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The Games that You Play and the Games that Play You

A deep analysis of the creative dynamics between games and players, with implications for game design approaches, emergent narrative and more.

Kyros Jalife, Blogger

August 17, 2020

10 Min Read


I have a question. But it’s kind of a difficult one, so I was thinking… I’ll start with a different, simpler question and then go from there. Sounds good?

Oh, I see how it is… Ok, here’s the simpler, related question:

Why do we enjoy games?

And before you say something, this is a simple question! It’s the answer that’s complicated. In fact, many people already spent tons of time thinking about what games are (e.g. Bernard Suits), about the different kinds of fun (e.g. Marc LeBlanc) and players (e.g. Richard Bartle) out there, and about what we experience when we play games (e.g. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

As for me, instead of taking the path of definitions, kinds of fun and players, or experiential states, I thought about the question in terms of a specific aspect of game-playing: Creativity.

Woah, easy! You stay put and check out this characterization of creativity I came up with:

  • It’s a process in which new things or experiences are produced.

  • The process has an author, an active intelligence that produces the new stuff.

  • The author projects the process’ output (i.e. the “creativity”) into a receiver.

  • To be projected into a receiver, creativity needs a vehicle for expression.

What do you think?

Cool! Now let’s put everything together:

Important: The receiver can be a person (e.g. a guy uses speech as a vehicle to tell a story to someone else, or even to himself), or it can just be a physical/digital medium (e.g. a guy uses writing as a vehicle to tell a story in a book). The creative process doesn’t need a conscious receiver to exist.

Let’s see how this little model works for painting.

And gaming?

When making a game, the creative process is more or less like with painting, with game makers projecting their creativity into the game through the many techniques involved in game development. While art designers use illustration or 3D modelling as a vehicle, narrative designers use writing, game system designers use rulemaking, and so on.

But what about the creative process of playing a game?

Like painting, writing, illustrating, and rulemaking, the act of playing can function as a vehicle for expression. Playing with dolls, for example, can be a fantastic way of creating new stories, characters and places. Da Vinci, Dalí, Jobs… All amateurs when compared to a toddler playing with Mr. Potato Head. But dolls are toys, not games. There’s something fundamentally different about games, and that’s interactivity.

Games—analogue or digital, doesn’t matter—are systems that react to the player’s input and thus create an endless feedback loop where the player reacts to the game, prompting the game to react to the player, who then reacts to the game, and so on. This has consequences for the creative process and therefore it must have some influence in shaping the way we enjoy games. So, here’s where my real question comes into play:

What are the creativity dynamics involved in the act of playing a game?

First, through gameplay the player does a bunch of stuff that allows her to express her creativity and make it tangible in the game. This includes building stuff, customizing characters, role-playing, telling stories (mostly in tabletop games), thinking and executing strategies to beat adversaries, and others.

But there’s more. Remember how, when making games, people project their creativity into them? Well, thanks to their interactive nature, games transform this input they receive from their makers into a creative output they project into the player.

I believe this is true even without considering AI’s production of complex NPC (non-playable characters) behavior or automatically generated environments. Games of any kind, from Monopoly to Call of Duty, are non-deterministic in nature: Game makers don’t generate the end product, but the conditions for some end product to emerge. They can orient gameplay, but not fix it. The reason is that players don’t interact directly with the game’s building blocks (the rules created by the game makers), but with a system emerging from these building blocks.

As a result, games become authors in the creative process of gameplay because, through interaction, they actively generate new stuff—objects, NPCs behaviors, themes, narratives, arguments (examples below)—that were not created (and sometimes even intended) directly by the game makers.

In comparison, non-interactive media like a book, for example, is “just” a fixed output of the author’s creative process and as such it doesn’t have an active role in the creation of new stuff. Readers interact directly with a book’s building blocks (the words generated by the writer), so the book functions as a receiver of the writer’s creativity or as a vehicle for it, but never as an author.

Related to this, remember that I’m focusing on the creative process of gameplay and not of game-making, so I’m not considering all the creativity that goes into cutscenes, art design, or music, because this can be expressed and projected into the player without gameplay (without interactivity, like the words of a book).

Also, within the creative output that does count (the one that relies on playing as a vehicle), I’m interested in emergent themes, narratives, and arguments, so I’ll just focus on that. As an example, think of a game that makes an argument for the horrors of war by making the player feel guilty for killing other characters, or a game that tells a story through environmental narrative and player’s decisions.

