Game Design As Make-Believe: Participation

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

When my wife and I played the Resident Evil remake (pictured left) and its sequels in the early 2000s, we did so by pad-passing. My wife would take control during the ominously-quiet exploration sequences, poking in the corners for green herbs and admiring the interior design of the various mansions. But as soon as the game pulled out the shock tactics, she would jump up with a start, all but drop the controller in panic, then hurriedly pause the game and pass it over to me for the combat. We might be tempted to say that Resident Evil scared her. Professor Walton would say it was fictional that she was afraid.

In Walton’s make-believe theory, the feelings evoked by a representation – including a video game – are termed quasi-emotions, to distinguish them from the motives and behaviours we normally associate with emotions. So my wife did not experience fear when a zombie dog burst through the window, but rather quasi-fear. Walton states the argument for this distinction succinctly: “Fear emasculated by subtracting its distinctive motivational force is not fear at all.” If she had been genuinely afraid, it is all but inconceivable that she would have wanted to keep on playing. Rather, the game tricked her body into producing the biological states of fear, while she let her imagination carry the illusion to fruition. Hence, it was fictional that she was afraid.

Quasi-emotions present an interesting challenge in connection with games, however, for not all the emotions one experiences with a video game or board game are necessarily best understood as being experienced fictionally. Certainly, video games can elicit quasi-fear, and they do so using the same bag of tricks that horror movies use for the same effect. But when one wins at a game, is it a quasi-emotion we experience? The term fiero is used by emotion researcher Paul Ekman to describe the rush of victory we feel when we triumph after adversity – it’s a key emotion of play for challenge-oriented video game players. Let’s bring in the more familiar term triumph as a synonym for fiero in order to ask: is it quasi-triumph you experience when you defeat a Boss foe at the end of a video game, or is it triumph itself?

There are interpretative choices to be made here, and it is not just games affected by this decision. If a movie makes me laugh, do I experience quasi-amusement? At first glance it seems not, because the character of the emotion we feel when we laugh is the same whether we experience it fictionally or not, and the same can not be said of the fear, pity or anger generated by stories and the like. Similarly, it may be fictional that we experience triumph when we win a game, but that does not necessarily make the experience quasi-triumph, or if it does then we must conclude (as with amusement) that the two experiences are virtually indistinguishable. However, compare the situation whereby a video game has frustrated you by forcing you to pursue the same task over and over again – it is not fictional that you are annoyed, you are genuinely angry, and nothing in the game makes this experience part of the fiction. (It is not your avatar, after all, who is frustrated in this situation). Conversely, whenever you triumph in a game, your avatar does also, suggesting it is fictional that we experience triumph, even though this quasi-triumph is essentially indistinguishable from its non-fictional form.

Thus games blur aspects of the make-believe theory, but not in a way that presents any real difficulties. What happens to your avatar makes it fictional that you experience such-and-such an emotion – at least if the developer has done a good job with the representations – but some things happen between you and the game independently of what happens to the avatar. An equivalent situation occurs with a film break in the cinema, that bubbling, melting plastic that surges rapidly out of the centre of the screen when the projector breaks down. When this happens you will be, according to your temper and degree of immersion in the story, either frustrated or amused. But it is not fictional that you are either of these things. These feelings occur externally to your participation in the representation you have been watching. Here we see the parallel to the division in the principles of generation into functional and representational elements: feelings too can be generated functionally (as emotions) or representationally (as quasi-emotions) and often in both senses.

Pragmatically, this is why the emotional range of video games suffers a severe limitation. The functional elements of a game fall easily into the emotions of excitement, relief, frustration (i.e. anger) and fiero (i.e. triumph), as well as the experiences of curiosity and wonder. Yes, a game can make you laugh also – but only rarely by the functional elements (the rules and so forth). More commonly, you laugh because of something that happens in the representation – such as when you accidentally run over someone in Grand Theft Auto, or when you enjoy the schadenfreude of running your friends kart off the bridge at worst possible moment. To get the most out of what video games can deliver, game design as make-believe arguably suggests that one must align the functional emotions (the emotions of play) with the representational emotions (the fictional or quasi-emotions). This offers an explanation as to why so many video game stories resort to vengeance and quest motifs: they provide not only justifications for the violence so common in such play, but they align the emotions of play with the fictional emotions of the representation, strengthening the overall experience.

