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Play-Game-Act, an introductory method to Game Design and Analysis

Game-Play-Act is a simple method I use to explain to students how to quickly and efficiently describe a game concept. I think it's a great way to explain a game idea, and it can be combined with other tools to write a game concept document.

Lecturer in video game design schools for 6 years, I've decided to turn some of my lectures into blog posts. They will cover Game Design, Level Design and Ergonomics. 

Introduction

Game-Play-Act is a simple method I use to explain to students how to quickly and efficiently describe a game concept. I think it's a great way to explain a game idea, and it can be combined with other tools to write a game concept document.

It's inspired by the theories of several writers like Caillois or Huizinga, so it's also a fine starting point for anyone interested in going deeper into the theory behind game design.

The idea for this method came from the simple fact that in french there's only one word ("Jeu") to describe many activities. English gets more vocabulary for describing what exactly you are doing while you're in a "Jeu". While analyzing video games, I denoted at least three ways of being in a "Jeu" : "Jeu" as play,  "Jeu" as game, and "Jeu" as act. Combined, these three perspectives give a nice overview of what's actually happening inside a video game experience.

Concepts

Play

As theorized by many writers, playing is an fundamental activity for any human being, and for many animals. It precedes language, it's instinctive and it's critical for learning during childhood.

Play is free, in the way that you engage in playing freely. If you're forced to play, it's not playing anymore.

You play without purpose, without defined goals. Goals may be freely defined during playtime by the player itself, but there's no rules.

For the sake of this method, I'm going to state that play is also an experimental and physical activity. It involves manipulating things in order to know how they respond. In this way, it's a short-term activity. You don't engage playing with an agenda. You try, you fail, you succeed, you experiment.

Game

Game is actually a way of structuring play. It's a framework.

It involves a set of rules, defined goals and objectives. It adds a formal structure to play. You engage with a game with a purpose: defeating an opponent, most of the times (the opponent being another person or a designed system).

Typically, during your engagement with a game, you'll practice skills in order to overcome challenges. In pure playing, there's no incentive to get better at playing, as there is no formal winning. In game, the rules and the designed goals encourage you to sharpen your skills, may they be physical or intellectual, in order to be able to beat more and more opponents.

In this way, I state that "gaming" is a medium-term activity. You engage with the idea of achieving something, not only doing something.

Act

While this part is sometimes dismissed by many designers and game theorists, it's a great part of what makes a game, especially a video game. "Acting" becomes more and more an major part of a video game experience, and many video games explore how to get you feel like you're someone else.

For the sake of the method, I'll also include in the term "Act" not only how you're embodying someone else, but also what you may feel during the video game experience, what your emotions are, what are your long-term motivations, and how you can feel like living in the world of the game.

The Method

So, the three perspectives and activities can be combined, and the sum of them gives you a video game experience. The method itself is to describe each one of these activity, with one sentence. To help students start with the method, I also give one mandatory verb for each sentence.

  • Play - define the possibilities, the controls, how you're manipulating the experience, the short term:
    • What CAN I do ?
  • Game - define the rules, the goals, the purpose, the medium term:
    • What do I HAVE TO do ?
  • Act - define the world, the character you're going to embody, the story, the emotions, the long term:
    • How does it FEEL LIKE ?

It's pretty straightforward. During my course, I give many examples, but for instance, let's take Super Mario:

  • I CAN jump around and smash enemies by jumping on their head
  • I HAVE to beat multiple levels by going from point A to point B
  •  I FEEL LIKE I want to save the princess, while incarnating a low-class workman

See? It's very easy, but it's although a great way to break down and summarize a game concept.

Game Design

Finally, the method is great for precising your game concept as well.

Think about the first sentence you came up with. It may be "What if there was a game about being a Jedi", or "I'd like to see a game in which you have 3 swords and use them to defeat many different enemies", whatever.

First, classify this sentence. Is it Play, Game, or Act oriented? A game about being a Jedi is obviously about Act, while an idea in which you have 3 swords and you have to use them to defeat enemies is more about Game.

Then, just complete your sentence by simply and spontaneously describing the two other perspectives.

  • If your first sentence is Act-oriented ("I want to make a game about being a Jedi"), ask yourself:
    • What CAN the character do? Manipulate minds, fight with a lightsaber...
    • What does the character HAVE to do? Jedis often have to defeat robots, Siths, etc...
  • If it's Game-oriented
    • What CAN the player do to make this happen?
    • How does it FEEL LIKE?
  • If it's Play-oriented
    • What does the player may HAVE to do?
    • How does it FEEL LIKE?

It is simple, but it can give you a great perspective about your game idea, and how to be coherent and faithful to your first instinctive idea.

I often see students ideas in which what you do is completely decorrelated with what you would do if you were actually in the world of the game. Using this simple method is a great way to avoid inconsistencies.

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