CAP 203 - Computer Animation III

Chapters 2 and 3 - The Designer Creates an Experience; The Experience Rises out of a Game


This lesson discusses material from chapters 2 and 3 of The Art of Game Design. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. the Game is not the Experience
  2. Examining an experience
  3. The Lens of Essential Experience

Chapter 2 begins by placing our eyes on the goal: the gamer's experience is what we care about. Everything we use to get to create that experience is a tool, a method, an artistic expression, but it is not the goal.

The author makes a good point, that a game player's experience will be a bit different for each player. He observes that this is less true for more linear experiences like books and films, in which the order of presentation is the same for each viewer/reader. This is true, but it is not absolute. I can only read a book or see a film for the first time once, but I can see the film again, or read the book again, and have a different experience each time. This can be because I know how the book or film flows and ends, but it is also because time goes by and I am not the same person I was before. I have experienced more and will experience the book or film differently.

In the same way, each reader, viewer, or player will have their own experience of a book, a film, or a game. So, we can't control all the variables that go into a person's previous experience. We can partly control what happens in their experience of a game, but only partly if the game is non-linear or has non-linear elements. A gamer designer can put random events into a game. Even if the player is unaware of the random addition, this makes their experience different from another players experience. This is a good thing for some games, in that it allows new experiences when re-playing it.

The author turns to some tools that can help us think about the player's experience of a game:

  • psychology - the author makes a distinction between two schools of psychology, behaviorism and phenomenology. (There are others.) The latter is recommended to us as game designers, because it concerns how a human being experiences events and feels about those experiences
  • anthropology - if psychology is the study of individuals, anthropology is the study of groups of humans and humanity as a whole. The author's recommendation is that we imagine ourselves as players of the game to get an idea of what they experience, in order to improve the game that produces that experience.
  • design - by design, the author means all types of creative design. He mentions "musicians, architects, authors, filmmakers, industrial designers, Web designers, choreographers, visual designers, and many more" on page 14.

So, if we can't give each player the same experience, what do we do? We can accept and cherish that fact, but still try to give the players the same essential experience. Let's warm up to that with a couple of more ideas from the text.

A danger of only thinking about science instead of experimenting with it is that you can begin to believe things that are not true. The author uses the example of Socrates, who argued that since when we learn something new it often feels that we are actually remembering something we already knew, this means that we are actually remembering things we learned in past lives. From my experience, Socrates might have done better to consider that we typically learn new things by creating connections in our minds to things we already know. We learn multiplication after we learn addition, because we can understand multiplication as a more powerful form of addition. We learn many things as metaphors: x is like y in that they both have the quality z. This might have seemed as logical to Socrates if he had considered it.

In a similar manner, (see, metaphors and similes help) we can assume that something is true about a gamer's experience of a game simply because we experienced it when designing or testing that part of the game. That won't always be true. It can be true, and it can help a designer make a better experience, but we should still be aware that it can be false. We must listen to ourselves, our players, our team, our game, and our client, as stated in the first chapter.

In addition to listening, we must learn to be descriptive and analytic. The author gives us an example of a friend who would often tell him that an experience was bad, but would be unable to explain what made it bad. To make a change in our game, we need to know not just that the player was unhappy, but why the player did not like what aspect of the game. You can't fix what you don't know. A designer must play his own game to get some of the experiential data, and must make observations that others on the team can address.

The first players of a game are always the developers. However, there is a problem with playing your own game and trying to analyze the experience. The author refers to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which means in this case that the act of observing your experience of a game will alter that experience. This seems likely, even if you have not studied physics or heard of the idea before. (Or are we remembering the idea from a past life?) The author offers some techniques to work around the problem:

  • analyze memories - This idea says have the experience first, then analyze it afterward. If you have ever compared your memory of an event with that of another, you know that each person remembers different features of an event, so several players should analyze their experiences together, as soon as possible after a play session, to avoid loss of detail. Of course, this also leads to the blue camel problem. Never heard of it? It's a reference to an Arabian Nights story. I give you a magic carpet, and tell you that it will fly anywhere you command it to go, but you must never think of a blue camel while trying to use it. You will find it impossible not to think of a blue camel (the analysis) while standing on the carpet (having the experience). In the same way, you may find it impossible not to analyze your experience to some degree while you are having it.
  • two passes - play the game once to experience it, and play it again to analyze the experience. This may make it easier to enjoy it (or hate it) first, then figure out the details second.
  • sneak glances - if you find a blue camel (the analysis) on your mind, push the camel to the side while you are having the experience and pay it a little attention now and then during the experience. This means to think about the analysis a little during the experience, to make it easier to mostly experience the experience.
  • observe silently - you may find after practicing the techniques above that you can think about what is happening while it is happening. All the techniques above take practice, but this takes the most. It is as Holmes told Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia, "You see, but you do not observe." Most of us do not observe (analyze) the world around us. As designers, we must become like critics, who analyze experience for the rest of us.

