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  • Why We Play

    [10.14.08]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  Role-Fulfillment vs. Emergence (Story Dominant vs. Rules Dominant)
    Many people have suggested that video games are dream fulfillment: What is the player's dream that the game designer wants to help them experience or fulfill? Yet in many games the dream, if it is there at all, is quite obscure. What is the dream fulfillment in playing chess or checkers, or any other abstract game, such as Tetris? Is there anything personal (other than a desire for immortality?) in controlling a nation for a thousand years, as in History of the World, Age of Empires, or Civilization?

    Certainly many video games put the player into a position the individual is unlikely to experience in the real world, or which they wouldn't want to experience because it's much too dangerous. Living out fantasy is an obvious part of shooters and action games, for example.

    This kind of game can also be called "story-dominant." If there's a dream to be fulfilled, it likely involves a story, and the game is an expression of that story, however simple (just as dreams can be simple or complex).

    The other end of this spectrum is the "rules-dominant" game, which includes many traditional games such as chess and go. Gameplay emerges out of the rules, not from following a story (hence, it is sometimes called "emergent" gaming). The game has a set of rules, and the course of the game emerges from the rules in a great variety of ways, depending on the players. Board games and card games tend to be rules-dominant, while many of popular video game genres -- and role-playing games of all types -- tend to be more story-dominant.

    We might further say that the rules-dominant games are often for more than two sides, whereas the role-dominant ones tend to have just two sides, the player(s) and the computer (or referee, in Dungeons & Dragons and similar games).

    Video games, especially the AAA variety, are much more exercises in role-assumption than non-electronic games. The player is enabled to do something he'd like to imagine he could do, but he can feel as if he's really doing it in modern AAA games. The feeling of verisimilitude must be there. On the other hand, "casual" video games tend to be more rules-dominant, like board games and card games.

    Sid Meier recently described what amounts to an "emergent" view of games:

    "It's important that the player has the fun in the game," [Meier] said, noting that there is a temptation for the designer to steer the gameplay too much. "It's definitely our philosophy to keep the game designer in the background and let the story emerge from players' decisions." (Chris Faylor, Shack News, February 20, 2008.)

    The next question discusses other aspects of these two contrasting approaches.

    Story vs. Emerging Circumstances
    Some game players like to follow a story, while others hate to be led around by the nose. Yet they're talking about the same experience. This is usually expressed in the contrast of "linear" games with "sandbox" games.

    It is much easier to produce a powerful story through linearity (as in a book or movie), so the strongest (in terms of story, at any rate) of the story-dominant games are linear.

    Sandbox games have greater replay value than linear games (other things being equal) because there is only one or a few stories in the latter. Of course, if the linear game is very long, will people miss a lack of replayability?

    Sandbox video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed are a return to the older video game style, where specific narrative (linearity) is less important or non-existent.

    The role-assumption game isn't necessarily strongly linear or story-dominant. The ancestor of many video games, Dungeons & Dragons (paper version), can be played either way. The dungeon master can conceive a story and set up an adventure so that players are forced to follow through the story (linear method). Or he can set up an appropriately challenging situation, not trying to predict how the players will approach it and not trying to lead them from a particular point to another, and see what happens (sandbox method). In this case the players make their own story. And each group confronted with the same adventure will contrive a different story. It's easier to do the sandbox in a paper game than in a video game, because a good human referee is more capable than a computer of adjusting the game as it is played.

    I always hated storytelling D&D as a player, because it meant the referee forced me to do things I didn't want to do. But other people much prefer the story-driven style. Of course, there is story in the emergent style, and there is strategy and tactics in the story style. I'm talking about what's dominant.

    What seems to be certain, however, is that many players lean strongly to one side or the other, and don't like games of the other type most of the time.

    Classical vs. Romantic
    Two basic game playing styles exist among those who are interested in winning a game (not all players are, of course). Harkening back to the well-known 19th century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic styles the classical and the romantic.

    The perfect classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move an opponent (or the computer) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to details that probably won't matter but which in certain cases could be important. The classical player does not avoid taking chances, but carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. He tries to maximize his minimum gain each turn -- as the perfect player of mathematical game theory is expected to do -- rather than make moves and attacks that could gain a lot but which might leave him worse off than when he started.

    Some people call this the "minimax" style of play. I am not sure that "minimaxer" and "classical" mean quite the same thing in game contexts, but they are close. Certainly, the minimaxers are usually going to be classical types.

    A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than discovering brilliant coups.

    The romantic, on the other hand, looks for the decisive blow that will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the playing field. He wishes to convince his opponent of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The romantic is willing to take a risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximizing his minimum gain. He loves the brilliant coup, despite the risks.

    Chess lends itself to classical play, poker to romantic play. But each one can be played with the opposite style.

    Because so many video games let you save your position and experiment with different strategies, the romantic style may be more common among video gamers.

    (Much of this section is excerpted from the much longer article "The Classical and Romantic Game Playing Styles," originally published in Dragon Magazine #65, September 1982. A recent version is online.)

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