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May 2010

Game Design as Make-Believe

Game Design as Make-Believe was a serial in six parts running here at It ran in parallel with another serial at Only a Game running from March 15th to May 27th 2010, and both serials were based on the work of Professor Kendall Walton. The parallel serial here at adapted Walton's make-believe theory of representations to the design of videogames and boardgames. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the six parts of Game Design as Make-Believe, each of which begins with a link to the corresponding part of the source serial:

  1. Imagination
  2. Props
  3. Principles of Generation
  4. Fictional Worlds
  5. Participation
  6. Depiction vs Narration

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Game Design as Make-Believe (6): Depiction vs Narration

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

Community Chest In Walton's make-believe theory of representation, there are in effect two different ways in which representations can be constructed: they may be perceptual in nature i.e. making use of one or more of our senses, in which case they are considered a depiction, or they may be verbal in nature, in which case the vast majority of cases can be interpreted as narrations, that is, sentences uttered by a person or people, and even situations that do not immediately appear to constitute a narrated text can still be interpreted this way by construing a figuratively “omniscient narrator”. To close this serial examining game design as make-believe, we will look at how these kinds of representation work in the space of games.

Depiction can mean far more than visual image. Walton suggests that a depiction is “a representation whose function is to serve as a prop in reasonably rich and vivid perceptual games of make-believe.” Thus, an audio game like Studio Hunty's In the Pit uses a purely aural representation for its play (as, for that matter, does MB Games Simon for blind players). Even in the case of visual representations, the audio can be hugely effective: Marty O'Donnell & Jay Weinland's sound design for Halo: Combat Evolved added enormously to the quality of the representation, arguably more than the graphics team since other games were comparable in graphical quality at the time of its release but few games at that time has such attention to detail in the construction of the soundscape.

From the perspective of game design as make-believe, depictions also frequently include tactile elements. The success in 1988 of the Atari arcade game Hard Drivin' had as much to do with its pioneering force feedback controller as its use of 3D polygons, both essentially new to the driving game genre. Similarly, Nintendo's Rumble Pak accessory was introduced in April 1997 and immediately created a stir, so much so that Sony had their first DualShock controller available in Japan before the end of the year. (Cinematic experiences have also been enhanced with tactility, of course – from William Castle's use of joy buzzers to shock the audience of The Tingler in 1959, to modern sound systems, which produce bass rumbles powerful enough to allow every explosion to be felt in the bodies of the audience).

The closely related senses of taste and smell have been rather less often used in games, although of course Steve Meretzky's Leather Goddesses of Phobos, published by Infocom in 1986, famously came with a scratch and sniff card as a prop providing seven different odours. The card was less about adding to the representational elements of the game, however, and more about setting up gags. For instance, the first use of the card is in the toilets at the very beginning of the game... but transpires, to the relief of the player, to be a day old slice of pizza. Some boxes of chocolates use taste as a play mechanic by offering a Russian roulette-esque circumstance (such as, by hiding one chilli chocolate among sweet flavours), an idea gainfully deployed as a marketing gimmick for the mixed chocolate brand Revels in the UK.

The depictive elements of videogames fall less to game designers (who nonetheless may have key influence in what will be depicted) and more to the graphic artists and sound designers, whose toolkit overlaps enormously with other media. Nonetheless, thinking about how to exploit the functional possibilities inherit in those depictions can be a key contribution a game designer can make to a videogame project. Good examples of this practice include the use of arrows in the graphic design of the corridors in Halo to help guide players, for instance, and the inclusion of ammo counters within the gun designs (rather than an overlaid HUD), or the distinctive sound of the nirnroot in Oblivion that both helps players find them, and adds to the richness of the fictional world. In game design as make-believe, the game designer should be aware of the opportunities for using depictions – visual, audio and tactile – to carry information to the player, without damaging the integrity of the fictional world.

Of course, graphics are excessively valued in the review of videogames. This perhaps reflects the extent to which the visual has become central in most modern cultures, or it may reflect the greater richness of the visual field to all but blind players (for whom the soundscape can be far more richly resolved). Nonetheless, in creating props to assist players in imagining, outstanding sound design can make a vast difference, and the use of stereo provides opportunities for gameplay that are not often exploited. The sword-compass in Shadow of the Colossus could easily have been rendered as a keening tone that harmonised in the correct direction (perhaps with font sized used to represent this effect for deaf players).

