Ebert's Fence and Games as Art
Game Design as Make-Believe (3): Principles of Generation

Game Design as Make-Believe (2): Props

Based upon part two of the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial.

Modern-warfare-2 At the centre of the make-believe theory of representation is the concept of a prop. Any representation (a toy, a novel, an artwork, a game) can be understood as a prop, and people participating with such props are considered in Professor Walton's system to play a game of make-believe with it, such that it prescribes certain imaginings. In the context of game design as make-believe, game designers working with Walton's system are encouraged to think in terms of the props entailed in any game over and above the rules of the game (which we will look at next week). That is, this is a game design philosophy rooted in how a game affects the player's imagination not in terms of gameplay as this term is usually understood. This does not mean gameplay is irrelevant, of course, just that the make-believe aspects of play are usually backgrounded in discussions of game design, whereas in this approach they are brought into the clearer focus.

All games serve as representations of some kind, although sometimes the props involved prescribe very abstract imaginings. Tic-tac-toe, for instance begins with a hash mark grid which can be seen as a prop prescribing that the players imagine nine positions; an X prescribes that players imagine one player has taken a position, and an O does the same for the other player. Other props are more evocative: the plastic buildings in Monopoly and the wooden ones in Settlers of Catan serve similar roles, to prescribe the imagining that buildings have been built. The Cluedo board (Clue in the US) prescribes that players imagine their character is in a certain room of a mansion when their pawn-prop is in a particular part of the board-prop.

In many respects, the secret of Monopoly's success was the invention of toy money – i.e. prop money – and although they have no bearing on the play of the game, the murder weapon props in Cluedo are an important aspect of players enjoyment in this game. Similarly, the success of many modern boardgames, such as those made by Days of Wonder, can be ascribed (at least in part) to the superior quality of their props – an ongoing trend in the boardgame marketplace that is made apparent if one compares boardgames of the 70's, 80's, 90's and so forth against one another. Of course, there is a cost equation to consider too: counters, for instance, are wildly cheaper than wooden blocks as components. In a complex hobbygame, whose audience can be expected to be more imaginative, the use of counters suffices (e.g. Le Havre). In a mass market boardgame like Cluedo, the more literal props have a distinct edge. (Note, however, that the rather odd playing pieces in Monopoly appear to be a rare exception – when the player's piece is an iron it is not necessarily prescribed that players imagine that they are an iron in the fictional world of the game, although they are still prescribed to imagine that their playing piece is an iron).

The props of certain kinds of videogames operate in a similar space to hobbygames, specifically those in which there is no prop to imply the player's personal presence in the world (e.g. an avatar). Thus strategy games like Civilisation lie on a continuum with boardgames – unsurprising, given that this franchise was inspired by the boardgame of the same name. Strategy videogames in general require less imagination because they can show animated props, and also benefit from easier solo play, but there is a similar target audience and neither kind of game is in a position to rack up giant sales – the complexity of play requires too much imagination. The same claims can be made in respect of the relation between tabletop wargames and real time strategy videogames; the latter can reach a wider audience than the former because of the sophistication of the props (which can be seen fighting, rather than having to b imagined fighting), but the audience is still very heavily capped by the degree of imagination required to engage with the play of the game.

A huge leap in appeal occurs with videogames when there is a prop that prescribes that the player imagines that they are actually present in the fictional world of the game, i.e. in games with a specific avatar (indeed this term 'avatar' refers to the prop with which the player identifies). In a first person shooter, such as Modern Warfare 2 (pictured above), the player's gun is the most important prop because the perspective of these games means that the gun-prop implies the player's presence in the fictional world. All first person games rely on the graphical design of their weaponry (and often the hand and arms carrying them) to help the player imagine themselves in the world. Embodiment – the inclusion of a complete avatar model – is mere decoration in this regard, and for most of the audience this sort of detail adds very little to the game's appeal.

For driving videogames, an interesting situation occurs. In first person, the steering wheel, dashboard and rear view mirror props all serve a similar role to the gun in a shooter. Yet in third person, it is the car itself which prescribes that the player imagines themselves driving around in the world. These days, almost all racing games offer players their choice of view. In my estimation, the more imaginative players prefer third person (with its superior field of vision) while less imaginative players prefer first person because the difficulty of imagining one is driving the car is reduced. (I mean this only as a crude generalisation, however – plenty of imaginative people choose first person for various reasons).

