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The Rules of Game Worlds

An open letter to Danc at Lost Garden as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Lego Dinosaur Dear Dan,

Last year one of my firestarters on fiction denial (one of my ‘four questions’ posts entitled Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?) provoked a heated but seriously productive exchange between us. Sadly, at that point Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms landed in my lap and I was suddenly too busy to respond – but I haven’t lost my desire to do so! This is my attempt to continue our discussion – and to ask: when we are ‘baking’ games, what must a game designer understand about fiction and representation? Or to put this another way: what are the ‘rules’ for making game worlds?

A brief summary of where we got to: I suggested that a problem with the view that games are ‘really’ just crunchy mechanics and that the player ultimately discards the fictional world is that the contents of the game mechanics tightly constrain the ‘theme’ that can be attached. You simply can’t treat the functional elements of a design as something that could be transplanted wily-nily without utterly mauling the process of game design.  I prefer to say ‘fiction’ to theme, since ‘theme’ has a very different, specific meaning to me as a writer (i.e. the themes the story is exploring, not the setting to the story). Let’s use setting to refer to the fiction/theme of a game world that can be built upon game mechanics (in the bottom-up way you design) or the starting point that can be supported or developed by game mechanics (in the top-down alternative). How does setting function in the practices of game design?

Your approach has always been built on productive reductionist principles – split games into their components, i.e. bottom-up design. I use this kind of technique often in boardgame design and occasionally in videogames, and it’s a sound approach. What you have to be careful with is the problems the game designer introduces by being the conduit for the final design and world – a problem you, like almost all great game designers, solve by iteration. We sit players down with the game and learn about how they come to play it, using this to adjust the game’s content (both mechanically and in terms of setting).

In your last comment you identified three problems in the relationship between settings and mechanics that really intrigue me, since this is precisely the conversation that is covered up when game designers or scholars pretend the fictional content is at best an enticement to play and at worst entirely irrelevant (my bugbear) – and by academics who treat the narratives emerging from play as strangely isolated from the mechanics (which might more offend your sensibilities!).

Riffing off your comment, here are three rules (or at least, guidelines) for designing game worlds.

1. Avoid Incongruous Settings
The first problem case you identify is when the setting encourages players to understand the play of the game in a way that is contrary to how the mechanics function. You say the setting “activates schema in the player that fail to ease understanding of the system dynamics”. I'll translate this as the First Rule of Game Worlds: Setting and mechanics must accord. The only exception to this rule is if the game is intended to discombobulate the player, as for instance Eternal Darkness’ insanity cut-aways were trying to do. But usually, the game designer wants the player to learn to play easily according to the mantra for commercial success “easy to learn, hard to master”.

This word ‘schema’ is one you get from psychology (Piaget etc.) although it comes from philosophy prior to the divorce between the two fields, and was coined by Immanuel Kant. The idea is that we have in our minds certain ways of understanding certain situations – schema, or I might say mythologies – and these come into play associatively (since our memories are associative, via the hippocampi). So it’s (usually) bad practice to have player’s prior associations disrupt their understanding of a game’s systems, that is, the game mechanics. Players might eventually overcome this and learn the way the game works, but my sense is that incongruous settings remain unsettling even after the game is learned. You give a great example of the problem in reference to your fantastic game Triple Town:

In Triple Town, we initially made the bears into children. Mechanically, the bears were obstacles that you wanted to remove. When they were children, many players activated the schema that they should be protected. Expectations did not match mechanics. Confusion, irritation and uneasiness results.

Part of my purpose in writing Imaginary Games was to stress that when we talk about the aesthetics of play, it matters whether setting and mechanics (fiction and function) align. To be aesthetically satisfying to a player, it is vital to allow for this since (as you note) the player’s experience is always filtered through the setting. An odd consequence of this is that the player's prior experiences become as much a part of their play with any game as the game itself – and there is a style of play (and a set of design approaches that correspond to it) that makes the dominant setting not that of the fiction but of the mechanics. Which brings us to rule number two...

2. Mathematics Imply Settings
The second problem you identify is presented as an opportunity: “self contained systems of value” provide opportunities for “a wider variety” of settings. In fact, you note that such games (puzzle games, strategy games, numbers-heavy combat, to use my previously offered examples) are playable without setting. This leads you to the point that something like Chess, which is mathematical (topological) at base, is easier to transpose between settings than a game that depends on contextual content.

