Don’t Ask What, Ask Why
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.