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Representation matters

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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No, not that kind of representation (see here for that subject). This time we're talking about player representation. Apologies for the clickbait.

corn

In Ch 3 of You Said This Would Be Fun, we talk about the benefits of giving your players a well-defined role within your game's story. And thus by contrast we've talked about how certain genres of games, like nature games (e.g Wingspan, Oceans, etc), civ games (Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, etc) can miss opportunities to engage the players because players are given an ambiguous or counterintuitive sense of who they are.

But I think there's another sense in which player representation matters, namely in the question of who you are relative to your opponents. I've been reading a bit about Mariposas, in which you are butterflies trying to migrate to and from Mexico. (Or are they actually migrating from and to America? Hmm...) It's a bit ambiguous why you are controlling butterflies but the bigger question for me is, in what sense are "my" butterflies differentiable from "your" butterflies? Do butterflies have tribes or clans or factions or teams? I mean, not that we know of. So why are we in competition with each other?

From a design perspective, being unable to come up with a good answer to why we are competing against our opponents may mean that we fail to identify a useful, interesting, or thematically justifiable source of interplayer friction. A better understanding of the boundaries between myself and my opponents can lead to creativity in setting the stage for a dramatic competition between our rival [whatevers].

indigo

Another game that I've recently learned about is First Monday in October, a grand-sweep-of-history game about the Supreme Court. This is a game developed by Jason Matthews and I'm sure it will be good. And again we have a civ-style question of representation, for who are these shadowy entities that have been with us since the dawn of the republic pulling the strings to steer court decisions in whatever way they wish? Would they not have been better off just pushing for congenial legislation?

Moreover we are led to ask, as we did above, who the players are relative to each other. Are there four distinct and discernible alignments that intersect in the cases that come before the Supreme Court? I'm not sure that's entirely historically accurate.

But my actual observation about this game is that it seems to set the player representation at a level that largely misses the point of the theme. What's interesting about landmark rulings isn't the effect that they have on the interests of power brokers, it is the effect that they have on the course of American history. Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, these have had enormous consequences on the country, for good or for ill, and it seems like a game on the subject of the Supreme Court that's just about the rulings with no interest in the subsequent alterations to society that resulted is perhaps missing the point (not that I know how you'd do the latter).

This is not to knock this game, which I've not played and know little about, but rather to say that the possible design lesson is to ensure that in trying to express your setting through the player representation, make sure you don't miss what's important.

A positive example of this is Pit Crew, in which players are, obviously, the pit crews for rival race cars. If the game were a competition of who could remove and replace tires the fastest, etc., it would have missed what is actually important: winning the race. Your work as a pit crew is ultimately in service to the larger goal of helping your car win, and obviously a better crew will have a better race, and luckily that's how the game works.

A negative example comes from a game I quite like, Wallenstein, which, though mechanically very sophisticated, is historically quite dubious. For one thing, players compete to build palaces, churches and trade houses, and, uh, let us just say that building stuff wasn't a preoccupation of any of the combatants of the Thirty Years War. Famine is a problem, and that's historical, but the game ignores the fact that the war was the cause of the famine, with armies stripping towns of their food or torching the fields of their enemies. Thus the game nods in the smallest way to the suffering the war brought about, but ignores the role the participants played in bringing about and perpetuating that suffering, and thus misses the most important historical facts of the conflict.

This doesn't mean that a game can't be narrowly focused, of course. For example, in most mafia games you're the Don, but we could of course have a game where you're the triggerman, or a game where you're a business owner torn between having to pay into the protection racket but wanting to stand up to organized crime. Moreover, while the central historical fact of the Titanic is its sinking, we could imagine a puzzly game where players must compete to assemble the deck chairs in accordance with certain requirement cards, evoking the famous saying; such a game would actually amplify the broader historical point: that what we are doing is ultimately futile because we are on the Titanic.

sugar

Thus we can add two additional lenses to our considerations of player representation:

colonist Who do I represent in the game's world?
colonist Who do I represent relative to my opponents? Why are we at odds or trying to outdo one another?
colonist Who do I represent in the big picture?

The goal of asking these questions of our design is to ensure we're looking for ways to present our players with interesting decisions, but also to clue them in to what they are likely to be doing, what they are likely to be pursuing. If players have a role that has a sensible goal, sensible rival, sensible connection to the big picture, then they'll intuitively understand what they are trying to do, why they're trying to do it, and most likely how they are going to go about doing it. That makes the game easier to learn and gets them into the action all the more expeditiously.
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