Monday, September 21, 2009

What do games amount to?

Aki Jarvinen’s doctoral dissertation, “Games without Frontiers: Theories and Methods for Game Studies and Design,” available on the Web in English (PDF downloadable via, painstakingly identifies and describes the elements of games, what games are composed of. This is beyond the scope of a beginner’s guide to game design, though worth reading. Instead, I’d like to try to categorize what players actually DO in games, in simplest terms. I’m dividing this into two parts, first the “system” activities having to do with the mechanics of the game, then the “psychological” activities having to do with what the mind of the player is doing in relation to other players.

Remember that one of the best guides to game design is the question, “what is the player going to do”. I’m trying to list the fundamental things that players do, both mechanically (“Systems”) and psychologically when there is more than one player.

Moreover, I’m going to restrict this to competitive games, rather than branch out into puzzles and other entertainments that are not games at all, by some definitions. Wii Fit, Wii Music, Tetris, Katamari Dimachy, and other single-player video “games” that are actually interactive puzzles or toys may not quite fit in, but I think in most cases they will.

The list includes the general activity, then some of the common variations. When we come down to it, most games are about just a few things–in no particular order.
And it must be said, there are many ways to organize this list, to choose subsidiary and not-subsidiary categories. It is certainly not definitive.
Where the mechanical systems of the game are concerned, “achieve a particular state” is the generalized version of what the player is doing. This is what the player does in relation to the systems of the game, not in relation to other players. Victory points are a generalized way of doing several different things at once. Sometimes the “state” is very simple, as in rock-paper-scissors where you want to make a pattern, such as paper to the opponent’s rock. I want to be more specific than that, though.

1. Get to a particular place (or avoid/leave it)
Get there fastest (a race) [player interaction may be missing]
Get any of your pieces to some place (Axis&Allies enemy capital)
Get a special piece there more times than opponent (football, hockey, many other team sports)
Get to end of the story (console RPGs)
Avoid or get out of a particular place
Connecting two or more points (Hex, Twixt, Attika, networking games) Could also be under patterns, below)
2. Collect something (many card games, many video games)(sometimes economic)
Find something (exploration) (Easter egg hunt)
It drops in your lap (draw a card)
Take it from someone else (Monopoly, some card games especially trick-taking)
Build something rather than get it elsewhere (the moon rocket in Civilization, or Wonders)
Don’t collect something (Old Maid, Hearts, etc.)
Get rid of everything (say, a hand of cards)
Building/construction games are a complex form of collection that some people might list as a separate category
3. Wipe someone or something out (Risk, shooters, checkers/draughts, bowling!)
Wipe out one thing—chess
Identify who or what you need to wipe out. Examples: Mafia (and any of its variants, such as Werewolf), Bang/Dodge City
Its opposite, avoid being wiped out, including defend some place by preventing an opponent from getting there (Atari Warlords, Tower Defense)
4. Create patterns in something (getting to a place could be seen as part of this!)
Patterns in piece location (this includes rock-paper-scissors, Tetris, many puzzle games)
Only your pieces (Tic-Tac-Toe), or yours plus opponent’s (rock-paper-scissors)
Patterns in relation to the “board” (Scrabble, Carcassonne)
Patterns of cards (related to sets–e.g. Canasta)
Drawings (Pictionary) and other representations such as maps
5. Recognize patterns in something
Recognize a drawing or other representation (drawing) of something (Pictionary)
6. Change something from one thing to another (could be seen as a subset of collection)
Frequently required in economic and construction games
7. Improve your capabilities. (Munchkin)
This is often subsidiary, a way to achieve something else. Common in RPGs, vehicle simulations, construction/management simulations, collectible card games. Yet in some games, such as RPGs, this is THE activity, not a means to another end.
8. Survive to keep going. Especially common in arcade games (which are generally unwinnable).
9. Design something (e.g., a warship in a 4X game)
Produce new instances of predefined objects (crafting, or "building something")
Design objects or processes (e.g., City of Heroes "Mission Architect", making choices when generating an RPG character)
10. Calculate probabilities. Can’t Stop, Cloud 9, Craps, and other “press your luck” games.
Some would say this is a natural and obvious concomitant of many other activities, but in these days of widespread innumeracy, it may make sense to list it separately.
Now we have the human/psychological side of what the player does, the interaction with other players. In many ways this is no different than what a general does in warfare. I am not including the fundamental processes necessary to play the game (such as, “understand the rules”), instead I'm looking for what the player is doing after he understands the game and game systems, to play the game.
1. Forecasting the intentions of others (“reading” the other player(s))
2. Persuading them to do something you want them to do (usually involves negotiation)
3. Disguising one’s own intentions (could be a subsidiary of persuasion, of negotiating)(bluffing) Poker, Balderdash, Stratego
4. Establish personal relationships with other players (which can also be seen as a subsidiary of negotiating, but you often want to do this even if there is no overt negotiation)
5. Discover/deduce information (not quite “collection”)
This could just as well be under "system", but often involves some understanding of and communication with other players.
6. Understand short- and long-term relationships and processes not strictly involved with how to play the game.
With that, we're getting into the general understanding of "playing a game", so I will stop there.

1 comment:

OffLine Notification said...

Arcade/shooting games may seem violent but actually it enhances strategic concentration. A better way of venting without harming anyone but the computer screen.