Wednesday, September 8, 2010

[Game Design] Why do we play games?

Looking at the question in the title, the short and simple answer would be "To have fun", which leads to the near unanswerable question of "What is fun?". Some may say that it's simply a positive emotion, which can come in the form of Happiness or Excitement. But it doesn't really answer the question that most game designers look for, which is "How to make our games fun?". We can only show, through past observations, history and experience, what is fun.

I sat through a lecture today which presented me with a model that breaks down what makes a game, which we can get a clearer view on what is fun. Whether it really is fun is something we can not, and possibly can never explain, but it paints a clearer picture of it.

This model is basically called the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) model. It's a very 'obvious' model, some of you may already realized it some time in your life while playing games. Well, this is a documented and formal approach, a framework if you will, so that game designers have a easier time understanding their trade and for future game designers to have a easier time picking the trade up. In other words, a guideline.

For those who have examined games before, we know that games are fundamentally made up of Rules and Tools. Rules determine the dimensions and restrictions, as well as the objective(s) of the game. Tools are given to the players to help them achieve the goal, sometimes by even allowing them to break certain rules. Anyway, that is how I view games until today, so if you disagree and want to tell me, by all means email me. MDA model simply elaborated this point and documented it.

Mechanics are basically the Rules and Tools we designers give the players, which was explained above. Dynamics is basically the grouping of some Mechanics. So let's say the player wants to 'Fight'. 'Fight' is a Dynamic that has the Mechanics...say...'Punch' and 'Kick'. Simple enough.

But the most complicated part is the Aesthetics, which is the emotional feedback from the player. This is where we are most interested in, because this is the place where players journey to find 'fun' in your games. The MDA model suggests that the Aesthetics portion breaks down into 8 different kinds of 'fun':
- Sensation (i.e. Pleasure)
- Fantasy (i.e. Roleplaying)
- Narrative (i.e. Storytelling)
- Challenge (i.e. Puzzles)
- Fellowship (i.e. Social Network)
- Discovery (i.e. Exploration)
- Expression (i.e. Self-discovery)
- Submission (i.e. just to pass time)

Looking at those 8, you might realize that it more or less covers what we humans define as 'fun'. From there, we can probably break down deeper into simpler sections like emotions and stuff like that. My lecturer threw me something called the '6-11 model' to replace the Aesthetics part which I won't go too deeply into here. I'll just go through it.

6-11 is short for 6 Emotions, 11 Instincts. Emotions are Fear, Anger, Pride, Sadness, Joy and Excitement. The Instincts are Survival, Identification, Collecting, Greed, Aggressiveness, Competition, Revenge, Protection, Curiosity, Color/Music Appreciation, and Communication.

As you can see, it is really quite an extensive range of emotions and instincts. It's made by my lecturer so kudos to him for trying to create this framework. Basically you loop between an Instinct and an Emotion. Dynamics-Mechanics come in during an Instinct. So let's take Donkey Kong, the first popular platformer game:

This is my definition of Donkey Kong using the 6-11 model and MDA model. It's not accurate; I don't think it's meant to be. After doing it, I realized that there are probably some small holes to be patched in the model. However, it is detailed and to the point, and I guess it is good to know that there is some sort of good guideline to finding out what is 'fun'.

If you tried to use the 6-11 model, you'd realize that it almost exclusively ends up with either of these 3 emotions: 'Joy', 'Excitement' and 'Sadness'. Then we can go on to ask 'If Joy and Excitement is Fun, what is Joy and Excitement?' which brings us back to an endless loop that can never be answered. But, we can infer from the 6-11 model that 'Fun' is the result of positive emotions such as 'Excitement' and 'Joy', which is a mix of the other emotions and instincts depending on the game. From here, we can paint a rather vague but valid formula to 'What is fun?'.

So in the end, we still can't define the meaning of 'Fun', but we do know how did 'fun' come about in various games. Designers still have to discover how to produce the instincts and emotions required in their games. That will be the content/the meat of the game and most important aspect to making it 'fun'. But thanks to these models, it's probably going to be a little easier.

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