Sponsored By

Featured Blog | This community-written post highlights the best of what the game industry has to offer. Read more like it on the Game Developer Blogs.

I propose that we can simplify models of the way players interact with games by dividing the player into two separate personalities, an observer and a participant, that work together to shape media consumption.

Daniel Shumway, Blogger

March 16, 2014

16 Min Read

Adapted from a post on my main blog.  

Standard disclaimer, take everything I say with a grain of salt, etc etc... views can change and every theory evolves.  I am by no means whatsoever an expert on game design.  Form your own opinions.

Fighting myself

Almost a year ago, I wrote an article talking (complaining really) about what I viewed as a dichotomy between obsession and contextualization in ideal media consumption.  I ended up asking:

"whether or not there exists an objective sweet spot somewhere between healthy consumption and pure escapism, and more importantly, can we use that line to correct some of the bad habits we have when we engage with games in the first place?"


To summarize, my problem was an observation that some my best experiences with media happened when I obsessed over the content, whether that content be games, book, movies, or anything like that.  I was also observing that trends like escapism and long-term obsession were harmful to my overall health and overall media consumption.

This was really weird, and I didn't like it.

Traditionally, when we talk about player motivation, we bring up classification systems like, for instance, the Bartle types of players.  These theories, for the most part, work well.  The problem isn't that they're wrong, but that they are riddled with problems when we rely on them for generalized design:

  • They're limited in scope - Bartle types only describe player goals, not how they interact with those goals. They deal with player motivations on a somewhat surface level, but they don't look at the root causes of those motivations, which causes us to run into bizarre edge cases that don't fit neatly into categories.

  • They're not as predictive or as useful as we would like - It's difficult to design a game with Bartle types in mind. There's not a lot of depth to implementation of Bartle types into games, and there's not a lot of room for us to build theories on top of Bartle types.  We'd like a theory that allows us to expand in the future.

  • They're trying to do different things than designers want - Bartle types (and similar classification systems) are designed to place players into categories - to explain in general terms what a player's motivation is.  That's a very good thing, but it doesn't really help us describe how players play games or what it looks like when players play games.  Essentially, these classification systems are just more information on demographics.  Bartle might be completely correct, but we're looking for different information than he's providing.

Again, this isn't to say that I think Bartle is wrong - just that I don't think his theory alone is sufficient when talking about player motivations.  I'm looking for a descriptive theory; one that describes what the process of playing a game looks like for the average player, and one that I can use to shape how my game treats the player and what it shows the player at any given moment.  If at all possible, I would want my theory to avoid interfering with Bartle types and to avoid replacing them, but rather attack a different part of player motivation so that both theories could survive in harmony.

Ideally, I'd like to use something that draws influence from a narrative arc, but applied to players - something that would allow me to track how the player's experience evolves throughout a game.  And because it's been bothering me a lot over the past year, I want it to address some of the concerns I had in the previous article about the relationship of contextualization and obsession/escapism in games.


Let me steal a name for this:

There's a data-gathering technique in anthropology called Participant observation - it's not really all that similar to this, at all.  But there are things that feel the same at first glance, so it's perhaps not so bad that the names and terms I'm using are similar.  Basically, Participant observation works off the theory that we're best suited to gather data on a culture if we're in that culture; but not so far in that culture that we lose our objectivity.  So the people using this method try to maintain a balance between their roles inside a group and their role outside of a group.

In a generalized sense, I would like think of players as a type of Participant observer - a researcher that immerses him/herself in your game to gather information.  It's a crude, inaccurate and incomplete analogy that will break down steadily as you read through this article, but there are some useful parallels to draw from it.

To be more specific and more accurate, I propose that we're incorrect to talk about a player's experience from a singular perspective, and that it would be more accurate to break the player into multiple sub-characters, who will switch control with each other as needed throughout the entire experience.  The idea is to think of a "player" as someone who consists of two entirely separate yet simultaneously acting individuals who advise each other and trade off control of the individual.

I refer to these characters as literally being separate people, working together to form a singular "player unit" - almost as if the player had multiple personalities that manifested themselves as they played a game or watched a movie.  The reality is, of course, probably more complicated, but this distinction allows us as designers to remove a large number of contradictions in our understanding of how players interact with games, because we no longer need to view player's engagement as a singular static process.

Each "part" of the player fulfills one of two separate roles: the observer and the participant.

I'll go into these roles in more detail below, but to quickly summarize, observers act as gatekeepers to gauge a game's quality, the creators intent and execution, and the effect of the game on the player.  To do this the observer takes a realistic, objective approach to the media.