Whereas in hitting out to a mass market audience one can expect depictions to have the most importance, in appealing to the gamer hobbyist the potential of verbal representations can be significantly greater. Narrations generally require greater imagination to be appreciated, as the relative popularity of films versus novels demonstrates, but of course the dedicated player of games generally has make-believe skills that can be used to great effect. The fact that text is radically cheaper than any kind of depiction only adds to their usefulness, although publishers in the videogame industry are increasingly unwilling to resort to text – aiming always for a larger audience, the assumption is always that text must be recorded as voice. There are times when this might be a mistake. For a computer role-playing game, a more imaginative and literate audience can generally be assumed, for instance.

Most use of words inside videogames provides supplemental materials to flesh out the fictional world. One thinks naturally of the use of books in computer RPGs, or of memos, letters, dossiers and so forth in games like the Resident Evil series. They are only centrally used as a representation in text adventures (and their largely indistinguishable successors, interactive fiction). Walton actually mentions these kinds of games in his book, noting that interactive fiction, like improvisational theatre, allows the artist to “customise the work for the game any particular appreciator might play with it”. This is viable in text because of the supreme cheapness of developing in this form; it becomes radically more expensive to do something similar with depictions.

The commercial decline of text adventures reflects the greater imagination required to enjoy the form, and thus the smaller audience that can be reached, and it is safe to assume that the golden age of verbally represented videogames has passed. That said, the ease of developing within a verbal representation framework allows it to survive (under its “rebranded” name of interactive fiction) as a niche artform. It is interesting to note that, in the very early days of computer gaming, verbal representation was the norm, and there were a great many styles of game that used it, such as the popular 1971 (unlicensed) Star Trek text game. Of course, once graphical forms became readily available, these older forms essentially died out.

In boardgames, verbal representation principally finds its way into games through the use of cards. In Monopoly, of course, both the Chance and the Community Chest cards are a means of prescribing random imagined events such as it being the player's birthday, having to pay a fine, or coming second in a beauty contest (pictured above). The efficiency (in terms of the cost to produce) of delivering narrative material this way makes it a popular mechanic in hobbygames with a more story-like play. Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica games both use card-based mechanics to supply narrations that generate an ad hoc plot via random methods. Something similar can be seen in Digital Eel's Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, which uses similar mechanics under the hood of its videogame façade.

Some hobbygamers, however, baulk at this kind of collision between story and boardgames, claiming that they are merely restricted forms of tabletop role-playing games. This may be fair, but of course by reducing the burden on the imagination (by using counters and cards to drive the process) these kind of games can appeal to players who might struggle with a role-playing game, or who simply lack the time to pursue one, since the play of a tabletop role-playing scenario can consume dozens or even hundreds of hours as the players develop and improvise their story together.

I began this serial talking about tabletop role-playing games, and the degree of imagination required to enjoy them, and it seems a fitting place to end as well. In many respects, the tabletop RPG is the ultimate narration – it's content is only limited by the imagination of its players, and quite literally anything can happen. But by the same token, because the demands it places on the make-believe skills of its players is so high, it's appeal is correspondingly limited. While the boom years of this kind of hobbygame have passed, superseded in commercial terms by videogames, the more modern games owe a gigantic debt to Dungeons & Dragons, as I have written about previously, both in terms of the popularity of fantasy representations among gamers, and more specifically in the mechanics used by everything from World of Warcraft to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Some game designers like to fantasise about the future of videogames and see a digital successor of the tabletop role-playing game as the ultimate in gaming. I myself have indulged in such fantasies in the past. I think, perhaps, that this is somewhat misleading. The tabletop RPG is already the pinnacle of its form, since its players have no limitations whatsoever in the content of their play. And if there were the technology to fully depict visually and aurally what goes on in such games, would it not still need players of greater imagination to drive the stories? Without such players, the analogy to the RPG is vacuous, and given what we now know about the appeal of videogames to the mass market of players it seems something akin to a Star Trek: The Next Generation “holodeck” game would be far less likely to resemble a tabletop RPG than a shooter or other action game with more constrained prescriptions to imagine, or perhaps even more likely, a real world sport like football or skeet shooting.

