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The Three Kinds of Games
In which I offer a new perspective on the "What are Games?" debate.
August 1, 2012
9 Min Read
In my previous blog post, I called the debate over the definition of game “interminable and useless”, and perhaps that was a rash statement. What’s useless is how we’ve been debating it. We haven’t been debating it to learn anything about games, or how to make them better, it seems like we’ve just been debating it because it’s something we can disagree on. I’d like to propose a possible solution to the debate that helps us to understand why people play games.
It is my belief that what we call “games” are actually three completely distinct forms of play, yet all of them can be called “game”, and while they frequently blend together, we can still see how they maintain their separate identities when mixed. Every form of play falls into one of these categories. They are “Projection”, “Roleplay”, and “Challenge”.
In Projection play, the player’s avatar in the game space takes on characteristics of the player. The defining aspect of this kind of play is that the player maintains their identity, and “projects” it onto their avatar, responding to the situations in the game as they would in reality, given the circumstances of the game. The primary motivation for this type of play is to experience things the player cannot in real life.
This is one of the most universal kinds of play, not just among humans but among all mammals. It is widely believed that one of the evolutionary purposes of play is to allow us to experience dangerous situations in a safe environment, to better prepare us for real danger. What is one of the most universal human games? Tag, a game about running away from a predator. Our brains are hard-wired to take pleasure from projection play, because the people who didn’t were less inclined to play, and thus, less equipped to deal with real predators.
Examples of this type of play include Myst, Half-Life, Mass Effect, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Deus Ex. Genres that predominantly feature Projection play include most first-person shooters, all sports and racing games, and the vast majority of strategy and horror games. Almost all Western RPGS are projection games, though all of these also facilitate Roleplay, since, if the player is able to project themself onto the avatar, they can also project a different personality onto it. This brings us to the next form of play.
In Roleplay, the structure of the game and the avatar’s persona are rigidly defined, thus, the player takes on the identity of the avatar to respond to the game. This is how video games that allow Projection also allow Roleplay, as the player can choose to rigidly define how they will play the game and characterize the avatar to facilitate Roleplay.
The defining aspect of Roleplay is that the player pretends to be someone that they are not, almost always someone that they would rather be. While Projection involves the elevation and improvement of the player’s identity, Roleplay is about temporarily adopting a whole new identity. One of the biggest draws of Roleplay is that, from time to time, everybody wishes they were someone else. In addition, the brain takes pleasure from novelty, and nothing is more novel than being someone completely different.
For Roleplay to be implemented successfully, the avatar must be in an enviable position relative to the player. The player must want to be the avatar. Now, this doesn’t mean they should be some ridiculous Mary Sue that everything always goes right for. A character without flaws or hardships is unrelatable. Thus, an avatar in Roleplay must be carefully balanced between being someone the player wishes they were, and something the player can relate to.
Examples of Roleplay include Batman: Arkham Asylum, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Metroid, Goldeneye and Hitman. Genres that predominantly feature Roleplay include modern “action/platformer” games, fighting games, many action RPGs, and almost all JRPGs.
Challenge play, unlike the other two styles of play, does not concern itself with identity in any way. Challenge play is about using new paradigms to solve problems with pre-existing knowledge. In layman’s terms, puzzle games.
The primary difference of Challenge play is that while the other two styles of play are about what the player can become, Challenge play is about what the player is. Challenge play is, on the surface, very distinct from the other two kinds of play, since it generally lacks a true avatar. While there may be a “player character”, they are little more than an abstract representation of the player’s effect on the game world, if one even exists.
The pleasure of Challenge play is not in becoming better, but in validating that you are already good. This is why it is a distinct category of play, while the other two do give pleasure from accomplishment, in Challenge play, accomplishment is the only goal. Because of this, Roleplay and Projection play can continue indefinitely, while Challenge play must eventually end in order to be satisfying. This is its defining characteristic. Now, don’t get confused by this. Tetris, for example, will continue indefinitely so long as the player is successful. Play ends when the player inevitably fails. The challenge, then, is to last as long as possible.
