|The Eighth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2013
|Group Report: What Moves a Player
to Meaning in Their Play Experience
|Participants: A.K.A. "Rosebud"|
|Kenny Shea-Dinkin, Making Fun||Karen Schrier, Marist College/Play Innovation Lab|
|Katherine Isbister, NYU||David Fox, Double Coconut|
|Drew Murray, Insomniac Games||Vijay Thakkar, Curious, Inc.|
|Daniel Tanguay, Vicarious Visions||Simon Strange, Sunstone Games|
|Facilitator: Linda Law, Project Horseshoe|
|download the PDF|
Meaning. It is there for us in the works of the great symphonic composers, works of great literature, or the museum masterpieces of history’s master painters. It abides in the Iliad, The Grapes of Wrath, Maus, and Citizen Kane.
These works reach into our hearts. They move us; they open us.
Apocryphally, we’ve heard the story of the scientist whose deep listen of a Tchaikovsky symphony inspires him to unlock the cure for a dreadful disease. The politician who visits the theatre and is so moved that the next day she issues a historic declaration of peace and reconciliation. Defining meaning as that which has a resonating impact on a deeply personal or global scale, we take it for granted that art can achieve the sublime -- that which inspires great awe -- and thereby be meaningful. But such assumptions about meaning are generally not afforded to games and game designers.
What are the added components of game design and game play that confound player experiences to reach the sublime?
How can designers approach their work with enough intentionality and awareness, and the appropriate tools and collaborations, to create game experiences that offer players meaning and peek at the sublime?
Why Games Struggle with Meaning
Because of the multimedia aspect of games, in a way, integrating and layering on more and more possibilities to achieve the sublime is easier. Sweeping hyper-realistic background art, emotive characters, stirring music, and an epic narrative are tuned expertly to trigger specific emotions in the player based on her choices and input.
But we pinpointed several forces that counteract potential feelings of meaningfulness and achieving the sublime:
Catalog of Meaning
We worked from examples of our own meaningful experiences with games, generated from our reflections and memories, to create a “catalog of meaning” -- elements of games that resonated with many of us. The example games spanned big-budget, atmospheric action titles such Final Fantasy, God of War, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colossus, and Ico; narrative-focused titles such as The Walking Dead, Last of Us, and Heavy Rain; to more deliberately “artsy” games such as Journey, Passage, Dear Esther, Papers, Please, and Gone Home.
The following are three main categories of meaning-making in games, and a number of relevant sub-categories underneath each of them.
The Relatable - Meaning through relationships and relating to others.
The Reflective - Meaning through reflection or reflective states.
The Explorative - Meaning through exploration and experimentation.
The Take-Away: Meaningful Game Design Devices
After cataloging some of the types of meaning, we came up with some preliminary notes on devices that designers can use, in practice, to generate meaningfulness. Many of these techniques are known “obvious” tropes of good game design, and all of them are easier said than done, but we believe that if game-crafters intentionally add the achievement of sublimity as a design goal, more video game meaning will be surfaced, experienced by players, and celebrated.
Clearly there are already moments of tremendous personal and societal meaning that arise for players as a result of games. The aim of this report is to call out meaningful player experience as something to strive for, and to develop more systematic techniques and principles that can lead to more sublimity being derived from and attributed to our chosen art form. We love and embrace inherently “meaningless” games -- games are magical when they are light, distracting, and mindless -- but we also think the creation of more meaningful moments in games could be beneficial for us, our players, and the culture at large.
Rosebud was a sled that the titular character in Citizen Kane remembered fondly as the symbol of his vanished childhood, and was the last word Kane uttered on his deathbed. No one around him knew what he meant by “Rosebud,” because the meaning was inherent to his own personal experience. A unique challenge of game design in contrast to other media is the tremendous extent to which games are by their nature personal experiences, different for every player. As such, we believe that games will ultimately triumph over other media as a means to allow players to cultivate their own “garden of rosebuds,” seeding memories more artfully and consciously without taking away the tremendous power of player agency.
Example Games and other Media
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