Now my take on this is related to yours but steps from a different angle: mathematics are already a representation, so mathematical games already have a ‘setting’ of a certain kind. It’s what we sometimes call ‘abstract’, although this can be misleading. What this implies is that when a new fictional setting is applied to, say, Chess, we aren’t so much adding a setting that wasn’t there, we’re actually merging its mathematically-implied ‘abstract’ base-setting into a fictional one. The Chess mechanics are a little mechanical sub-world, with its own representational implications that are not negotiable in the same way that any fictional content merged with it might be. Even if you changed the names of the pieces to X1, X2, X3 etc. the rules of Chess would still feel like a power struggle because that's what they mechanically represent.

From this follows the Second Rule of Game Worlds: Any and all mechanical sub-worlds must merge with the game world. What made the wrapping paper fallacy appealing was the recognition of two utterly distinct worlds – the abstract world of the mechanics, and the representational game world. But the former can only be removed from the latter if in itself it successfully supplies a sufficient base-setting. Chess does – it’s a spatial contest, and anything that supports that metaphor will merge with it, even contexts outside of battle like The Simpsons (in part because metaphors of conflict are transposable into any human or animal relations). But you can’t strip (say) bingo or a point-and-click adventure down to a plausible base-setting because the core play isn’t forming a self-contained system in the same way. Bingo relies upon its community for its experience (more on this below!) and adventures rely upon their fictional content in a way that is effectively case-by-case rather than a defined and reusable system (even though the lock-and-key puzzle approach does form such a system, and does recur in many kinds of game).

Now, isn’t this second rule the same as the first? Not quite, because not all mechanics give us base-settings, only those that form your “self contained systems of value” or something like it. And you can merge any number of such systems provided they accord with the fictional world. Indeed, playground worlds often add games-within-games because they can easily be merged this way (the 90’s style arcade games in 90’s-set San Andreas, for instance, or gambling in Red Dead Redemption). Merging is also possible in more aesthetically satisfying ways – the circuitry-based influence game in robot-massacre classic Paradroid, for instance, which makes the game so memorable because the ‘mini-game’ in itself gives the paradigm of the entire play experience of possessing and discarding droids (a style of play that went on to influence the first Grand Theft Auto).

The second rule also gives lie to the whole ‘two distinct worlds’ conceit of ‘rules vs. fiction’ in that many games are one coherent fictional world and many congruent mathematical/mechanical worlds that have been merged with it, and often (but not always) with each other. Games that allow you to build or tinker with devices as well as deploying them for racing or combat also show this merging, from tabletop games like Car Wars and BattleTech in the 80's to Forza and Kerbal Space Program now. It is misleading to think the mechanical world could be built and only then ‘wrapped’ in cars, mechs, or spacecraft. No, at all stages the fictional world and the mechanical worlds must merge congruently, and often it is the fictional setting that informs the design of the mechanical sub-worlds. Nonetheless, each base-setting for each mathematical sub-world is also reusable, just as character archetypes and plot tropes are reusable in narrative fiction. This ability to reuse patterns, however, does not and cannot make the base-settings more fundamental than the fictional worlds, although they can certainly be more important to a subset of players.

3. Play as a Practice
The last of the problems you identify is one that particularly interests me. I gave the example of a sporting game as antithetical to the wrapping paper fallacy because the mechanics – while necessary to their play – aren’t the locus of the player’s enjoyment. You summarize this issue nicely:

You can retheme/reskin a sport and it loses the vast majority of its value. The culture and the community around the game has turned into an intricate, many layered game of its own. The chants, the commentators, the game night scheduling, the tribal associations are the real game. To copy out the core mechanics and give them a new game is like copying out raw DNA and thinking you have a complete ecosystem of living and breathing organisms.

You suggest that building a new game bottom-up is especially challenging because it’s like “terraforming a barren world” where you must “build up culture and community from scratch”, and this as you say is terribly difficult. Absolutely – from a bottom-up perspective. But from a top-down perspective the problem is radically different. You still need to build up your own culture and community, but you begin with ‘neighbouring’ fictional world cultures to provide your ‘settlers’. It’s something that marketing departments recognise, although generally fail to know how to productively influence. People like certain kinds of fictional worlds, and seek their entertainment within those media that deliver those specific kinds or anything like them.