For game design as make-believe, the most important lesson to learn is that what drives the play of any game – both in terms of the representational and the functional elements – is the players themselves. It is the players who set the limit on what can be imagined and enjoyed, and without them any game is thoroughly pointless. The mechanics, depictions and narrations that are created are merely props to aid the players in their own individual games of make-believe, and as such the task of the game designer now, as it has always been, is to understand what kind of games players want to exercise their imagination within, and then to craft those games with the artistic flair that great games embody.

With my personal thanks to Professor Walton for his support in the construction of this serial.

Game Design as Make-Believe (5): Participation

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

Resident Evil When my wife and I played the Resident Evil remake (pictured left) and its sequels in the early 2000s, we did so by pad-passing. My wife would take control during the ominously-quiet exploration sequences, poking in the corners for green herbs and admiring the interior design of the various mansions. But as soon as the game pulled out the shock tactics, she would jump up with a start, all but drop the controller in panic, then hurriedly pause the game and pass it over to me for the combat. We might be tempted to say that Resident Evil scared her. Professor Walton would say it was fictional that she was afraid.

In Walton's make-believe theory, the feelings evoked by a representation – including a videogame – are termed quasi-emotions, to distinguish them from the motives and behaviours we normally associate with emotions. So my wife did not experience fear when a zombie dog burst through the window, but rather quasi-fear. Walton states the argument for this distinction succinctly: “Fear emasculated by subtracting its distinctive motivational force is not fear at all.” If she had been genuinely afraid, it is all but inconceivable that she would have wanted to keep on playing. Rather, the game tricked her body into producing the biological states of fear, while she let her imagination carry the illusion to fruition. Hence, it was fictional that she was afraid.

Quasi-emotions present an interesting challenge in connection with games, however, for not all the emotions one experiences with a videogame or boardgame are necessarily best understood as being experienced fictionally. Certainly, videogames can elicit quasi-fear, and they do so using the same bag of tricks that horror movies use for the same effect. But when one wins at a game, is it a quasi-emotion we experience? The term fiero is used by emotion researcher Paul Ekman to describe the rush of victory we feel when we triumph after adversity – it's a key emotion of play for challenge-oriented videogame players. Let's bring in the more familiar term triumph as a synonym for fiero in order to ask: is it quasi-triumph you experience when you defeat a Boss foe at the end of a videogame, or is it triumph itself?

There are interpretative choices to be made here, and it is not just games affected by this decision. If a movie makes me laugh, do I experience quasi-amusement? At first glance it seems not, because the character of the emotion we feel when we laugh is the same whether we experience it fictionally or not, and the same can not be said of the fear, pity or anger generated by stories and the like. Similarly, it may be fictional that we experience triumph when we win a game, but that does not necessarily make the experience quasi-triumph, or if it does then we must conclude (as with amusement) that the two experiences are virtually indistinguishable. However, compare the situation whereby a videogame has frustrated you by forcing you to pursue the same task over and over again – it is not fictional that you are annoyed, you are genuinely angry, and nothing in the game makes this experience part of the fiction. (It is not your avatar, after all, who is frustrated in this situation). Conversely, whenever you triumph in a game, your avatar does also, suggesting it is fictional that we experience triumph, even though this quasi-triumph is essentially indistinguishable from its non-fictional form.

Thus games blur aspects of the make-believe theory, but not in a way that presents any real difficulties. What happens to your avatar makes it fictional that you experience such-and-such an emotion – at least if the developer has done a good job with the representations – but some things happen between you and the game independently of what happens to the avatar. An equivalent situation occurs with a film break in the cinema, that bubbling, melting plastic that surges rapidly out of the centre of the screen when the projector breaks down. When this happens you will be, according to your temper and degree of immersion in the story, either frustrated or amused. But it is not fictional that you are either of these things. These feelings occur externally to your participation in the representation you have been watching. Here we see the parallel to the division in the principles of generation into functional and representational elements: feelings too can be generated functionally (as emotions) or representationally (as quasi-emotions) and often in both senses.

