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  • What Are Game Designers Trying to Do?

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • The following are related to particular, specific emotions a designer wants the player to feel:

    • "Experiences"
    • Surprise
    • Reward


    "Experiences" are most familiar to hard core players (and derive largely from tabletop D&D). The best expression of this goal that I've found is in "Making Experiences" by Rick Ellis, PC Gamer Feb 2009 p. 84:

    ". . . what we create are experiences, not 'games'. Chess and Crazy Eights are games, but these types of games won't scare the hell out of you, make you jump in your seat, or make you feel responsible when your sidekick dies."

    ". . . we get to play with your emotions, get you attached to your characters, provide the unexpected, and influence your heart rate. When we do our jobs well, you forget that you are playing a game, and the events in it feel very real and matter to you."

    ". . . are all about: immersion, escapism, and creating emotional believability."

    In other words, the designer is trying to engender specific emotions in the players. This desire is often associated with high-technology and a drive for "realism", though tabletop Dungeons & Dragons showed us that you don't need video games to create "experiences".


    Surprise is simple. Designers such as S. Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Zelda, many Wii games) and R. Knizia (literally hundreds of board and card games) say "we're entertainers". Miyamoto says he tries to surprise players, which I take to mean, give them something unexpected or new, something they haven't experienced before in a game.


    Reward is also simple. The designer wants the player to more or less continuously feel rewarded by what happens in the game, so that the player will continue to play. It's expressed in mechanisms as simple as the victory point scoring in every turn that is a feature of many Euro-style boardgames, or the loot dropped by monsters in an RPG.

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

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

    All of these involve a "message" delivered to the player. The message can enable the player to learn something practical (education), something entertaining (a story), something that helps them learn but is less immediately practical (historical), or something yet harder to define (art).


    "Serious games" is the term now used for simulators, training, and classroom games. ("Educational" has poor connotations in the US, especially in connection with games.) These are games that people can learn from. The "story" is what people are supposed to learn.


    Games are not as good for story-telling as movies and novels, but can convey a story in an interactive way not generally available in those media. Movies and novels are a more practical way to convey a story, but not as an "experience", not like "you are there", more as a storyteller tells a story.

    Historical representation

    These games show what history is like without trying to model how it worked. That is, they tell the story of history in many ways, but do not try to simulate it. As such, the representation can be a simple model that provides interesting challenges; it also can reflect the "chaos of history" rather than (wrongly) pretend that whatever happened in history was inevitable.

    At some point historical representation becomes educational. My historical game Britannia was not designed to educate, and has some big handicaps for educational purposes as it is neither quite simple nor short (4-5 hours). But I know people who have used it to teach classes.


    Trees have been killed in the service of the discussion of art in games. Let's just say, people make games that are intended to deliver a message, or entertain in a unique way, and these might be termed art, though in fact all games are art. Art-games, in themselves, are not usually commercial games, but there can be exceptions. Many are playable only once, as there's not much there after you "receive the message".

    For example, the simple video game Passage is "about life". The game Train relies on a twist at the end, and is about inhumanity. Eine gegen Eine (one against one) is a boardgame with no rulebook: you learn the game as you open the box and play. But that "message" can only be delivered to a particular person the first time they play.


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