The reason generic fantasy and urban horror novels sell well in the market for books is that they already have their collective culture and community. Genre fiction forms superset fictional worlds – what I call (after Charles Segal’s observations on the interconnectedness of Greek mythological stories) a megatext. Whatever the nuances of an individual book series, it's mythology is rooted in a wider frame of reference, one that spans many other books and series that at first glance are entirely isolated. Mash-up movies like Shrek – and mash-up fighting games like SoulCalibur and Super Smash Bros. – show that they aren’t as isolated as they may first seem – they are ‘close enough’ that other worlds can be made out of collisions between their otherwise isolated content. What’s more, there is a connection between otherwise isolated fictional worlds via the people who are interested in them: both the readers and the writers of genre fiction are participating in the practice that sustains that genre.

Videogames are no different, but as well as participating in the practices of setting (fantasy, science fiction, crime) players participate in the practices of mechanical genres too. The First Person Shooter is not defined by its perspective but by the practices of those players who participate in the FPS culture. The games certainly do affect this – Halo: Combat Evolved significantly altered the practices of the FPS (dropping the inventory for two weapons, adding vehicles), as did Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (putting RPG-like advancement mechanics into multiplayer). But changes to mechanics only become changes to practices when the players actually like what has changed and then seek more of the same. And some changes fork the practices into two different cultures – as Battlefield 1942 has effectively done. The words used to form the genre terms don't reflect the practices very well, because we’re trained to see games in boxes like ‘FPS’ that seem to pick out the important feature, but only describe how that practice split from its predecessors. The reason for the name ‘First Person Shooter’ is that most shooters in the 1980s were rendered in 2D, and so the 3D first person perspective was a step in a new direction.

The Third Rule of Game Worlds is thus: No-one plays alone. Even the most dedicated solo player is embedded in design, genre, fiction, and play practices that are sustained by a community. Even a designer who makes a game that only they will ever play relies upon many others to facilitate the making of that game (especially on an industrially manufactured device like a computer!) as well as the communities that nourished the games that taught them the practices of play they riff off. No-one plays alone, because to learn to participate in the practices of play - whether narrative, mechanical, or both – requires you to have been part of a wider culture. Indeed, Miguel Sicart suggests that to be a virtuous player, you need to recognise your relationship with other players, a point I also raised in Is the Interface the Game?

This rule seems odd, because it does not seem to be about the relationship between rules and fiction, mechanics and setting. But that’s because contemporary views of our world have mislead us into thinking everything is explicable in isolation. It’s a hangover from the Victorian sciences and their mythology of the universe as a giant mechanism. This viewpoint, while often useful, can sometimes obscure the vital connectivity between things. Terms like ‘emergent’ actually try to hold onto this older perspective by ignoring complex networks and treating them as still a single thing – ‘superorganisms’ and the like i.e. as still isolated provided we change the scale that we look at them. There’s a place for that point of view, but there’s also a place for exploring the network connections themselves, and we are currently at a time where we need the latter perhaps more than the former.

New game designers often seek to amaze the world with their utterly original design – which then inevitably flops. This is primarily because playing games is not simply about isolated artefacts (‘the game’) that are played by individual players. When seemingly original game concepts take flight it’s because existing communities of players pick them up – one games journalist, for good or ill, is always talking to a community of players who must share some commonality of practice with that writer or they would not read them. This can be a common games platform (even in the 80's, games magazines succeeded primarily by being about one kind of microcomputer), or shared aesthetic values for play, or just shared values for talking about the practices of play.

So your terraforming metaphor only lacks the idea that a new place to live creates a new practice from roots in existing practices – the terraforming is just a means to an end, and that end is settlement (something that you clearly recognise yourself!). Understanding that your settlers are choosing between different places to settle – different games to play – helps game designers recognise that since no-one plays alone (or, if you prefer, no-one plays in a vacuum!) you are always recruiting your settlers from other game worlds. A few are novelty seekers, but most find it easier to get into a game if originality is tempered with familiarity, both in the mechanics and the setting.

There’s much more I'd like to discuss with you – about your company, your time with Microsoft, your new game project, your positivistic view of the world, and about the ‘extinction of blogs’ but this has already gone on long enough! I would just like to end by thanking you for the supportive words you gave me that GDC when we first met outside the internet, since along with Jack Monahan your encouragement helped me stick with blogging even when it was seriously depressing me. For this, you have my infinite gratitude.

From one blogging game designer to another, all the best in all your projects!


Danc informs me he has found nothing to disagree with in this letter.