Pragmatically, this is why the emotional range of videogames suffers a severe limitation. The functional elements of a game fall easily into the emotions of excitement, relief, frustration (i.e. anger) and fiero (i.e. triumph), as well as the experiences of curiosity and wonder. Yes, a game can make you laugh also – but only rarely by the functional elements (the rules and so forth). More commonly, you laugh because of something that happens in the representation – such as when you accidentally run over someone in Grand Theft Auto, or when you enjoy the schadenfreude of running your friends kart off the bridge at worst possible moment. To get the most out of what videogames can deliver, game design as make-believe arguably suggests that one must align the functional emotions (the emotions of play) with the representational emotions (the fictional or quasi-emotions). This offers an explanation as to why so many videogame stories resort to vengeance and quest motifs: they provide not only justifications for the violence so common in such play, but they align the emotions of play with the fictional emotions of the representation, strengthening the overall experience.

This seems to suggest that videogames will never have the emotional range of other media, but of course, anything another representation can evoke emotionally, a videogame can also evoke through the very same representational techniques. The problem isn't that a videogame cannot make you cry – many players wept over Aeris, the murdered young women in Final Fantasy VII – it is simply that in order to do so videogames must draw from the playbook of other representations. Aeris dies in a cut scene sequence, a short animated film embedded within the game. Tricks like this grant videogames access to the full range of emotions. They are just particularly well suited to evoking the emotions I mention above, many of which are attained by fooling the fight-or-flight instinct.

Whereas in the case of other representations it is necessary for Walton to spell out the fact that participation is core to the feelings evoked, it is self-evident with videogames and boardgames of all kinds that participation is central. He talks of the game of make-believe involved in interpreting representations as “truncated variants of children’s games of make-believe” and observes that the games of children are generally physical, while the games associated with artworks are for the most part more cerebral. This is coupled with a greater role for the artist in the latter games, for the creator of an artwork specifies much of the make-believe experiences implied, whereas the toymaker merely provides the props and leaves the decision of what to imagine will happen to the children.

What can be seen with videogames is a parallel continuum – from the physical, child-like play on one hand (epitomised by the Wii's motion controls, and other forms of kinaesthetic mimicry) via the intermediate space of all-action shooters and the like, through to the more detached cerebral play of a strategy game. Boardgames too run this gamut – the physicality of Jenga, through the simple excitements of a family boardgame, to the abstract detachment of a hobbygame. Artworks of other kinds seldom have the luxury of being physical; boardgames and videogames thus operate in a unique representational space, closer to toys than sculpture or opera, say, yet capable of all the representational tricks of cinema and theatre.

As Walton himself says of the relationship between the artist and the participant:

The advantages are not all on one side. Playing a game in which the participants themselves, not artists or prop makers, are responsible for the principal fictional truths is like exploring or experimenting on one’s own. In some ways and in some situations this is better than relying on a wise teacher.

So it is with a sandbox or playground world game that leaves it to the player to create a great deal of the fiction for themselves. The Grand Theft Auto franchise and many Massively Multiplayer Games have capitalised upon this freedom of play, and enjoyed for the most part much greater commercial success than games which prescribe a more static narrative experience. A key reason for this is that if one is going to experience a static storyline, why bother doing it within a game? Movies and novels already provide this kind of make-believe experience, usually with greater elegance (since there are fewer constraints) and always with greater accessibility.

There are sensible reasons for including story material in games, chief among which is the need to sketch a representational framework for the play in order to encourage participation in the accompanying game of make-believe. But beyond this basic conceit, the justifications for creating intricate and explicit story materials rapidly lose their force. Severely limiting a participant's play activities solely to drive a story risks stifling playfulness, while providing a story the player can opt into (as in GTA or MMOs) offers greater flexibility for imaginative players. GTA works so well with Western players precisely because its toolkit of cars, guns and cities supports the kind of playful mayhem individualistic players will naturally engage in on their own, and the story supports this fiction. Conversely, these games sell extremely poorly in Japan.  

The dominant form of videogame in Japan delivers a detailed, mandatory story discrete from (but parallel to) the play activities and typically expressed as an animated movie. This works for the Japanese-style role-playing game, because this kind of game is focused upon a fixed cast of characters, and uncovering their story is part of the rewards of play. It's an approach that also works well for many gamers in other countries, and it illustrates a central problem with relying on players to create their own fiction. Generally speaking, most people would prefer to have a good story carefully crafted and simply told to them, rather than make their own, simply because creating a story is challengingly imaginative work and, as I mentioned at the start of this serial, not everyone is gifted with such fertile imaginations. And of course, it is precisely the opposite tendency which marks out many gamer hobbyists as so distinct from the mass market players.