I may have told you that I once took a film criticism class, in which a student asked the instructor about the loss of innocence he was feeling, leaving the audience and joining the ranks of critics. The instructor replied that it was a necessary aspect of becoming more aware of the craft of filmmaking. He hoped that, in the long run, what we gained by learning more about our experiences would more than replace what we would lose. In the same way, examining our experiences can make our appreciation of them greater, and enhance the chance of our creating a greater experience for those who experience our work.

This leads to the discussion of the Essential Experience, our first lens. If we want to provide an experience to a player, we need to describe it:

  • What is the experience I want the player to have?
  • Which, of the many aspects of that experience that I might try to give the user, are the essential aspects?
  • How will I use the game to give the user that experience?

Chapter 3 continues the discussion from chapter 2. The tool we will use to provide an experience will be our game. The author then spends some time building and building on definitions of key terms in game design:

  • a game is something you play (page 26) that should be fun
  • fun is more that just pleasure
  • fun is pleasure with surprises

This leads to the Lens of Surprise, our second lens. The point is that there must be some surprises in a game for it to be fun. If you don't think so, think about why we avoid spoilers in game reviews, in movie and book reviews, and in other things that are supposed to be fun. Why are spoilers called spoilers? Obviously, because they spoil a part of the experience.

  • What will surprise the players in our game?
  • Are there surprises in the story, the rules, the artwork, and/or the technology? (This is a foreshadowing. We will come back to these four things.)
  • Can players surprise each other?
  • Can players be surprised by the results of what they do?

I have been playing a computer game for a few weeks. I have recently allowed my grandson to play it as well, while watching over his shoulder to monitor content and to advise as needed. I will note that the portions of his game that are the most fun for me are the surprises, when he finds something I did not find, or when he reacts to something in an interesting way. So, if we understand one definition of fun (and there are others) we can have a Lens of Fun. our third lens.

  • What is fun in the game, and why is it fun?
  • What can be made more fun in the game?

Mr. Schell discusses several definitions of play, to accommodate the idea that we play games. I like the quotes from George Santayana the best:

Play is whatever is done spontaneously and for its own sake. - The Sense of Beauty
Work and play... become equivalent to servitude and freedom. - The Sense of Beauty

I would add one from Mark Twain:

The point is that play, in addition to being fun, must be something that a person chooses to do. The discussion takes a turn here and adds another aspect, that a game frequently has an element of uncertainty about its outcome. The game should answer a question for the player, if only the question of who will win. The player should be curious while playing the game. What will happen? Can I beat the old score? Will there be something new this time? These natural questions lead to the fourth lens, the Lens of Curiosity:

  • What questions will the game cause a player to ask?
  • How can I make the player care about the questions and their answers?
  • What can I do to make the player more curious about the game?

The author builds to a point related to playing a game for its own sake. A formal phrase is introduced: a game has endogenous meaning. The word "endogenous" just means that something originates in the game. The author adds more meaning to the phrase: there must be things in the game that the user cares about, which have no special meaning outside the game. The quests in an adventure game have no meaning to one's real life, but they are very important to the player of that game, in the game. This gives us the fifth lens, the Lens of Endogenous Value:

  • What objects or constructs in the game do the players care about?
  • How can I increase the value of those things to players?
  • How does the value of an object affect the player's feelings about the game?

The text builds to a list of ten qualities that a game should have, admitting that there are others we may discover as well.

Assignment #1:

  1. Read the list of ten qualities on page 34 in the text.
  2. Think of a game you have played that you liked.
  3. Write a paper about the game in terms of the ten qualities. There should be a short paragraph for each quality, giving an example of how it does or does not exist in the game.

The text moves on to make a point that games are often problem-solving activities. (page 36) Some games, like sudoku, have this and not much else. You could say that sudoku has no story, needs no technology, does have rules, and can be pretty or not. (Why did I pick those four things? More foreshadowing...) To summarize the ten qualities, the author offers a statement: "A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude." (page 37)

The sixth lens, the Lens of Problem Solving:

  • What are the problems a player has to solve in this game?
  • Do new problems develop as the game is played?
  • How can the system or players make new problems in the game for repeat play?