Other replies:

Games, Guns, and Gender

An open letter to Sheri Graner-Ray at FEM IRL as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Alpha Protocol Dear Sheri,

For about a decade there, we were running into each other once or twice a year, in California for GDC (where we both hosted events for the IGDA), and sometimes in your neck of the woods for the equivalent event in Austin. Life inevitably moves on, and in my transition to father I am not quite the International Hobo I once was, even though I still consult under the brand of the company I founded. There are so many great people I miss from the US conference circuit that it would be dangerous to start listing them lest this entire letter was just a who’s-who of wondrous games industry folk, but I really miss not getting to see you and my “Jazz man” Joe Saulter at GDC, and I learned so much about the social problems of representation in games from your respective round tables – fixtures of my GDC schedules every year I went.

Women and the Games Industry

I'm writing in part to ask: has the situation improved for women in the games industry, or games as a hobby? I have not really seen much sign of progress in employment terms... My first boss, Angela Sutherland at Perfect Entertainment, is still the only female executive I've worked with, although Nicole Lazzaro introduced me to a few at Casual Connect in Seattle a few years back. If there are more women going into games as a career, it is still a long, long way from parity, and there seems to be a definite problem transitioning from ‘the production line’ to the boardroom.

But then, on the other side of the coin, I feel like the ‘Casual revolution’ spearheaded by companies like PopCap, and the ‘social games’ gold rush that followed, have at least put pay to the lie that “women don't play games”. Yet this gain seems to come at an odd cost, since the design-by-metrics approach that undergirds the business model of the so-called social games is entirely gender-blind, seeing women as simply another source of revenue. Better, perhaps, than naively believing women will not spend money on games, but hardly likely to encourage the creative exploration of the new visions that female developers might bring to the table. Do you have any thoughts on this?

The Truly Social Games

Of course, social games do not really foster community, they are viral rather than communal in nature, but our industry does have a genuinely social genre in the form of the MUD and its descendant, the MMO. I loved my time in the two MUDs I played at university, the Star Trek-themed TrekMUSE and Manchester University's own UglyMUG. In the former, which was very supportive of role-players, I was a Romulan ambassador who, after a romantic liaison embroiled her in scandal, retired to a shrine where I officiated over weddings. UglyMUG, which still runs today, was less of a role-player's world but was always extremely social, and changed the course of my life. I treasure my memories of both games.

You, I know, have maintained a relationship with the truly social games and still to this day play City of Heroes avidly. I saw it demoed at E3 many years hence and knew I wouldn't be able to play it – the ‘RPG’ in ‘MMORPG’ ironically excludes me, and not because I don't like RPGs – on the contrary, I like them a little too much! They bring out my obsessive tendencies, and my wife has sensibly limited me to playing just one computer RPG a year. An MMORPG with its indefinite play length would be very dangerous for me to play.

I'm curious, then, about your experiences of community on City of Heroes. I think you were a MUD player back in the day (way to make us both sound old, right?) – do the new games manage to sustain the tight community and opportunities for role-play that the MUDs and MUSEs excelled at, or did they all fall down the hole of the LP MUD and DikuMUD, overjustifying their play with compelling reward structures? Can you say of your fellow heroes that they are friends, or merely that you play together?

Guns, Guns, Guns

For myself, I seem to have been cursed with having to play gun games. I say ‘have to’, but what I mean is that my regular weekly game with friends (which sometimes plays boardgames, and sometimes plays online) has devolved into multiplayer co-op gun games like Counter-Strike and Payday out of a certain necessary convenience they provide. There are limited opportunities for obsessive reward structure pursuit, and the short play time of each round makes for easy stopping at the end of the night. I note that my brother-in-law, who shares my obsessive response to cRPGs and thus avoids them, has ended up playing similar games with his regular gaming group.

What slightly troubles me about this is how inured to gunplay it has made me. When my wife and I went to the US embassy in London to get my residency papers sorted out (for the time I was living in Knoxville and working with a number of US clients), I was disturbed to see the security staff armed with firearms. When we came back a few years later to get my son’s dual citizenry and US passport, I calmly noted “they're packing MP5s”. This was a direct response to years of playing Counter-Strike which, like it or not, has changed my relationship with guns.