Next week, the final part: Depiction vs Narration

Game Design as Make-Believe (4): Fictional Worlds

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

GTASA When one plays most videogames there is a tacit understanding that one is entering into a fictional world – the term virtual world, is often deployed to mean exactly this. It is self-evident that this also happens when one plays a tabletop role-playing game, the play of which is precisely concerned with conceiving of a fictional world and taking actions within it. The same is true of boardgames: players of a game of Cluedo enter into a fictional world in which they are attempting to solve a mystery. It is even true of the more abstract games – players of Jenga enter a fictional world in which (rather arbitrarily!) the player sitting to the left of the player who collapses the tower is declared victorious.

According to Walton's theory, the appreciator of a painting or the viewer of a movie plays a game of make-believe with the relevant prop or props, and thereby enters into a fictional world. Walton also identifies a separate fictional world – the world of the prop, known as the work world – which can be considered to consist of those fictional truths which must apply in all the fictional worlds that the individual appreciators or players experience with that work. In the context of games, the work world is that which is present for all players; the environment and its interactions for videogames, or the pieces and rules for a boardgame, the essential principle at work remains the same.

Walton also talks of authorised games in the context of representations: those games which correspond to the presumed intentions of the artist, generally speaking. This authority is attained via the background of understanding and is essentially social in nature. We can say that if one plays along with the spirit of an artwork, story and so forth, one is playing the authorised game. Otherwise, one's interaction with any given representation (including a game) is considered an unofficial game. These games are still perfectly legitimate activities – there is nothing illicit involved in playing one – but they are to be considered essentially distinct from the authorised game as they go beyond what is conventionally licensed by the work in question.

It is easy to extend this idea into boardgames and tabletop games in general: if one “plays by the rules”, one is participating in an authorised game. Pragmatically, however, the rules of hobbygames can be complex enough that most players are unknowingly playing an unofficial game anyway. When I used to play on the tournament circuit for Magic: The Gathering, I was often struck by how many players did not fully understand the rules (having learned principally from another player and not by processing the rules themselves). For much of the play, this didn't matter, but because my tournament deck was extremely technical it was often involved in rules disputes that showed up the other players' misunderstandings of the basic mechanics of the game. If one is willing to take into account the near ubiquitous habit of adding house rules to boardgames, the normal experiences of hobbygame players with respect to the boardgames they play is essentially dominated by unofficial games.

Yet in videogames, as Miguel Sicart and Jesper Juul have noted, it seems that the rules are definitively enforced and not subject to change. Are the play activities conducted in videogames always, therefore, authorised games? They are not. An initial point to address it that it is quite possible to change the rules of a videogame: this happens in MMOs all the time as a result of discussions between the players and the developers, and it also happens without the developer's consent. Within a week of release, there was a “trainer” produced for my game Ghost Master that allowed players to circumvent the progress mechanics, thus producing an unofficial game. I do not believe (contrary to Sicart) that this was in some sense illicit: in a solo game, why shouldn't the player alter the mechanics for their own enjoyment?

There are other ways in which the videogame play experience can become unofficial in Walton's sense. The authorised game associated with any given videogame is arguably the one in which the player pushes through to completion. But the vast majority of players do not do this, they play until they lose interest, or until it gets too hard, and then give up. There is a sense in which this truncated version of the play is another instance of unofficial games – in the fictional world these players enter, there is no resolution, yet in the work world of the game that resolution is eternally transfixed. (Compare the person who doesn't read the last chapter of a book, knowing it will end in tragedy, and decides in their fictional world of the book it will not end this way). Additionally, we should take into account the wilful or accidental distortion of the play activities of a videogame, such as the middle-aged man whom was brought in to blind test Midtown Madness and drove around the town following the traffic signals and ignoring the races declaring it was “a great game”. Maybe so, but the man in question was certainly playing an unofficial game!