Modern third person games, and indeed sprite-based 2D games both past and present, show the entire avatar as the key prop, with the ease of imagination varying in proportion to the quality of the animation of the avatar to some extent. There is a gainful parallel here between action figures and videogame avatars – both of which serve as props in very similar ways, but in the videogame the demands upon the imagination are considerably less than with the action figure. Children seem to have little difficulty deploying their imagination with action figures, but the older one gets the harder this seems to become until in adulthood the few people still enjoying action figures are often, not coincidentally, the kind of people who make and play games. In two decades of working within the games industry, I have never visited a game developer's office and not found action figures on someone's desk.

The apex of this use of props in videogames occurs when the avatar-prop represents the player explicitly – as with any game using a Mii or a similar custom avatar. Again, the benefit lies in reducing the demands on the player's imagination, but this benefit always comes at a cost in terms of the effort that must be expended to craft the personal avatar. The Wii managed to make this process simple and fun; earlier games with similar options required considerably more computer literacy in order to master the editing tools. (PlayStation Home carelessly excluded mass market players in precisely this way). The first person shooter genre from Doom onwards has commonly deployed a different strategy to the same effect – by not giving the avatar a name, or by naming it with a title (e.g. Master Chief), the player is invited to imagine themselves holding the gun directly. The same benefit accrues in a supremely cheap fashion to any game allowing the player to name the avatar personally, something Japanese game designers have been taking advantage of for many years. The custom name becomes a prop prescribing that the player (if they choose their own name) is in the fictional world of the game.

All this comes to a head in the problem of identification. The vast majority of videogames with an avatar use a white male character model, but in fact white males are not the majority of videogame players in the world. Dealing with gamer hobbyists, this is not much of an issue as they are generally imaginative enough to put themselves in anyone's shoes. But dealing with the mass market, it becomes more problematic: if the avatar is understood as a prop intended to prescribe that the player imagines they are in the fictional world of the game, a less imaginative player can be priced out by an avatar that bears absolutely no resemblance to them. Game designers – being highly imaginative people – all too frequently overlook this important psychological barrier, which contributes in some small degree to the exclusion of a great many mass market players from videogame play.

Next week: Principles of Generation


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This post has really rung with me. I remember that every time I started to play a JRPG and was presented with the option of naming the main character I would always chose not to do so. This is not really a problem about me not being imaginative enough, since I am a game designer myself, but with a personal preference of mine which I always advocated but never related to me not naming my characters, until now. I would always state that a work of fiction was best enjoyed as originally intended by the author and not by me trying to force myself upon the fictional work. This may be contradictory since it would mean that I enjoy playing role playing games for all the wrong reasons, by not role playing as intended. But I have no problems with a statement such as that since I most enjoy these games because of the actual storyline (the work of fiction) as a viewer (whenever there's a cut scene) and as a participant whenever I would have to make use of the battle system, or any other system.

Ed: thanks for sharing your perspective, and letting me know that this resonated with you!

I know what you mean about the naming issue... On the one hand, it seems as if choosing a custom name would be the most imaginative choice, but I think perhaps there is a scale here.

The least imaginative choice is arguably to enter your own name, and it is the capacity to do this which is part of the appeal of this option with a wider audience... it puts you into the story directly by using your own name as a prop.

The most imaginative choice need not be to enter a new name of your choosing - since by going with the given name you are accepting the fiction being offered to you, and letting the creative talent behind the game 'play' with your imagination. It shows an imaginative leaning to choose this option over putting in your own name, I'd suggest. (More on a point relating to this in a few weeks time...)

These days, I get held up for such a ridiculous length of time trying to choose the "right" name (whatever that might mean to me!) that going with the given name is often the sanest choice. :)

Chris, I have a solution to your naming problem:

In every game, just name yourself Oprah!

Works for me.


Seriously, though, this is an interesting post, and the part at the end about white male avatars really resonated with me. Increasingly, I'm getting tired of all the games with an angry white male as the lead. Why not just let me make my own character?

I can tolerate it if the character in question really has some character to him (Solid Snake comes to mind), or has a particular narrative tailored to him (I can think of Tidus in FFX), but otherwise, let me make my own character!

It's for this reason that I love games like Fallout, Rainbow Six: Vegas, and Mass Effect, which allow me to place my own "prop" in the game. Make-believe is so much easier when you're playing with the toy you want to play with. Imagine if as children we were all forced to play with only one type of teddy bear, instead of the G.I. Joes, Transformers, My Little Ponies, and plastic dinosaurs we wanted to play with. In fact, create-a-character in videogames takes it one step cooler: you get to make your very own action figure instead of pulling a pre-made one off the shelf.

