Game Design As Make-Believe: Principles Of Generation

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

In Walton's make-believe theory of representation, what is prescribed to be imagined by a particular prop is fleshed out in the imagination of the individual by mechanisms of implication. Although there seems to be no single coherent pattern to how this process works, Walton identifies two basic principles of generation that commonly apply: the Reality Principle (RP), which makes implications on the basis of similarity to the real world we live in, and the Mutual Belief Principle (MBP), which makes implications via a tacit agreement between the artist and appreciator. Science fiction and fantasy stories, for instance, all deploy the Mutual Belief Principle to create the fantastic or futuristic elements of their worlds. Walton talks in terms of these principles being used to imply fictional truths in the imaginary world associated with the prop in question.

In stories and art, the principles of generation are what allow a coherent story to be told succinctly, or a comprehensible interpretation to be formed. However, in games there is more going on than just the mechanics of generation by which art is resolved meaningfully or a narrative becomes interpreted. Games are not just representational, they are also functional – the play of any given game has some functionality of play (gameplay). Thus the props that comprise any game can be resolved to some degree into both representational and functional elements, the latter being comprised principally of the rules of the game, but also the background of understanding in which those rules are embedded.

For instance, suppose the rules of a particular boardgame instruct you to shuffle the deck and deal seven cards to each player. This rule seems readily understandable – but it rests on all manner of tacit assumptions (that the cards will be shuffled and dealt face down, for instance; that the cards will be dealt out in a clockwise order left of the dealer barring any other stipulation) – all of which are socially embedded. Wittgenstein makes this point (i.e. that there is little plausibility in private rules) in Philosophical Investigations, and it has been gainfully elaborated by Saul Kripke.Thus, even the functional aspects of a game depend in part upon certain principles of generation.

We could venture to say that there are parallels to RP and MBP in the functional aspects of games. For example, if one is playing an environmental videogame such as a Mario platform game, one generally recognises that falling into an apparently bottomless ravine is not a good idea – a conclusion reached by something akin to the Reality Principle. Similarly, when a Mario game teaches the player (as depicted above) that jumping on the head of a monster slays it – something which is not generally true of animals in the real world! – we can say that something equivalent to the Mutual Belief Principle is in effect. The makers of the game use mutual belief to assert certain fictional truths – in this case concerning both the gameplay and the accompanying make-believe. Why is make-believe involved? We interpret the act of landing on the monster as "killing" it in our imagination. Pragmatically, all it does is disappear from view, but the principles of generation are not generally taken as licensing an interpretation that jumping on a monster makes it invisible before it runs off, say. We are prescribed to imagine it has been killed.

The use of dice in boardgames is a particularly interesting case in respect of principles of generation. It is tempting to say that the dice are solely functional – but this can be misleading. In games like Cluedo and Monopoly, the result of the die roll changes where we end up in the game world. It has a make-believe implication (a representational consequence) that is closely connected with its functional meaning. This becomes even more explicit in other games: in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, a tabletop role-playing game or a narrative boardgame like Arkham Horror, the outcome of die roles have explicit narrative (i.e. representational) meanings: this makes the die roll representational in its own way. The outcome of the die roll might send an adventurer to the Asylum, say, and that invests the player in the representational elements of the fictional world of the game as they roll the dice. It is the accompanying uncertainty about what will happen which make dice so crucial to the enjoyment of tabletop narrative games.

Different players enjoy the representational elements of a game to very different degrees. Certainly, many gamer hobbyists are much more interested in the functional elements of play (in the decisions of play, if you like), but in understanding game design as make-believe it is important to acknowledge that the functional elements of props (the rules, and also more than this) still have representational consequences. Neither should one assume that the interpretation of representations is a purely passive process, like being driven around in a car – on the contrary, the mind of the participant in any game of make-believe is most definitely active, even if there are no decisions to be made. Looking at a painting or watching a movie is not a wholly passive activity; comprehension is a distinct mental process, one barely developed in non-human species. It may be true that decision-based play is more demanding upon the player's brain, but the distinction is one of degree and not of kind.

Consequently, game designers face interesting decisions concerning how they create their props from the point of view of the imagination of the players. The more the designer can rely on the Reality Principle, the easier the game will be for players to understand. This helps explain the comparative popularity of the first or third person shooter, since the gun is a prop whose implications are very well understood in our culture, and the same goes for racing games and car-props. The more the game-version of the Mutual Belief Principle is deployed, the more expressly game-like (i.e. decision-like) a play activity is likely to become, but the more complex the resulting rules the more imagination is required for play – and thus the fewer players will be able to play.

Game designers are, for the most part, well aware of this kind of trade-off, which is sometimes couched in terms of arguments of the immersion versus gameplay kind. The more an explicit system of choices is laid out, the more game-like the play will seem, but the less immersive it is likely to feel. Thus videogames went through a significant sea change when they moved into three dimensional representations precisely because it allowed for less abstract rule-dictations (MBP) and more familiar implications (RP). In general terms, the more the Reality Principle can be used in a game design, the easier the game will be to learn and the more players can enjoy it. My colleague Ernest Adams touched upon this point in observing that the strange logic of videogames (destroy boxes to regain health by finding hidden power-ups, for instance) serves as a barrier to their enjoyment by a wider audience.

In game design as make-believe, where the props (and not the rules) are intended to be the focus of the design process, it becomes important therefore to think about each prop in terms of what the Reality Principle is likely to suggest to players, and to deploy the Mutual Belief Principle (in the form of explicit rules, and otherwise) as rarely as possible in games seeking the widest possible audience. For gamer hobbyists, whose greater imagination supports more esoteric forms of play, there is greater leeway to move towards MBP – but even here, a game's appeal can be stopped dead by excessively complex rules. Too many fundamentally enjoyable games fail commercially because of too steep a learning curve.

There is also a middle ground between these two, as what is most frequently asserted by Mutual Belief becomes part of the background of understanding: players of videogames rarely need a health or hit point system explaining to them because in "gamer reality" this is already implied. A similar argument applies in the case of bizarre actions in game worlds, such as circle strafing. No soldier on the battlefield has ever performed such an arcane manoeuvre! Yet it has become part of the "gamer reality" of first person games (as a consequence of the controls and the perspective). Thus between the RP and MBP of games lie principles of generation that are socially embodied in the community of game players and game makers, and which affect the way in which games are constructed as fundamentally as our understanding of the world affects the way that stories and art are constructed.

Next week: Fictional Worlds

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:, 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.


    Game design is a mixture halfway between art and entrepreneurship. In order to make a good game, you have to anticipate not only the moves of an opponent, but the moves (and motivations) of BOTH players. I work in game design and I think it is the most fascinating topic in the world.

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