The fictional worlds that players engage with are as distinct from the work worlds of games as the fictional worlds of art and stories are from the corresponding work worlds. The variety of unofficial games that are available to be played is vast, and from the point of view of the game designer the appeal of any game can be seen to escalate in proportion to the possibility of unofficial games. The Grand Theft Auto games (such as San Andreas, pictured above) have enjoyed phenomenal success because the authorised game – the game corresponding to the story spine – is essentially optional. A vast number of players simply mess around in the world, making their own unofficial games, assuming a significant degree of control over the fictional world of their play. Similarly, a boardgame that supports many variations (explicitly or otherwise) stands to gain significant appeal.

Appreciating that the player of a game enters into their own fictional world (and not into the work world of the game that the developer has constructed) gets to the heart of the player experience. This is true even in MMOs, where other players have influence in the player's fictional world. Each player is still, nonetheless, in their own personal fictional world when they play the game. Walton says that we essentially live in the worlds of our games, despite knowing they are not real. He is talking about the games of make-believe we play with art and stories, but it is just as true (and indeed, more obviously so) in the fictional worlds of literal games. He notes: “True, these worlds are merely fictional... But from inside they seem actual.” They have the power to carry us away, and in this lies the power of representation of all kinds to marshal the human imagination.

Next week: Participation

Rebuild Chile Persuasive Game

In support of UNICEF's efforts in Chile to rebuild the country following the terrible earthquakes and tsunami that struck earlier this year, Pablo Gorigoitía has drawn my attention to a persuasive game entitled Rebuild Chile, made to help raise funds. It's ad funded, so just click on the link to play the game and lend your support.

The game is a Pengo-esque sliding block game involving a digger and a helicopter. It has one of those super-annoying theme songs that you could perhaps describe as "catchy", if you wanted to be polite... thankfully you can mute it. Unlike other sliding block games, if you get into trouble you can use the helicopter to bail you out, reducing your score but often allowing you to avoid having to restart the level.

Game Design as Make-Believe (3): Principles of Generation

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

Goomba In Walton's make-believe theory of representation, what is prescribed to be imagined by a particular prop is fleshed out in the imagination of the individual by mechanisms of implication. Although there seems to be no single coherent pattern to how this process works, Walton identifies two basic principles of generation that commonly apply: the Reality Principle (RP), which makes implications on the basis of similarity to the real world we live in, and the Mutual Belief Principle (MBP), which makes implications via a tacit agreement between the artist and appreciator. Science fiction and fantasy stories, for instance, all deploy the Mutual Belief Principle to create the fantastic or futuristic elements of their worlds. Walton talks in terms of these principles being used to imply fictional truths in the imaginary world associated with the prop in question.

In stories and art, the principles of generation are what allow a coherent story to be told succinctly, or a comprehensible interpretation to be formed. However, in games there is more going on than just the mechanics of generation by which art is resolved meaningfully or a narrative becomes interpreted. Games are not just representational, they are also functional – the play of any given game has some functionality of play (gameplay). Thus the props that comprise any game can be resolved to some degree into both representational and functional elements, the latter being comprised principally of the rules of the game, but also the background of understanding in which those rules are embedded.

For instance, suppose the rules of a particular boardgame instruct you to shuffle the deck and deal seven cards to each player. This rule seems readily understandable – but it rests on all manner of tacit assumptions (that the cards will be shuffled and dealt face down, for instance; that the cards will be dealt out in a clockwise order left of the dealer barring any other stipulation) – all of which are socially embedded. Wittgenstein makes this point (i.e. that there is little plausibility in private rules) in Philosophical Investigations, and it has been gainfully elaborated by Saul Kripke.Thus, even the functional aspects of a game depend in part upon certain principles of generation.

We could venture to say that there are parallels to RP and MBP in the functional aspects of games. For example, if one is playing an environmental videogame such as a Mario platform game, one generally recognises that falling into an apparently bottomless ravine is not a good idea – a conclusion reached by something akin to the Reality Principle. Similarly, when a Mario game teaches the player (as depicted above) that jumping on the head of a monster slays it – something which is not generally true of animals in the real world! – we can say that something equivalent to the Mutual Belief Principle is in effect. The makers of the game use mutual belief to assert certain fictional truths – in this case concerning both the gameplay and the accompanying make-believe. Why is make-believe involved? We interpret the act of landing on the monster as “killing” it in our imagination. Pragmatically, all it does is disappear from view, but the principles of generation are not generally taken as licensing an interpretation that jumping on a monster makes it invisible before it runs off, say. We are prescribed to imagine it has been killed.