Participants take an approach that a game, its mechanics, and worldview, are real, or at least reflect reality in a completely perfect sense.  This is a more difficult concept to wrap one's head around, but would be closely related to what we would more commonly refer to as a suspension of disbelief, or immersion, or a sense of empathy for what is happening in a game.


Player Roles in more detail: 

  • The Observer : 

There are important distinctions between the two roles that are worth examining in more detail.  Let's begin with the observer.

As stated above, the observer evaluates a piece of media on behalf of the participant. He/she makes decisions both about  whether a piece of media is worth engaging with and what conclusions should be drawn about the media and the participant once the experience has ceased.

The observer largely fulfills two purposes:

  • To protect the participant from unhealthy or low-quality experiences and to direct them towards healthy, high-quality experiences.

  • To translate an experience back into a language that can be applied within reality after the player has finished.

Because of the nature of his/her roles, the observer is most active when an experience begins and after it ends.  The observer will periodically check in during an experience to weigh it objectively and to reevaluate whether or not the participant should be allowed to engage.  When the observer blocks a piece of media, the consumer refuses to become invested -  he/she becomes more critical, analytic, and derisive of the work as a whole.

Assuming that the observer allows the participant to become invested in the work, he/she will also serve as a translator after the experience has ended, helping the participant to transition back into the real world and incorporate the perspective they gained into their overall worldview.

When the observer is ignored or unable to perform his/her functions, the consumer loses the ability to accurately evaluate what they see.  Both exposure and closure are important roles for the observer: failing in the prior makes a consumer more likely to become invested in media of poor quality or to ignore media that they are not immediately familiar with, failing in the latter role make a consumer more likely to become obsessed with a franchise, and to engage in pure escapism.

Note that competent execution and technical excellence are not the only measures the observer uses when evaluating media.  He/she nearly always takes multiple aspects of a work into account, including the possible benefits of its worldview, the possible dangers of its worldview, and the social benefits of engaging with the work.


  • The Participant :

While observers are usually skilled at analyzing a piece of media and pulling out lessons or evaluations of the experience and reactions to it, observers aren't in a position to explore media or to learn from it.  In order to fully understand the intricacies of a system, the individual components must be treated as a purposeful, cohesive whole.

Thus, the participant treats a piece of media like it is an objective reality - their end goal is to, in a sense, live in the creator's world. Because of this, the participant is allowed greater freedom than the observer to form biases about their experiences and to like or dislike parts of the experience.

While an observer might consider authorial intent when evaluating a piece of media, a participant speaks purely in terms of "like" and "dislike".  It's important to note that disliking a component of the media, or choosing to engage with the media in a unique way, or avoiding a component of the media, does not mean the participant is no longer engaged.

Remember, the participant's goal is to treat a game/experience like it is reality.  In the same way that I may dislike a component of the real world, or may try to work within a system to change it, or may avoid a component of the world around me, I do not treat its existence as a purposeful flaw.

This is a subtle, but incredibly important difference - I can not say that gravity has been poorly designed; nor can I say that it was a pretty good idea.  Gravity is, regardless of my thoughts of it.  I may say that college/work/socializing is annoying, or frustrating, but no part of the reality around me cares about my views nor should it.  Reality is separate, and larger than my opinions of it.

Working within the system: approaching a job from a new perspective, forming a routine every time I get up in the morning, avoiding something that is harmful to me: this is a highly positive way to interact with the real world around us, and the participant may mirror these actions within a game - adjusting difficulty, avoiding an encounter or exploiting a flaw, or choosing not to exploit a flaw to make the game more enjoyable.

While the observer might claim that a system must be experienced, "in the same manner it was designed", a participant is under no moral or intellectual obligation to follow that advice or to align his/her goals and play-style to that constraint.  The participant is in no way obligated to care or even acknowledge how a game is meant to be played.

Despite this freedom, and in some ways because of this freedom, the participant can not make judgement on the inclusion of any element, or the exclusion of any element from any piece of media.  They are unable to form opinions on the work as a whole, or express thoughts on what the work should be.  Every idea the participant has is experienced in the context of a game-world as reality, and mirrors the way that they approach the real world outside of said experience.

When most prospective players thinks of their ideal play-experiences, they  usually envision themselves taking the role of the participant - even though they might not put it in those words.  Players (I am speaking in generalities here) wish to place themselves in a position where they subscribe to a certain worldview or possess a series of beliefs, either because that worldview is satisfying to them or because it enables them to achieve some goal.

Understanding player motivations in terms of "states" or "beliefs" is a fundamental part of what I would call Worldview-Centric Design, but it falls outside of the scope of this essay.  What's important to understand is that this theoretical end-goal for the player can only be achieved when they give control of the experience over to the participant.