This seems to suggest that video games will never have the emotional range of other media, but of course, anything another representation can evoke emotionally, a video game can also evoke through the very same representational techniques. The problem isn’t that a video game cannot make you cry – many players wept over Aeris, the murdered young women in Final Fantasy VII – it is simply that in order to do so video games must draw from the playbook of other representations. Aeris dies in a cut scene sequence, a short animated film embedded within the game. Tricks like this grant video games access to the full range of emotions. They are just particularly well suited to evoking the emotions I mention above, many of which are attained by fooling the fight-or-flight instinct.

Whereas in the case of other representations it is necessary for Walton to spell out the fact that participation is core to the feelings evoked, it is self-evident with video games and boardgames of all kinds that participation is central. He talks of the game of make-believe involved in interpreting representations as “truncated variants of children’s games of make-believe” and observes that the games of children are generally physical, while the games associated with artworks are for the most part more cerebral. This is coupled with a greater role for the artist in the latter games, for the creator of an artwork specifies much of the make-believe experiences implied, whereas the toymaker merely provides the props and leaves the decision of what to imagine will happen to the children.

What can be seen with video games is a parallel continuum – from the physical, child-like play on one hand (epitomised by the Wii’s motion controls, and other forms of kinaesthetic mimicry) via the intermediate space of all-action shooters and the like, through to the more detached cerebral play of a strategy game. Boardgames too run this gamut – the physicality of Jenga, through the simple excitements of a family board game, to the abstract detachment of a hobbygame. Artworks of other kinds seldom have the luxury of being physical; boardgames and video games thus operate in a unique representational space, closer to toys than sculpture or opera, say, yet capable of all the representational tricks of cinema and theatre.

As Walton himself says of the relationship between the artist and the participant:

The advantages are not all on one side. Playing a game in which the participants themselves, not artists or prop makers, are responsible for the principal fictional truths is like exploring or experimenting on one’s own. In some ways and in some situations this is better than relying on a wise teacher.

So it is with a sandbox or playground world game that leaves it to the player to create a great deal of the fiction for themselves. The Grand Theft Auto franchise and many Massively Multiplayer Games have capitalised upon this freedom of play, and enjoyed for the most part much greater commercial success than games which prescribe a more static narrative experience. A key reason for this is that if one is going to experience a static storyline, why bother doing it within a game? Movies and novels already provide this kind of make-believe experience, usually with greater elegance (since there are fewer constraints) and always with greater accessibility.

There are sensible reasons for including story material in games, chief among which is the need to sketch a representational framework for the play in order to encourage participation in the accompanying game of make-believe. But beyond this basic conceit, the justifications for creating intricate and explicit story materials rapidly lose their force. Severely limiting a participant’s play activities solely to drive a story risks stifling playfulness, while providing a story the player can opt into (as in GTA or MMOs) offers greater flexibility for imaginative players. GTA works so well with Western players precisely because its toolkit of cars, guns and cities supports the kind of playful mayhem individualistic players will naturally engage in on their own, and the story supports this fiction. Conversely, these games sell extremely poorly in Japan.  

The dominant form of video game in Japan delivers a detailed, mandatory story discrete from (but parallel to) the play activities and typically expressed as an animated movie. This works for the Japanese-style role-playing game, because this kind of game is focused upon a fixed cast of characters, and uncovering their story is part of the rewards of play. It’s an approach that also works well for many gamers in other countries, and it illustrates a central problem with relying on players to create their own fiction. Generally speaking, most people would prefer to have a good story carefully crafted and simply told to them, rather than make their own, simply because creating a story is challengingly imaginative work and, as I mentioned at the start of this serial, not everyone is gifted with such fertile imaginations. And of course, it is precisely the opposite tendency which marks out many gamer hobbyists as so distinct from the mass market players.

Next week, the final part: Depiction vs Narration

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 videogame 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 videogames industry, and Only a Game, which contains an eclectic selection of articles on philosophy, ethics, metaphysics and other nonsense.