The use of dice in boardgames is a particularly interesting case in respect of principles of generation. It is tempting to say that the dice are solely functional – but this can be misleading. In games like Cluedo and Monopoly, the result of the die roll changes where we end up in the game world. It has a make-believe implication (a representational consequence) that is closely connected with its functional meaning. This becomes even more explicit in other games: in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, a tabletop role-playing game or a narrative boardgame like Arkham Horror, the outcome of die roles have explicit narrative (i.e. representational) meanings: this makes the die roll representational in its own way. The outcome of the die roll might send an adventurer to the Asylum, say, and that invests the player in the representational elements of the fictional world of the game as they roll the dice. It is the accompanying uncertainty about what will happen which make dice so crucial to the enjoyment of tabletop narrative games.

Different players enjoy the representational elements of a game to very different degrees. Certainly, many gamer hobbyists are much more interested in the functional elements of play (in the decisions of play, if you like), but in understanding game design as make-believe it is important to acknowledge that the functional elements of props (the rules, and also more than this) still have representational consequences. Neither should one assume that the interpretation of representations is a purely passive process, like being driven around in a car – on the contrary, the mind of the participant in any game of make-believe is most definitely active, even if there are no decisions to be made. Looking at a painting or watching a movie is not a wholly passive activity; comprehension is a distinct mental process, one barely developed in non-human species. It may be true that decision-based play is more demanding upon the player's brain, but the distinction is one of degree and not of kind.

Consequently, game designers face interesting decisions concerning how they create their props from the point of view of the imagination of the players. The more the designer can rely on the Reality Principle, the easier the game will be for players to understand. This helps explain the comparative popularity of the first or third person shooter, since the gun is a prop whose implications are very well understood in our culture, and the same goes for racing games and car-props. The more the game-version of the Mutual Belief Principle is deployed, the more expressly game-like (i.e. decision-like) a play activity is likely to become, but the more complex the resulting rules the more imagination is required for play – and thus the fewer players will be able to play.

Game designers are, for the most part, well aware of this kind of trade-off, which is sometimes couched in terms of arguemtns of the immersion versus gameplay kind. The more an explicit system of choices is laid out, the more game-like the play will seem, but the less immersive it is likely to feel. Thus videogames went through a significant sea change when they moved into three dimensional representations precisely because it allowed for less abstract rule-dictations (MBP) and more familiar implications (RP). In general terms, the more the Reality Principle can be used in a game design, the easier the game will be to learn and the more players can enjoy it. My colleague Ernest Adams touched upon this point in observing that the strange logic of videogames (destroy boxes to regain health by finding hidden power-ups, for instance) serves as a barrier to their enjoyment by a wider audience.

In game design as make-believe, where the props (and not the rules) are intended to be the focus of the design process, it becomes important therefore to think about each prop in terms of what the Reality Principle is likely to suggest to players, and to deploy the Mutual Belief Principle (in the form of explicit rules, and otherwise) as rarely as possible in games seeking the widest possible audience. For gamer hobbyists, whose greater imagination supports more esoteric forms of play, there is greater leeway to move towards MBP – but even here, a game's appeal can be stopped dead by excessively complex rules. Too many fundamentally enjoyable games fail commercially because of too steep a learning curve.

There is also a middle ground between these two, as what is most frequently asserted by Mutual Belief becomes part of the background of understanding: players of videogames rarely need a health or hit point system explaining to them because in “gamer reality” this is already implied. A similar argument applies in the case of bizarre actions in game worlds, such as circle strafing. No soldier on the battlefield has ever performed such an arcane manoeuvre! Yet it has become part of the “gamer reality” of first person games (as a consequence of the controls and the perspective). Thus between the RP and MBP of games lie principles of generation that are socially embodied in the community of game players and game makers, and which affect the way in which games are constructed as fundamentally as our understanding of the world affects the way that stories and art are constructed.

Next week: Fictional Worlds