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  • What Are Game Designers Trying to Do?

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Verisimilitude

    "1. The quality of appearing to be true or real . . .

    2. Something that has the appearance of being true or real."

    (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

    Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.)

    "All that gives verisimilitude to a narrative." -- Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe etc.)

    Perhaps all that blood and gore found in many video games is an attempt to provide verisimilitude. The appearance or feel of being true or real is what counts, going back to the idea that a designer is trying to elicit some kind of reaction from or impression on the player.

    Here's an example. The physics of ballistics (travel of projectiles through the air) is very complex. Digital computers were originally devised in part to calculate ballistic tables, and before that, analog computers were used. An entirely "realistic" game involving shooting would incorporate this physics into the programming. But the cost in slowing the game down would be ridiculous. So video game designers use approximations that are good enough to have the appearance of realism.

    According to Fundamentals of Game Design, at one time the military asked creators of a video game how they had incorporated realistic ballistic physics into the game. It turned out it was just a very good guess.

    Fans of combat flight sims vary in the level of verisimilitude they need. In some games the airplanes fly very much like the real world models, and consequently aren't at all easy to fly. In others, "arcade" flight is used, and the players can easily do all kinds of things with planes that the most skilled pilot could not. A designer needs to know what will be good enough to give that verisimilitude.

     Willing suspension of disbelief

    "A willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment"

    (Webster's New MillenniumTM Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.7))

    A willing suspension of disbelief used to be necessary for every novel, but especially for science fiction or fantasy. We know that the story didn't actually happen, and perhaps could not possibly happen, but we are willing to ignore our disbelief in favor of a good story. "Used to be" because modern standards of what is "just too unbelievable" have changed. Thanks to television and decades of increasingly-silly action movies, we'll accept all kinds of ridiculous occurrences and plot holes in movies as long as the action and the characters (in that order) are good.

    Many games don't even try for a suspension of disbelief, they just assume that if you play the game, you're willing to suspend. We all know Monopoly or Risk or Mario Cart have nothing to do with reality, but we play anyway.

    Nonetheless, in some kinds of games (techno-fetishist comes to mind) the designer wants to avoid anything that reminds the player that he's in a game, that stops his suspension of disbelief. Some kinds of in-game advertisements might do this, for example, because the remind us of the real world rather than the rather-different game world. Long delays such as long load times for the next level can do this.

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

    • Immersion
    • Catharsis
    • Flow
    • Aesthetic


    Immersive: "generating a three-dimensional image which appears to surround the user" Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English (second definition)

    "Immersion" is a word often used by video gamers. There are many definitions, but it generally means as used by gamedevs/authors of game design books: "the feeling that you're really there".

    Techno-fetishists believe that they must make photo-realistic environments to encourage a feeling of immersion in their players. That's why I've quoted the definition above, to highlight the relationship with technology. The immersive ideal for them is The Matrix or the Star Trek Holodeck.

    Some players define immersion more broadly as "what I like in video games", then are offended to find most gamers don't like it. So "immersive" more or less becomes a substitute for "good".

    Designer Brenda Brathwaite says "What's very immersive to 17-35 year old male players is constant decision making and good feedback." But the great majority of gamers are not 17-35 year old males.

    You don't need technology for immersion, as many tabletop Dungeons & Dragons players know. You can feel that you're really there even at a table covered with papers, a board of squares, and cardboard counters. It's just easier to create that feeling of immersion with technology, because you need less participation (imagination) from the players.


    "The purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, esp. through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.", Unabridged (v 1.1)

    Catharsis is "getting in the zone", when everything seems to become distant as you effortlessly succeed in the game: the kind of feeling you get when you double your highest Tetris score in one sitting. We often talk about this in relation to sporting events, when a shooter in basketball "gets in the zone" and just can't seem to miss, or when a quarterback "gets in the zone" and completes 15 passes in a row.

    Often catharsis is seen as a very good thing: "A release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit." (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.)

    The Flow

    "The Flow" is optimal experience, something that is not too easy but not too challenging--

    "the positive aspects of human experience -- joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow" (Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), p. xi). You can see how this relates to immersion and to catharsis. But you can be in "The Flow" in a non-electronic game just as well as in a video game. For more see Raph Koster's book Theory of Fun in Games, or my article "Why We Play"


    1. pertaining to a sense of the beautiful or to the science of aesthetics.

    2. having a sense of the beautiful; characterized by a love of beauty.

    3. pertaining to, involving, or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality. Unabridged (v 1.1). Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary

    This is using "aesthetic" in the sense of the MDA framework of Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics. In that sense, it's an umbrella term for what you want the player to see, feel, hear, experience.


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