Observers act as gatekeepers, participants fuel enjoyment.  And, for the ideal designer, it is hoped that observers then wrap up everything and contextualize it after the experience has ended.


Some conjecture : Ideal observer/participant relationships

In the interest of fleshing out this theory, or at least showing how it could be fleshed out, I've taken the liberty of very quickly drawing up a graph of what an ideal observer/participant relationship might look like when plotted over the course of an entire game.

This is a trivial exercise that I haven't put much thought into, so I expect that a more thoroughly researched graph would look somewhat different than what I present here.

A healthy player engages with media along a continuum of the two roles.  The player balances between which role has primary control of the experience at any given moment, allows the two roles to, in a sense, converse with each other.  In the interest of sparking discussion, a simplified version of an ideal relationship is shown below. A quickly constructed graph of what an ideal curve *might* look like

The marked areas can be described as follows:

  1. A player hears about your game and purchases it.

  2. A player starts playing your game.  He/she goes through some type of intro or gets a feel for the base mechanics/story.  Investment is (preferably) high enough to make him/her switch from a primarily observer role to a participant.

  3. The main portion of the play experience.  Your player becomes more invested in the game as it continues.

  4. Your game reaches its climax and ending.  The player entirely embodies the role of the participant.

  5. Post game content : new game+, optional quests, replay value, etc...  Your player has seen (functionally) most of what your game has to offer, or at the very least, you won't be throwing new ideas at them.  Eventually your player will put the game away and move on.

  6. The player moves on from your game.  He/she is able to more objectively analyze the entire experience.  The observer takes dominance, but ideally the player does not fully shift out of the participant role for some time.

Again, I want to iterate that this graph is pure conjecture of the most trivial and thoughtless kind.  I would expect these curves to look very different in the real world, for a variety of reasons.  For example:

  • A game might be designed to be replayed multiple times.

  • A game might not be designed to be finished at all or to have a specific ending.

  • A game might be very short, designed to demonstrate a concept very quickly rather than engage the audience.

  • A game might transform its experience while it is played, via a twist or a shift in gameplay, causing the player to shift back and forth between roles more rapidly.

  • A game might end very abruptly, including no post-game content.

  • A game might be designed to lead directly into a sequel.

Even working under the assumption that the graph I put together is actually accurate, any number of changes would effect the way this curve looks.


How all this can actually be used then

  • Build player trust:  

Build portions of your game around the concept of proving credibility. Behind the scenes, this is a way of speaking directly to the player (observer), and convincing him/her that your game should be engaged with.

  • Use player trust:  

Build portions of your game around engaging directly with the participant.  Your game should transition away from the justification phase: you should be able to ask the player to do things they're uncomfortable with from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.  These are the sections where you can be most creative, and where you have the opportunities to create the most memorable experiences.

  • Don't encourage players to stay in one role for too long:

This can often be a problem with community driven games.  At some point, you will need to transition your players from observer roles to participant roles.  This means that at some point they need to stop giving you input and need to begin trusting you.  This is a shift between asking , "What do I want this game to be?"  and "What is the game and how should I interact with it?"

Similarly, it's unhealthy for players to stay as participants for too long.  Players that are unable to transition back to observers are more likely to start devolving their experience into escapism.  A healthy community is an intelligent community, so you should periodically encourage them to take a step back and examine/evaluate their experiences. Why elements do they like?  What didn't work?  What would they like to see in the future? A well established community views itself as existing in a supportive, almost team-like role. Encourage your players to be discerning, and they will in turn encourage you to make the best experiences possible.

  • Give players predictable indications of when their roles are meant to change: 

Related to the above point, try to minimize any subconscious confusion your player may have about what role you are asking them to be in.   My goal here isn't to define exactly when people should be in each role for your specific game, so there are a number of ways you might approach this, depending on if you're building a narrative experience, or a pure-gameplay experience, or a mood-driven game, or so on and so on.

  • Adjust your perspective on what you're supposed to be delivering:  

There's a trend in modern gaming to consider players as having nearly identical roles to designers throughout the entire process of making a game.  Community driven games are awesome, but even in the most successful cases, they work because of strong, rigid structures and barriers between players and developers.

Your role as a designer is more akin to a teacher than a servant.  Players want to experience games as participants.  You should enable them to do so, even at the risk of removing some of their control from the development experience.  Be wary of how you implement player suggestions like, "It would feel awesome to have x...", or "Y would be amazingly addictive."  No one can simultaneously be a player and a designer, so try not to force your community into an uncomfortable dichotomy.

Read more about:

Featured Blogs
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like