I would still rather play a fantasy game or even a superhero game like your preferred MMO, but no-one is making these in the readily-playable forms that can slot into the odd night here or there. Instead, players like me are becoming accustomed to firearms in the same way we are all now so used to living with cars that we can't even acknowledge the deaths they cause without invoking some kind of dismissive excuse. It's a topic I dig into a little in my next book, Chaos Ethics, and it does trouble me: we can’t seem to look our technology squarely in the robotic eyes.

As a game designer, I can scarcely turn my back on technology at this point, but I worry about the representation of violence in videogames (and the tacit valorisation of gun violence) as much as I worry about the representation of women (or lack thereof). Although my Tennessee born and bred father-in-law has given me a much greater appreciation for the love affair with guns that your nation pursues, I cannot shake the worrying sense that the romance of guns on TV, in the cinema, and in videogames, is not something entirely neutral in its cultural effects.

Blood and Guts
You have said that women players in your experience don’t mind the violence in videogames – my experience is slightly different. There are women gamers who don’t mind the violence, certainly, but those people I've seen who are troubled by game violence and gore tend, in my experience at least, to be women. I think of the UK trade rep who came with me to see the unveiling of Fallout 3 at  the Games Convention in Leipzig: her eyes almost literally popped out of her head when she saw that the game literally had eyes popping out of heads. Not to mention the option to make the game even more gory, should you wish to.

The thing about this issue that troubles me is that I think you’re correct to see this as not specifically a gender issue, yet I think female voices are the most likely way to get traction on alternative representations of violence in games. Men who don’t get on with these kind of things tend to simply avoid them. As a case in point, I have a penis but still don’t enjoy needlessly bloody games: one look at Team Fortress 2’s combination of cutesy graphics and gore was enough to turn me off forever. Similarly, Rob Brydon, who did voice work with me at Perfect, wouldn’t record our arena tank game’s sports commentator because he didn’t like to hear his own voice inciting (imaginary) violence.

Freedom of expression protects the portrayal of violence in games, and its not something I want to push back against politically. Yet I would like more alternatives... I’d like more experimentation in the fiction of games and less dependence on guns and cars. If helping women developers find their own creative voice isn’t a way to foster this, then I fear I will just have to accept the current status quo – and that does not please me.

Anyway, I hope this letter finds you well, and not too irritated by the endless stream of legal letters that mega-corporation Cengage (which publishes books by both you and I) has been deluding us with in relation to its 'restructuring' boondoggle. I’ve committed this year to writing more letters to other bloggers, since I have let my community evaporate and – shamefully – have blamed it all on other people and the rise of the social networks. Facebook and Google+ have been a factor, but I also stopped talking to other bloggers, and that was my fault. With that in mind, I had to write to you as one of my first ‘letters’ since back in 2006 I implored you to blog, which you now do.

One last thing: was it you or Brenda Brathwaite (now Brenda Romero) that I was talking to in Austin about the boardgame Pandemic? Okay, I said I wasn’t going to devolve into name-dropping but I can't for the life of me get that memory straight in my head!

Wishing you all the very best,


Sheri has confirmed that she will be replying sometime soon.

No-one else has replied yet.

On the Paranautical Fiasco and Valve's Greenlight

I wrote this comment to reply to a nice piece Nick put together at Gamesbrief entitled Is Steam Unfair to Indies?

I see two basic problems here: Valve did not inform applicants to Greenlight that once applying they were locked into that process. This is a failure on Valve's part, and it's not clear that their chosen response is the best way of dealing with this failure.

Secondly, Greenlight is Valve's bottomless chum bucket, it's their way of palming off their originally undertaken responsibility to curate their content because they finally realised that they couldn't curate the volume of content this implied. Greenlight is a reasonable response to that problem, however much I dislike it, but Valve can't then pretend that Greenlight is anything other than a last resort.

To suggest - without warning - that their last resort option is mandatory when undertaken borders on hypocrisy. The official message, after all, is that 'you are welcome on Steam with a publisher (under certain conditions) and if you don't have one, you must pursue the last resort'. If the last resort leads to a publisher, there is no prima facie reason that this should not suffice as adequate gatekeeping. After all, Greenlight's purpose is to see if a game is worth publishing- and Valve have already set having a publisher as one valid test of this!

The only reason this would be not so would be if Valve had clearly and specifically said that once you go through the gate of doom you may only return if you pass our trial-by-geek. They did not do this. And now they're closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. That's bad business practice right there, even if Valve's reason for acting are sound. Ethics is not just about how you act, but about how you communicate about your intentions.