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Games and WTF? Your guide to putting games in any situation

By on October 9, 2013
Stick two googly-eyes to your TV set. When they line-up with someone's face on-screen, drink.
Stick two googly-eyes to your TV set. When they line-up with someone's face on-screen, drink.
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This is a guest post from the inimitable Mark Sorrell

Games, and especially videogames, have levels of cultural relevance and social acceptability that grow every day. The younger half of the world grew up in a world that always contained videogames and the older half have had the best part of forty years to get used to the idea. Videogames are no longer a new concept and now exist merely as part of our world, a tool, a form. And a powerful and popular tool at that.

This growing cultural relevance leads, unsurprisingly, to growing exploitation of games designed to serve a purpose. We’ve had games based on ‘fun’ FMCG and similar brands and those dedicated to education on various worthy topics for some time, but as games’ relevance and acceptability grows, so do the number of places they pop up and the range of businesses and institutions that try to take advantage of their unique strengths.

The gamification movement is a great example of this trend, but as I, along with many others, have pointed out on many occasions, the word ‘game’ in gamification is shorthand for some elements that some games employ, used to achieve clear motivational outcomes. Gamification uses only a minuscule slice of the full range of expression and power that games possess.

Games with outcomes are the subject here, that is to say fully formed game experiences, or game design inspired tools and services, intended to achieve specific business or institutional goals. How can games help sell pet insurance or double glazing or toilet paper?

Start with a game and then add your ‘thing’ to the game. That’s the essence of it. Gamification starts with a ‘thing’ then adds game-layers on top. As it is the game element that is bringing the engagement to the table, it is clearly going to compromise the levels of engagement that can be achieved by prioritising the ‘thing’ over the game. However, making games that have specific outcomes is hard. It’s hard for two reasons.

Firstly, creating a game with a specific outcome needs a great deal of technical, almost philosophical, mechanical design knowledge. Game mechanics are broadly abstract things. In most games it is the narrative or setting that creates the ‘feel’ of the game. However mechanics unquestionably have a ‘feel’ of their own. Consider how Monopoly gives a sense of crushing inevitability, one intended to speak about capitalism rather than real-estate per se. Understanding how to connect that quasi-abstract construction to tangible, real-world outcomes is a serious challenge.

The Marriage, an art game by Rod Humble, is a great example of mechanics being used to tell a specific story with only the barest of narratives. Despite what Rod himself thinks, all you need to know before you play is that the game is called The Marriage, and you can quickly understand what it is saying, despite being otherwise visually abstract.

The second reason is that I just had to write those paragraphs, containing the words ‘philosophy’, ‘quasi-abstract’ and ‘art’ to explain the basic principle behind developing games intended to have a purely commercial outcome. Practically speaking, a client would need to have a colossal amount of trust and be willing to take the perceived risks involved in making games with outcomes.

But there is process to creating games with outcomes and process helps to turn a daunting and highly technical task into one that can be more easily understood, thus mitigating the need for trust and the perception of risk.

The Marriage is definitely intended as art, but it serves as a a great example of how games can achieve outcomes. It does what it does because it is an analysis of the system of marriage. How does marriage work? Who are the actors? What are their motivations? And that’s the approach that needs to be taken to any game with a desired outcome – what is the system? What are the elements that make it up and how do they interact?

So the start of the process of creating a game with an outcome is that of asking the following questions:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • What are the elements involved in the system being described?
  • How do they interact?
  • Which behaviours should be encouraged?
  • Which behaviours should be discouraged?
  • What emotions do you wish to create?

Once these six questions have been answered, the task is to map the interactions between the system’s elements to the desired behaviours and emotions. The important part of this process is to ensure that what you end up with is a game that is intrinsically enjoyable and engaging. It doesn’t have to be ‘fun’ necessarily, but it does need to be attractive and intriguing.

The Nash Equilibrium is a term from Game Theory, which describes the perfect strategy in a game, presuming none of your opponents change their strategy. In other words, what is the ‘correct’ response to a game situation? The problem with Nash Equilibriums is that they are boring. Traditional game design usually involves identifying and eliminating all Nash Equilibriums in order to ensure the player has a full range of expression, agency and possibility, rather than being stuck repeating a ‘perfect’ strategy.

The problem with games with outcomes is that it’s all too easy to load them with Nash Equilibriums. You want your players to buy double glazing, right? So you make the actions most like buying double glazing the ones that win the game and the ones that are least like buying double glazing to be game losing, right?

Wrong.

You make the desired behaviours positive and the undesired ones negative, sure, but success or failure in the game should be down to player agency, down to the player performing well. So the last trick is to take everything you have achieved and turn it into a game that players will play because it is enjoyable (again, not necessarily ‘fun’). Game with ‘thing’ on top, not ‘thing’ with game on top, remember.

Games have far more to offer the commercial world than they have so far been employed to do. But the process is there and understood. If you want to find out more, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

About Mark Sorrell

Mark Sorrell is a consultant and advisor on freemium game design, behavioural change, value perception and strategy. With over a decade of experience in making games do new things, in new places, for new audiences, for companies across gaming, broadcasting, advertising and finance, if you want to know how games can help your business, start by asking Mark.