It's for this reason why I love modern videogames, and videogames above most other forms of entertainment: because the really good ones let me bring my own toy to the sandbox.

Interesting take on imagination in games, though I wonder how you square the widespread popularity of traditional games like Solitaire or poker--or even the Tic-Tac-To you mention in the article--with the view that less imagination=greater success. None of these games have really anything to grab on to--no props to explain how the game latches on to reality like Monopoly's money and houses do. They just have rules that lead to a fun experience.

And it seems to me that while video games that feature the least amount of imagination are most popular in the hardcore audience of video games, casual games--which have a wider audience--usually find success with more abstract games with things like Bejeweled or Tetris. Does that mean that fans of first-person shooters just happen to be less imaginative as the average population?

Interactive Illuminatus: thanks for your comment!

As the serial goes on to expound, there is a distinction between functional and representational elements of games. Solitaire and Tic-tac-toe are purely functional games. Not *all* of the enjoyment of games comes from imagination and make-believe; representation is just one aspect of games, and in some cases a minor aspect.

In the case of Poker, I would argue that there is a representational level involved in bluffing and representation on behalf of the players. There is a fictional element to a good game of poker that is half of the fun, although if one plays online I rather suspect this element is bleached away.

The case of abstract games and casual audiences can be midleading - Bejewelled and Tetris are more functional than representational... There is no clear story associated with the play of either. There is still a representational layer here, and note that it is still keyed to appeal to a wider audience.

Bejewelled uses gems - a very concrete, accessible symbol. It would not, I would venture, have been as successful if it had simply used arcane symbols of different colours. The fiction that gems fall down is a tangential but non-trivial part of the play, and although the game is abstract is not excessively hindering in this regard because it is non-narrative.

Tetris similarly uses shaped blocks which are fitted together in a manner reminiscent of childhood shape-matching toys. This activity is quite concrete in its fundamentals, even though the game of Tetris is quite abstract. When puzzle block games more further towards abstraction - Baku Baku animal, for instance, with its abstract representation of animals and food, the appeal seems to go down (in part because of the increased need to explain the activity coherently, and the mismatch between reality and the game).

This is another way of saying that even abstract representations can be positioned on a scale from more concrete to more abstract. Piles of gems falling down and shaped blocks fitting together are recognisable real-world activities no matter how distorted those actions may be in the abstract world of the game. Something like Rod Humble's The Marriage or Jeff Minter's Gridrunner is far more abstract and far less accessible to a wider audience.

Thanks for your comment!

So it would seem to me that you're talking less about abstract gameplay mechanics and more about esoteric gameplay mechanics. The idea being that fewer people will enjoy mechanics that are wholly unfamiliar to them less than games that involve more recognizable rules and objects.

I think the relative popularity of FPS games has more to do with the familiarity of their functional components much less than the accuracy of their representational aspects. The most popular war games are not those that represent war the best, but those that present war through familiar game mechanics. This also explains why FPS's are so intimidating to non-gamers, who are not familiar with the mechanics.

Interactive Illuminatus: yes, esoteric gameplay mechanics is a nice way of putting it. But of course, a lot of abstract mechanics tend towards the esoteric, so there is some crossover.

I agree that the popularity of the FPS has a lot to do with familiarity, but when you talk about "accuracy of their representational elements" - what does accuracy mean here? Simulation of reality? Because frankly, I think if the FPS is simulating anything, it's simulating the action movie (and the war FPS the war movie)... Neither is the action movie simulating real gunplay. But it does represent it, if you see what I mean. :)

Anyway, I'm not really here, just dropped in for a quick comment before heading off on my vacation. ;)

I've always spent a while trying to think up good names for WoW characters in which I intend to invest a great deal of time.

It has always struck me as rather lazy of Blizzard not to have created proper lexicons for the various languages - maybe this is why there are so many unrealistic/unimaginative names out there (don't know if it's any better on the RP servers).

Jon: Even if they had created the lexicons, would the players have used them? The perpetual problem that players wishing to role-play in MMO games face is that not everyone wants (or is able) to do so. In this respect, tabletop role-playing games have an advantage - the smaller group makes it much easier to promote "in character" play.

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