Games as tools, as instruments, as theater

Some people are better at playing games than others. And they have more fun.

Sure, some are better at achieving high scores or figuring out puzzles in record times. But that’s not what I mean here. Other players are better at playing itself, playing along you might say. They use the game as a theater stage and they play their part. The response of the game is then interpreted as part of the story.

The reward is not an increase of a certain number or the acquisition of an item but the feeling of being part of the narrrative. This is a form of play that computer designers often seem to ignore. Computer games tend to be very goal oriented, even when it comes to narrative. Designers try and find all sorts of ways to make the players do exactly what they “should” be doing to bring the (still often linear) experience to a proper resolution.

But how about giving the player some freedom and some responsibility? How about creating a universe where the player is responsible for his own pleasure? No punishment and no reward. Simply play.

The game designer provides the tools and the setting. And the player manipulates those to play a story. A player who does well, will have a better experience than one who doesn’t do an effort to “get into” the story, to play along.

12 thoughts on “Games as tools, as instruments, as theater”

  1. That sounds very much like what I said in my essay a little while ago šŸ˜› Anyway, I agree with what you say, but reward is inherent in anything. Play is it’s own reward, no?

  2. Yes, play is its own reward. But not many games are structured around that fact. I think if you start organizing your game around that fact, certain things in the design will change. It’s not just a reductionist method: you will start adding forms of play that are rewarding in themselves, you will pay more attention to how it feels to do certain things, you will want to optimize the aesthetic quality of the animations, etc. Removing the explicit rewards from most current games would render them pointless and boring…

    Please post a link to your essay.

  3. what do you think about offering interactive systems that offer both free-form play, and optional challenges? That way, if players want the pleasure of solving a challenge (many people enjoy that), they can do so, otherwise they can just play without challenge.

    Sort of like being on the court with a basketball and some friends; you can just play around and shoot the ball for fun, or if you want, start trying to challenge yourself to make baskets, and even go so far as to play Horse or even a proper game.

  4. I think some interactive systems lend themselves to free-form play, whilst others are better suited for a goal/challenge. Can some be both? Of course. Kyle Gabler’s World of Goo, and the Tower of Goo prototype is a nice example of that. But some game mechanics/systems don’t work in a free-form enviroment. So it all depends on the mechanics and such.

  5. Theoretically speaking, Andrew, I think this is a perfectly fine idea (even though just “shooting the ball for fun” is way too challenging already for my taste). But currently, with all those hardcore gamers at the helm of game design, I fear that such a hybrid game would fail to exploit the opportunities offered by a game-as-tool.

    And in the end, I think it is not necessary for the game designer to provide challenges because, if done right, the game itself will allow players to create their own challenges. In the analogy with basketball, I’d say that the game designer may provide for the ball, the court and the baskets but he would refrain from designing the rules of a proper basketball game, allowing the players to invent their own game. To increase the player’s fun of creativity, the designer would also provide a lot of other elements: skateboards, kites, an elephant, rusty rain pipes and an army of zombies. If the designer were an artist, all those elements would somehow make sense together as a narrative.

    My point is that “a game without challenge” should not be treated as a game with something missing (even though I think that’s a good first step). Removing the challenge/reward structure opens up a whole new world of interaction possibilities. So it becomes a more than a game, rather than less.

    And ultimately, if we’re talking about challenge, I think it should be intellectual and emotional, rather than skills- or twitch-based. In a more free-form game, one of the challenges is to make sense of it all. And a good designer will make sure that this is possible.

  6. It sounds, Michael, like what you’re advocating is not a game by our traditional understanding of a game. On that note, we don’t tend to think of some of our funnest experiences as games, for example: a playground, our backyards, a hiking trail, a party, dating, playing music, making art, a late night get together for margaritas… All of these experiences may involve role-playing and “gaming” to a certain extent, but that’s just what we do when we get there, not an inherent quality of the experience. Thus, when I began to have more of these experience, I became less interested in traditional gaming because “real” life became infinitesimally greater in it’s potential to be “fun” and “exciting” and “fulfilling” than any game. But of course, “duh”, who wouldn’t expect life experience to go way beyond the capacity of a video game? But I believe Michael is calling that a false expectation. We think too little of the interactive experience and the tools that are now available to us. Those same dynamic, unanticipated, and essentially beautiful experiences that arrive in our lives through the physical medium should and will make their way into the digital medium. How do we perpetuate that transition?

  7. I’m not so much advocating a different type of game as I am advocating designing for certain types of activities that people are already doing in games, even though the game might not be very well suited for them.
    A game will never have the potential of real life, of course. But that is not the purpose of art. The purpose of art is to help us make sense of things. This requires selection and direction, not total openness.

  8. Wow, this is a great discussion in the comments! I liked those last few posts especially. I’ll be thinking about how to make free-form play environments where “all those elements would somehow make sense together as a narrative.” :)

    But to comment on the post itself, or actually on the title, I was really excited to see you mentioning games in relation to instruments, because I had recently been thinking along those lines as well. Here’s something I wrote in my idea notebook on September 3rd:

    I find that when I am on the computer, looking for a game to play, what really satisfies me is to play a music instrument like a flute. What I’m really looking for is to exercise that proficiency and freedom, with a wide input channel from my fingers and mouth, a rich and pleasing output, and the ability to connect my play with outside experience by working on songs I’ve heard elsewhere. The most instrument-like game I have is Ragdoll Masters, which explains why I play it so often, but it is lacking in many of the benefits of a flute. Perhaps as I improve in my drawing and painting skill, that activity could fulfill the same need, but for now at least there is a certain thirst that only the immediacy and richness of music can satisfy.

    So I’ve been thinking about games in relation to instruments, though perhaps I’m talking about a different sort of “instrument” than you are. What do you think? Does it have anything to do with what you’re saying?

  9. I was definitely referring to musical instruments. I like how you also play an instrument. Though I would personally not take the analogy so far to require years of training before you can start playing properly. I think the computer can present model where you start off as a well-trained musician and you take it from there.

  10. What about FaƧade, Andrew? :)
    FaƧade is most definitely a game that puts the responsibility for the entertainment firmly the hands of the player. It is quite liike a theater play: if you don’t act well, the story will go nowhere. I think it is a very good model for what I’m talking about here. Also because FaƧade is not just about removing the challenge/reward structure and coming to some kind of “free-form play”. But rather about choosing a theme and then creating a form that expresses this theme. It is centered around its emotional and narrative content and not around a formal structure.

  11. Thanks for your reply, Michael. So one way I can think about these play environments is as musical instruments. This is good.

    I do agree that the games should help the player attain fluency quickly, since what we are interested in is the shape of the playing, not the training. Though maybe training games could be another thing altogether…

    Click my name! šŸ˜€

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