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Designing for meaningfulness - Player freedom and prototyping exploration mechanics

Exploring design considerations in creating a videogame to evoke meaningfulness through the lens of various disciplinary perspectives such as philosophy, psychology and spirituality.

I originally posted this to my personal blog, if you wanted to read it in its original location.

I thought I'd give a quick update on the development of Los and go over some of my thinking relating to some of the games design aspects. Some info for context, Los is a prototype that came out of a research project with XR stories and The University Of York aimed at creating a meaningful player experience.

I've recently been prototyping a new radial menu, a compass and map mechanic. Here is a short development video showing the new mechanics in game:
 


One of the design pillars for Los is the minimal narrative framework (fig.1) which consists of various features which afford the player freedom. During my research, I examined meaningfulness through the lens of various disciplinary perspectives such as philosophy, psychology and spirituality. One such perspective that arose is the philosophical theory of Subjective Naturalism. The theory suggests that individuals find meaning in their lives when they can establish their own goals and pursue actions that are personally meaningful or purposeful to them. In terms of design aspects, the prototype aims to support this freedom to to act and think freely within the game world by exposing players to two concepts which have been shown to impart meaningfulness in a videogame, autonomy and agency.


 

Fig.1 Conceptual diagram for the minimal narrative framework pillar


Autonomy

A players psychological need for autonomy was identified by Ryan, Rigby, & Przybylski, (2006) through the SDT framework and is a sense of control or volition. The research suggests that videogames which are designed to “...provide considerable flexibility over movement and strategies, choice over tasks and goals…” where shown to increase a players perception of autonomy.

These elements for autonomy are reflected in the prototype’s minimalistic design:

  • The prototype deliberately surrenders control to the player in terms of how they should proceed, think and act in the game world
  • There is no traditional mission structure and the game relies on a players curiosity about the game world to drive progression
  • Players can act with volition in the game, establish their own purpose
  • Players can set their own goals and choose their own tasks
  • Players are not subject to any controlling instructions

By including these elements in the design, my intention here is to support the player in achieving what they believe to be important, thus imparting meaning as part of the philosophy of Subjective Naturalism.


Agency

My research also suggested that a players notion of “agency” may also be connected to a videogame's capacity to evoke meaningfulness. Agency generally refers to a sense of control or volition. For instance, Janet Murray's often quoted description of “agency” is “...the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices.” (Murray, 1997).

However, my approach for this design framework solicits a players agency in terms of their “commitment to meaning” (Tanenbaum & Tanenbaum, 2009), by way of moving the game’s narrative along. As discussed, the prototype provides no purpose other than the one to which the player commits themselves. In Los, a player commits to exploring the plateau (game world) as they seek fragments of the game story through text and voice messages, aspects of environmental storytelling (such as the stone monoliths) and/or journal entries. The prototype also maps the player’s commitment to exploration to narrative outcomes that the player can clearly understand. The prototype accomplishes this by providing the player with satisfying feedback of their exploratory actions within the game with additional story fragments, about which they can further interpret and reflect on aspects of the narrative. Additionally, the design of the freedoms provided by the minimal narrative framework also aim to present a space for the player’s subjectivity as they construct their own personalised understanding of the narrative.

 

Fig.2 Exploration options - player choice, the open plateau to the left, a cabin straight ahead and stone monoliths on the horizon


Player exploration is therefore a key aspect when designing for meaningfulness. To support this, I am including a map and compass mechanic which supports players as they choose how they explore the game world. Both these mechanic’s allow the player to strategize and set their own goals, choose their own tasks and approach exploring the game in their own way. Additionally, by keeping these mechanics independent of one another, players retain the ability to choose which mechanic they prefer or if they wish they can combine them. Players perceive these choices as meaningful as it provides flexibility over their movement, their strategies and choice over tasks and goals that they ultimately set. Moreover, this approach allows players to collect the fragmentary story blocks embedded in the game world and create their own understanding of the story which I hope to talk about in further posts.

 

Thanks for reading.

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