Game Design As Make-Believe: Fictional Worlds

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

When one plays most video games 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 board games: 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 video games, or the pieces and rules for a board game, 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 board games and tabletop games in general: if one “plays by the rules”, one is participating in an authorised game. Pragmatically, however, the rules of hobby games 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 board games, the normal experiences of hobby game players with respect to the board games they play is essentially dominated by unofficial games.

Yet in video games, 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 video games always, therefore, authorised games? They are not. An initial point to address it that it is quite possible to change the rules of a video game: 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 video game play experience can become unofficial in Walton’s sense. The authorised game associated with any given video game 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 video game, 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 board game 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

Reprinted with permission of Chris Bateman.

Chris Bateman is a philosopher, game designer and writer, best known for the games Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, and the books Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames and Beyond Game Design. Chris runs International Hobo, a consultancy specialising in market-oriented game design and narrative, and has worked on more than two dozen video game projects.

Graduating with a Masters degree in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, he has since pursued highly-acclaimed independent research into how and why people play games. His most recent player model, BrainHex, is based upon neurobiological principles and the test has been taken by more than 30,000 people.

As well as his many books, Chris writes at two blogs: ihobo.com, which carries pieces on game design and the video games industry, and Only a Game, which contains an eclectic selection of articles on philosophy, ethics, metaphysics and other nonsense.

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