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  • Why We Play

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  •  The Journey vs. The Destination
    Older generations want to enjoy the entire game they are playing, even when their main objective is to win. Young people seem to be more interested in the destination, "beating the game," than in the journey. Obviously, it's necessary that a game have a sufficient level of challenge that the "destination" player feels he's accomplished something.

    This can also be seen as "what happens" versus "what is the end." Some people play games (and read novels, and watch movies) to find out what happens next. Others are only interested in the final result. They might skip ahead in a novel and just read the end, or skip ahead in a game (often with "cheats") and just play the end.

    I once listened to a young man who had written two books about generational differences say that his generation (gen Y or millennials) were quite happy to get a cheat code, go to the last stage of a game, "win" the game, and be satisfied. "I beat the game, didn't I?" I, a baby boomer, was astounded. "Why play if you're going to cheat?" He smiled as he said, "We're just gathering the fruits of our research." I shook my head. To this day I cannot understand this emotionally, but I understand intellectually that many game players feel this way -- that the destination is all that matters. And a game designer must be aware of it.

    The following is another observation of this phenomenon:

    "The fact that there's no ending [100 levels repeat randomly], however, points out a very important difference between Atari's view on video games and the current perception. Atari saw Gauntlet as a process, a game that was played for its own sake and not to reach completion. The adventurers continue forever until their life drains out, their quest ultimately hopeless.

    ... in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years ... their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed." (John Harris, "Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games,", May 30, 2008.)

    I'd speculate from my experience with game design students that, for whatever reasons, females tend to be more interested in the journey, males more interested in the destination.

    We might speculate also that MMOs with level caps (which is typical because it's hard to design a MMO without a level cap) suit the destination folks, because there is a destination: that maximum level. Similarly, RPGs such as Final Fantasy are attractive to destination people because there is an end to the story. In older RPGs, both the original non-electronic ones and some of the older video games, the game is open-ended. There is no particular destination.

    I find it instructive that the latest version of non-electronic Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition, June 2008) has a definite end. Characters retire, one way or another, when they reach 30th level, and that level is practically reachable, as opposed to a tightly run first edition game where no human character ever got to a maximum level (and certainly not 30th!).

    I'll end with a couple of additional observations.

    Dream-fulfillment is close to escapism. Like it or not, many games have a strong escapist element, and it seems strongest where dream-fulfillment is strongest. It is especially important to non-adults. Consider, say, a favorite adolescent male pastime, shooter games:

    • The player can be the star, "da man," which is generally unlike the player's real life
    • Players can experience thrills (even death) without risk of being hurt
    • There's always a way to succeed -- trial and error can work, because it doesn't matter if you get killed
    • Competition is not only permissible, but encouraged
    • There's a structure to everything; most of the uncertainty of real life is not there
    • Young people control what happens, and attitudes can be confrontational, edgy.

    For a frustrated teenage male who's been told too often what he can and cannot do, this can be a kind of nirvana. Game designers must be aware of the escapist elements of gaming, even if they're designing a serious game that has few or none of these particular characteristics.

    Game players have different kinds of personalities, just as the population at large. A fairly common taxonomy divides people into 16 personalities, as reflected in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and in the writing of David Keirsey and others (for example, the book Please Understand Me). These are often derived from the work of Carl Jung, and even back to the Greek idea of the "four temperaments". (There is a practical Jung Typology test of personality type online.)

    The major point to recognize is that different personalities have different preferences, different ways of collecting information, different ways of reacting to challenges. These personalities are established in childhood and do not change. For example, some people feel better before they make a decision than after, so they tend to gather more information and delay decision-making. Others feel better after they've made a decision, so they react to decision-making quite differently. The former may learn to make timely decisions, but to a considerable extent it is against their nature. Similarly, some people rely heavily on logic, others on intuition. Such differences are going to strongly affect their tastes in games, or even whether they play games at all. Keirsey suggested that certain occupations tend to attract certain personality types, and we can wonder if game playing attracts only some of the 16 types.

    The major point for inexperienced designers to take from this is you are not like your audience, and you need to decide which kinds of preferences and which ideas about enjoyment your games will target. No game can begin to cover all the bases because there are so many different reasons to like to play games.

    Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, was described in a recent "Armchair General" online review as "one of the great titles in the world of games."


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