Game Design As Make-Believe: Props

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

At the centre of the make-believe theory of representation is the concept of a prop. Any representation (a toy, a novel, an artwork, a game) can be understood as a prop, and people participating with such props are considered in Professor Walton's system to play a game of make-believe with it, such that it prescribes certain imaginings. In the context of game design as make-believe, game designers working with Walton's system are encouraged to think in terms of the props entailed in any game over and above the rules of the game (which we will look at next week). That is, this is a game design philosophy rooted in how a game affects the player's imagination not in terms of gameplay as this term is usually understood. This does not mean gameplay is irrelevant, of course, just that the make-believe aspects of play are usually backgrounded in discussions of game design, whereas in this approach they are brought into the clearer focus.

All games serve as representations of some kind, although sometimes the props involved prescribe very abstract imaginings. Tic-tac-toe, for instance begins with a hash mark grid which can be seen as a prop prescribing that the players imagine nine positions; an X prescribes that players imagine one player has taken a position, and an O does the same for the other player. Other props are more evocative: the plastic buildings in Monopoly and the wooden ones in Settlers of Catan serve similar roles, to prescribe the imagining that buildings have been built. The Cluedo board (Clue in the US) prescribes that players imagine their character is in a certain room of a mansion when their pawn-prop is in a particular part of the board-prop.

In many respects, the secret of Monopoly's success was the invention of toy money – i.e. prop money – and although they have no bearing on the play of the game, the murder weapon props in Cluedo are an important aspect of players enjoyment in this game. Similarly, the success of many modern boardgames, such as those made by Days of Wonder, can be ascribed (at least in part) to the superior quality of their props – an ongoing trend in the boardgame marketplace that is made apparent if one compares boardgames of the '70s, '80s, '90s and so forth against one another. Of course, there is a cost equation to consider too: counters, for instance, are wildly cheaper than wooden blocks as components. In a complex hobbygame, whose audience can be expected to be more imaginative, the use of counters suffices (e.g. Le Havre). In a mass market boardgame like Cluedo, the more literal props have a distinct edge. (Note, however, that the rather odd playing pieces in Monopoly appear to be a rare exception – when the player's piece is an iron it is not necessarily prescribed that players imagine that they are an iron in the fictional world of the game, although they are still prescribed to imagine that their playing piece is an iron).

The props of certain kinds of videogames operate in a similar space to hobbygames, specifically those in which there is no prop to imply the player's personal presence in the world (e.g. an avatar). Thus strategy games like Civilisation lie on a continuum with boardgames – unsurprising, given that this franchise was inspired by the boardgame of the same name. Strategy videogames in general require less imagination because they can show animated props, and also benefit from easier solo play, but there is a similar target audience and neither kind of game is in a position to rack up giant sales – the complexity of play requires too much imagination. The same claims can be made in respect of the relation between tabletop wargames and real time strategy videogames; the latter can reach a wider audience than the former because of the sophistication of the props (which can be seen fighting, rather than having to b imagined fighting), but the audience is still very heavily capped by the degree of imagination required to engage with the play of the game.

A huge leap in appeal occurs with videogames when there is a prop that prescribes that the player imagines that they are actually present in the fictional world of the game, i.e. in games with a specific avatar (indeed this term 'avatar' refers to the prop with which the player identifies). In a first person shooter, such as Modern Warfare 2 (pictured above), the player's gun is the most important prop because the perspective of these games means that the gun-prop implies the player's presence in the fictional world. All first person games rely on the graphical design of their weaponry (and often the hand and arms carrying them) to help the player imagine themselves in the world. Embodiment – the inclusion of a complete avatar model – is mere decoration in this regard, and for most of the audience this sort of detail adds very little to the game's appeal.

For driving videogames, an interesting situation occurs. In first person, the steering wheel, dashboard and rear view mirror props all serve a similar role to the gun in a shooter. Yet in third person, it is the car itself which prescribes that the player imagines themselves driving around in the world. These days, almost all racing games offer players their choice of view. In my estimation, the more imaginative players prefer third person (with its superior field of vision) while less imaginative players prefer first person because the difficulty of imagining one is driving the car is reduced. (I mean this only as a crude generalisation, however – plenty of imaginative people choose first person for various reasons).

Modern third person games, and indeed sprite-based 2D games both past and present, show the entire avatar as the key prop, with the ease of imagination varying in proportion to the quality of the animation of the avatar to some extent. There is a gainful parallel here between action figures and videogame avatars – both of which serve as props in very similar ways, but in the videogame the demands upon the imagination are considerably less than with the action figure. Children seem to have little difficulty deploying their imagination with action figures, but the older one gets the harder this seems to become until in adulthood the few people still enjoying action figures are often, not coincidentally, the kind of people who make and play games. In two decades of working within the games industry, I have never visited a game developer's office and not found action figures on someone's desk.

The apex of this use of props in videogames occurs when the avatar-prop represents the player explicitly – as with any game using a Mii or a similar custom avatar. Again, the benefit lies in reducing the demands on the player's imagination, but this benefit always comes at a cost in terms of the effort that must be expended to craft the personal avatar. The Wii managed to make this process simple and fun; earlier games with similar options required considerably more computer literacy in order to master the editing tools. (PlayStation Home carelessly excluded mass market players in precisely this way). The first person shooter genre from Doom onwards has commonly deployed a different strategy to the same effect – by not giving the avatar a name, or by naming it with a title (e.g. Master Chief), the player is invited to imagine themselves holding the gun directly. The same benefit accrues in a supremely cheap fashion to any game allowing the player to name the avatar personally, something Japanese game designers have been taking advantage of for many years. The custom name becomes a prop prescribing that the player (if they choose their own name) is in the fictional world of the game.

All this comes to a head in the problem of identification. The vast majority of videogames with an avatar use a white male character model, but in fact white males are not the majority of videogame players in the world. Dealing with gamer hobbyists, this is not much of an issue as they are generally imaginative enough to put themselves in anyone's shoes. But dealing with the mass market, it becomes more problematic: if the avatar is understood as a prop intended to prescribe that the player imagines they are in the fictional world of the game, a less imaginative player can be priced out by an avatar that bears absolutely no resemblance to them. Game designers – being highly imaginative people – all too frequently overlook this important psychological barrier, which contributes in some small degree to the exclusion of a great many mass market players from videogame play.

You can find part one: Imagination, here.

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.


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