Some examples of Challenge play include Angry Birds, Tetris, Solitaire, Rock Band, Chess, TF2 and SpaceChem. Genres that predominantly feature Challenge play include all Puzzle games, the vast majority of point-and-click adventure games, all rhythm games, all adaptations of game shows, and all competitive multiplayer games, including board games and real life sports.
Hey, don’t those overlap a lot?
It’s not so much that they overlap as it is that it’s difficult to make a game that includes only one kind of play (unless it’s Challenge play). You could make the case that Challenge play is included in all games, and I would reply with Journey, or perhaps Second Life. You could make a reasonable case that play can further be reduced to two categories: Mastery and Make-Believe, but I believe that Projection and Roleplay are too binary when it comes to video games for this to apply.
So, how is this helpful for designers?
It is my observation that excellent games tend to put the focus on a single category of play, rarely mixing in other categories, but when they do so, they do it carefully and deliberately.
Let’s look at a game that did this right: Batman: Arkham Asylum is pure Roleplay, and it uses it to incredible effect. In AA, you aren’t playing as Batman, you are Batman, and it is glorious. However, for its combat, AA mixes in Challenge play, making the combat tightly controlled and entirely dependent upon the skill of the player. The genius of this is that the Challenge play of the combat reinforces and strengthens the Roleplay. Being good at the combat makes you feel more like Batman, deepening your immersion. While you are allowed to customize Batman to a limited degree, this is largely a façade, as all of the choices exist along a linear progression of making Batman more effective, not specializing him for certain roles. In AA, the customization doesn’t exist to personalize Batman, but instead to keep you in his shoes, trying to pick the most effective upgrade possible. Everything about the game reinforces the Roleplay, and the result is an incredibly cohesive and phenomenally fun game.
Now let’s look at a game that screwed this up: Mass Effect 3 is, obviously, the third installment in the Mass Effect series, games built on pure Projection. The avatar, Commander [Name of the player’s choosing] Shepard, can have whatever personality and appearance the player wishes, and the series is built on the idea that the player’s choices, through Shepard, have consequences, and thus serious weight. The appeal of the game is that it lives up to this idea, particularly in Mass Effect 2. ME2, more than any In the final mission, the player’s decisions mean life or death for their party members, which, uniquely for a game, carry over into the sequel.
A critical aspect of Projection play is trust. The player enters the game world, plays by its rules, and expects the game to do likewise. Betraying the player’s trust in this way breaks immersion, and immersion is what makes Projection play satisfying. What I’m going to address next is vaguely spoiler-y for ME3, so if you haven’t played it and want to go in totally blind, skip the rest of this paragraph. In the end of ME3, it becomes apparent that all of the choices the player has made throughout the trilogy, every friend lost, every hard call and regretted decision will have no actual effect on the outcome of the plot as a whole, instead, the player is given a multiple-choice question, and this alone determines the ending. By invalidating the player’s choices, the game betrays the player’s trust in a way that is almost insulting. “Your choices can affect little things,” the game says, “But I get to determine the really important things”. This betrayal of trust ruins immersion in the game’s final moments, leaving a lasting negative impression on the player.
Now let’s look at a game that mixes categories effectively: BioShock. Spoiler warning, but who am I kidding, you know what the twist is. BioShock leads the player to believe that the game is Projection, when, in a pivotal moment, it reveals itself to be Roleplay. This works because the avatar’s character behaves exactly the way the player does, thanks to the conditioning of playing other FPSs. Jack can’t go off the rails of the plot because he’s mind controlled, the player doesn’t think anything of the game’s linearity because they expect linearity. Jack follows Atlas’s orders without question because Atlas knows the phrase that makes Jack do whatever he commands; the player obeys Atlas because they are conditioned to unquestioningly follow orders by other games. Thus, when the true nature of the game is revealed, it comes across not as a betrayal, but quite the opposite: the player’s immersion becomes even deeper. The game takes the player’s unspoken assumptions about what happens in an FPS, the things they don’t consider strange in order to suspend their disbelief, and it makes the player think about them. BioShock never changes the rules; it just doesn’t give you the whole truth about why they’re the rules.
I don’t want to create the impression that I think this is the final explanation of what a game is. All I want to do is provide a fresh perspective on what games are and how they can work. And, even if you don’t agree with me, as long as I’ve made you think, I’m happy.
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