A phenomenology of game design

Computer game design is an innovative sub discipline of the field of multimedia. In some sense computer games are the newest type of media, succeeding film and television. While games are becoming more and more realistic, reality becomes more and more like gaming. Games can be considered art, in the sense that they reflect and represent the human condition. Learning and playing have always been intrinsically related, as all children and young animals learn things by playing. It is only logical that learning and playing are moving into the digital age, like many other parts of human life. As this is not a text about learning, we won’t go into pedagogical discussions about what constitutes true learning, but at least a development can be identified towards more creative types of education. Creative learning transcends the classical educational distinction between talent and technique, where a talent is an innate mastery of a certain skill and a technique the execution of a set of rules that can be learned from a teacher. Instead of choosing one of these classical sides, creative learning focuses on placing student users in educational situations, where students have to solve a certain problem with a certain toolset. As a result, students gain experience, and improve themselves. In (serious) games, experiences are structured similarly.

A phenomenology of game design

A game starts out with a certain individual situation, an opportunity of the user or player to do something. This situation can for example be the detection of a certain pattern in what was previously apparent chaos, a ‘cognitive dissonance’ or an aesthetic peculiarity. Often, this situation has some external meaning or reference to reality. The situation can also be a metaphor for an event in real life.

But a situation is never alone. It is surrounded by preceding and following situations, by situations that occur at a slightly different place, and, thanks to the fantasy of the human mind, by situations that are not actualized and may never be actualized. In other words, the situation is integrated within a spatio-temporal world. In most games, the notion of a game world is mainly one of topology and projection. The game world is shown to the player as a 2D (top or side view), 3D (isometric or frustum based), virtual reality or immersive projection. But more importantly, it is shown as a world that can be explored, navigated, mapped and possibly expanded.

For the user to be able to be in a situation implies that the user is able to act in a situation, which means to not just passively observe, but to ‘actually’ do something. Doing something requires the skill to do something. Doing without skill is doing anything, not something. Skill can for example be aiming, timing, concentration, strategy allocation, agility, forcing, moving or another activity, and associated with skills can be affordances and features like size, speed, power, strength, memory, knowledge, territory, intuition, etcetera. Within computer games, skills are usually enforced with the help of game mechanics, user interface design and virtuality (immersion). If the player can leave the game, his freedom is absolute. If he cannot, his freedom is control within a situation. Most computer games can be left. Life cannot be left.

Activity implies development, and a player will gain experience with every act. Experience may come in the form of power, superpower(s), magic, evolution, progress, rewards or increasing skill level(s). Acts are executed with a certain goal or objective in mind, which may or may not be accomplished. It is important to note that experience is not just gained when goals are successfully accomplished, but that failing also brings experience, a fact that is often forgotten. The best objectives are those that are not too easy and not too difficult for the player, and in serious games, the difficulty of objectives can often be matched to individual players. Experience is the primary learning component of games, and the most important educational part of game experience is feedback such as failure costs and success rewards. Of course, fairness is important here, for a game that unjustly punishes players will be tossed aside quickly.

Interactive narratives

Narrative is the link between the absolute and the concrete, as narrations and stories are registrations of series of concrete events, but at the same time contain absolute situations that reoccur in new concrete situations again and again. Narratives compare abstract acts (ethics) with concrete acts (praxis). It is no surprise that narratives are often about good versus evil. But when reading, listening to or watching a story, the audience can not really act itself. Consequently, classic narratives are more about ethics than about praxis. Interactive narrative changes this, by adding ‘actual’ situations to storyline. In a sense, movies and books are (just) worlds, while interactive narratives are worlds with situations. While experience from watching movies is only experience with actions of other people and characters, experience from interactive narratives and games is experience with personal responsibility.

It is important to align the responsibility of the player and the game character (avatar), and that the personal goals of game characters are realistic even if the goals are to be achieved by the player. The goals should be justified by the (supposed or projected) internal motivation of the game character, but also become the personal goals of the player. This is an absolute requirement for creating ‘involvement’ of the player and the game character.

(This is a short excerpt from my master thesis in Computer Science Dynamic Graphics in Serious Games (2010))