Fighting the gamer reflex.

Michaël Samyn, June 3, 2012

The notgames method is not only a challenge to designers. In many cases it’s also a necessity for creating videogames that are about mood or meaning.

In theory it is simple: avoid typical game activities and structures, and see where this takes you as a designer. In practice, it is harder to do than it sounds. At least for me.

There’s a bunch of typical game activities that I actually like. Collecting for instance. Or clearing a map. If a game offers a pleasant mood next to this, it’s not a problem for me to enjoy it too. If the game’s design permits it, I often take plenty of time not engaged in the game activities.

For other players, however, this is not so easy, as I have witnessed in playtests. They have what I would call gamer reflex. As soon as they discover a game-like activity, they will obsess over it. It will dominate their entire brain and ruin the mood completely and probably prevent them from getting any meaning out of the piece. In many cases, it even destroys their enjoyment.

Sadly, many gamers suffer from this condition, so it’s not something a game designer can ignore. One solution is to design these activities so well that the gamer still enjoys the game (albeit in another way). The other is to remove them completely (the notgames method).

Neither solution comes easy to me. Designing typical play activities is not something I have a talent for. And since I actually enjoy some such activities myself, it’s very hard to avoid having design ideas that involve them. Sometimes I realize far too late that I designed an activity that could be intepreted as a typical play activity by people who suffer from gamer reflex. And so these people go and ruin their own enjoyment and then they tell me that my game sucks.

They are right of course. I need to take their condition into account as a designer. And do what needs to be done, however much it pains me: remove any and all activity that could trigger the gamer reflex.

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