What Are Game Designers Trying to Do?

By Lewis Pulsipher [02.19.10]

 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

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

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

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

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

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.


"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.


"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


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." Dictionary.com, 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.

Dictionary.com 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.

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


"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

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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