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  • What Are Game Designers Trying to Do?

    [02.19.10]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  What are designers aiming for? Usually, it's not only "what does the player do" but "what does the game do for the player." There's not just one kind of "game", there are many possibilities. Here's a brief (and by no means comprehensive) list, many of them related to some of the others:

    These are related to ways of convincing the player

    • Realism
    • Verisimilitude
    • Suspension of Disbelief

    These are the general kind of feelings you want to engender in the player

    • Immersion
    • Catharsis
    • Flow
    • Aesthetic

    These are related to particular emotions you want the player to feel

    • "Experiences"
    • Surprise
    • Reward

    These are related to a message of some kind delivered to the player

    • Education
    • Story-telling
    • Historical representation
    • "Art"

    Experienced designers rarely do only one, but many concentrate on one or a few types. For example, many of my games are representations of history -- not simulations, because simulation is usually impossible, and the attempt is usually tedious. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have a Ph.D. in military history. Reiner Knizia's games are often abstract, with mathematical relationships sometimes involved, with an "atmosphere" (often called "theme") tacked on. His Ph.D. is in Mathematics.

    One of the biggest mistakes you can make, as a professional designer, is to assume that one of these intentions is the only way to make games, or the only "worthy" way to make games, or the only way worth bothering with. That's similar to the mistake of designing a game just like you would like to play. It is too limiting, it reduces your flexibility. When you start out, go with what you know and like, but recognize how limiting that can be.

    Now for the descriptions of these terms:

    These are related to ways of convincing the player

    • Realism
    • Verisimilitude
    • Suspension of Disbelief

    Many designers feel that, whatever else they do, they must convince the player(s) that what's happening in the game could be real (even if it's a science fiction or fantasy game), that in some alternate world it would really be happening. Consequently, they strive very hard to be realistic, or to create an atmosphere of verisimilitude, or to achieve a suspension of disbelief in the players.

    Obviously, this is much more often an issue in video games, not in boardgames or card games. Photo-realistic technology doesn't exist in those games. Yet in some non-electronic games, especialy role-playing games, the designer still wants to elicit a suspension of disbelief; and some wargame designers have striven for a kind of "realism" for decades.

    Realism

    "A statue of a bear in a city park is not better if it's so lifelike that it starts eating people." Ernest Adams, as quoted by Ian Schreiber

    In board wargames for decades there has been a dichotomy between "realistic" "simulations" and "good games" (also posed as "realism vs. playability.") It's a rare wargame that can provide both, especially without the help of computer technology. More often, the "realistic" wargame tries to force players to do exactly what happened in history, even though history is so full of chance that what DID happen isn't likely to be what was most LIKELY to happen.

    Shooters are a stronghold of the desire to make things feel real, yet the way characters behave in most shooters, running (and jumping) around rather than hiding, willing to get killed if they can kill two enemy, is absolutely unrealistic! Games like Rainbow Six are more realistic ("true to life"), but much less viscerally exciting than run-around shooters.

    The extreme of this is what has been called the "techno-fetishist" view, that a game is good simply because the player(s) can be convinced that it's life-like or "real". Oddly, it doesn't have to actually be realistic. You look out of your character's eyes, you hear what they hear with surround sound, and so forth; but what you're doing is ridiculous, because you're not afraid of dying.

    Moreover, Death is not only not permanent, it has no sting at all. Such games cannot possibly be realistic, not matter how much blood and gore and beautiful water-effects are involved. That's probably good, because people don't actually want reality, they want a feeling of power within a limited something that resembles reality. In the end they want not realism but verisimilitude (see below).

    My point of view is that you can't really be "realistic" in an historical game, for various reasons. One in particular is the problem of hindsight/foresight. Until we can turn off a player's memory so that he doesn't know he's in a game (The Matrix, so to speak), we can't be "realistic". Another is the major problem that you cannot possibly feel what the real participants felt, because you're playing a game. In a video game, if you kill two opponents before they kill you, you've got a great kill ratio. If you do this in the real world, you're dead and gone forever!

    This does not prevent designers from trying to be "realistic", or from thinking that the techno-fetishist way is the "only" way to make a game.

    Mega Man 9 shows how even a minor fear of death changes a game immensely. See "How Mega Man 9 resembles... Real life?"

    No matter how punishing we make the video game, there will be no fear like the fear of dying; and how many would want to play such "fearful" games, anyway, we play games as entertainment surely, and this is the era of "instant gratification" and the "easy button". Consequently, games that give players a real stake in "staying alive" will continue to be rare.

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