Ok, let’s sum up this section with the full chart now:

That was the heavy lifting of the article. I hope I did a good enough job explaining this creativity stuff… What do you think?

I also had doubts, but after going over it many times, I feel confident about it. But maybe your concerns prove me wrong! Let’s leave it for later, though. I don’t want to keep stretching this section.

I have one more question: Whose creativity dominates gameplay, the game’s or the player’s?

I think that depending on the case, you’ll have two kinds of games. And that’s where the article’s title makes its appearance: There are the games that you play and the games that play you.

No, really! It’s not just a catchy phrase. What I mean is that often one side takes creative control over the game-player interaction. Having said this, there are games in which both the player and the game have a simultaneously high or low level of creative control, but I’ll focus on those later.

For now, let’s go back to these two cases I was talking about, where:

Gameplay is either dominated by the player’s creativity…

…or by the game’s creativity.

Here are some questions to help determine what side has the creative control of gameplay:

  • Does the game prioritize the player’s freedom or an idea (a theme, narrative or argument) it wants to convey?

  • What’s more important: The changes the player provokes in the game environment or the changes the game provokes in the player’s mind?

  • What side has more influence over the other? Who pushes whose buttons?

  • Does the gameplay serve a higher purpose (e.g. communicate an idea) or is it an end in and on itself?

After answering these questions, a two-way categorization would look like this:

But very few cases fall 100% into one of the two categories. So, here’s a graph to fix that:

The yellow quadrant is where the player has most of gameplay’s creative control, while the blue quadrant is where the game has most of it. Here is the graph with some examples in it.

Most of the games I can think of fall into the yellow quadrant. In these games, the player has most of the creative control because he has a relatively high degree of freedom to choose his own path to achieve goals and because the game-player interaction doesn’t serve an ulterior purpose (i.e. delivering a creative idea). People play these games because their systems are compelling in and of themselves.

Then, there’s the blue quadrant: The games that play you. In order to deliver their idea (again, a theme, narrative or argument), these games need to drastically reduce players’ creative freedom. This is because these games aren’t about the player reaching a certain goal, but about her traversing a certain path (a story, an emotional journey, etc.). As a result, their designs aren’t meant to encourage the player to express her will, but to restrict it. In the end, these games are all about pushing the players’ buttons to make them feel or think certain things.

Challenges and goals are less important in games that play you. Their systems are not optimized for “fun”, but to deliver some concept (that’s why they tend to have less re-playable value). You should check out Ian Bogost’s “procedural rhetoric” theory if you are interested in this kind of thing.

Ok, I think that does it, right?

Oh, now you want to know more?? Grrr, ok, I’ll talk briefly about the other two quadrants.

Let’s start with the lower left one. I’ll paint it grey and put the tag “games for execution” on it.

In this quadrant gameplay involves little to no creativity, both from the side of the player and of the game. Here, gameplay doesn’t give players creative freedom, nor it enables creativity coming from the game (there are no emergent themes/narratives/arguments). They are purposeless sets of instructions waiting to be executed. But I don’t mean this in a bad way: I see potential value in these “mindless” games (as means to achieving flow states, for example). In terms of LeBlanc’s types of fun, they provide the fun of “submission”.

Here’s the graph with some examples:

Hyper-casual games and heavily chance-based games such as Roulette (French or Russian) fall into this category. Also, games that are not really games, but gamified programs to achieve certain goals, like learning, staying fit or maximizing productivity.

And then there’s the upper-right quadrant…

It’s the rarest, I’ll give you that. Right now, I can only think of very few examples that belong there and I’ve only just begun to think about what a game needs to fall into the quadrant. I also cannot think of a good name for it.

Hmmm, that doesn’t sound like a proper name. I’ll think about it…

For now, I’ll only say that there are so few games in there because it’s very difficult for both player and game to have significant creative control over the gameplay interaction. Games that want to convey a creative idea through gameplay usually do it at the expense of restricting player’s freedom, and thus his creative input. The only way you can eat the cake and have it too, is if the game’s system is aligned with the concept it wants to convey. But that’s complex stuff.

So, I’ll stop here, and I’ll continue with this last quadrant in another article, after thinking things through.

In the meantime, I’ll just leave the graph here, waiting…
















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