more than just passing the time, otherwise they’d watch telly instead. A designer must know his work’s appeal, and the design should be informed by that.

    Games are compelling for more than just what you call “game”. I’ve used high level terms in the article but you can drill down and create structures within any of these headings. Your “systems” approach doesn’t make much sense to me without a wider consideration of why these systems exist and how different system types interact.

    Plus I don’t think you’ll ever get nerds online to agree on anything ;)

  9. June 20th, 2012 at 19:08 | #9

    Arguing about definitions is indeed pointless. Arguing about concepts is not – concepts are important, and my article was about concepts.

    Also, your “why” thing is silly. Here are some other reasons why people play games:

    – Because they think a character from the game is attractive

    – Because they like the music

    – Because they like the art

    – Because they want to avoid talking to their sibling

    – Because they want to pass the time while babysitting

    – Because they want to take their mind off recent dental surgery

    Etc etc etc. Obviously the ACTUAL list of reasons why people play games goes on and on FOREVER.

    The point is, how many of these are actually useful for a designer? In other words, if “someone” is going to want “anything” at “some point in time” for “some reason”, how is that helpful for us?

    Sure, maybe someone will want a social experience. Maybe someone will want a story. Maybe someone will want to, I don’t know, wear a straw hat, and this game lets you WEAR A STRAW HAT!

    How am I, a game designer, going to glean ANY message from this other than “hey it doesn’t matter what you do, whatever you do will probably be good for someone at some point in time!”

    I am concerned with *constructive* theory – theory that we can actually USE to get reproducible results.

    This is why we have to have good, solid, understandable “types of systems” (as I’ve broken them down), so that we can know what it is we’re even trying to accomplish and start to develop guidelines. You can call the systems whatever you want, the words aren’t important.

  10. June 20th, 2012 at 15:33 | #10

    And it just ends up annoying people and makes communication more difficult. So futile from my perspective. But my point is more that as a developer his definitions aren’t important to me. I care more about the motivating factors behind playing games and what players enjoy rather than having rigid definitions of what games are. Other developers may think differently, and that’s fine for them.

    June 20th, 2012 at 10:38 | #11

    The purpose of Keith’s piece – and the reason that I think considering the “what” can be useful – is to attempt to create a terminology, a set of definitions that people can agree on in order to make communication more efficient and effective.

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