2.4.5 Pleasures of Participation
Games provide us with a rich set of participatory conventions and anecdotal design knowledge that we can draw upon when building participatory artifacts. Thinking about games in terms of participatory pleasures is a productive way of thinking about why players do something, how they do it, and how games communicate and motivate this activity. Examining what players do allows us, as designers, to extract, replicate, and mutate the participatory conventions of games.
Below, I’ve inventoried some participatory pleasures of games. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and the items are not mutually exclusive. Many complement one another. My intent is to demonstrate, by example, the usefulness of this analytic technique, and to highlight participatory pleasures that are drawn upon when reviewing examples and discussing Comic Book Dollhouse’s design.
Manipulation. Simple pleasure of agency, being a cause; putting your hand in the water and splashing about; something responds to me; pushing on something and having it move; knocking down a sandcastle to see it fall and the child who made it cry; knowing that I did it.
Problem Solving & Strategizing. Building a mental model of a world and thinking with it. The pleasure of thinking and working within a set of constraints to solve a problem. Imagining what the futures holds, and planning for it. Imagining many possible futures and making flexible plans.
Strategizing requires enough complexity and correspondence between mental and world model to afford short term and long term planning. The Sims, just as in Will Wright’s original concept for the game, can be played tactically. How can you arrange your house to solve various optimization problems for your sims? The simulation is complex enough to surprise you, and the correlation between the player’s mental model and the simulation mechanics is close enough to make long term planning possible. The Sims is interesting and intelligible enough to afford strategizing.
Lonely Time’s simulation does not afford anywhere near the same level of strategizing. You can watch your stamina and money, and think ahead to when you need to trade cash for stamina at the restaurant or bath house, but this strategizing is shallow and not intrinsically related to the search for your cat, romance, or the lush microworld at the center of the game’s interest.
Contest. Overcoming a challenge. Winning and losing. Playing against someone with a different goal.
Mastery. The pleasure of acquiring a new skill; shaping something; being good at something. Familiarity with difficult material. Knowing the rules.
Composition & Construction. The pleasure of building things, a common trope of Will Wright’s work. Wright argues that giving players the opportunity to build things, and affording the creation of unique solutions, generates the satisfaction of creativity and a feeling of empathy in the player:
So I guess what really draws me to interactive entertainment and the thing that I try to keep focused on is enabling the creativity of the player. Giving them a pretty large solution space to solve the problem within the game. So the game represents this problem landscape. Most games have small solution landscapes, so there’s one possible solution and one way to solve it. Other games, the games that tend to be more creative, have a much larger solution space, so you can potentially solve this problem in a way that nobody else has. If you’re building a solution, how large that solution space is gives the player a much stronger feeling of empathy. If they know that what they’ve done is unique to them, they tend to care for it a lot more. I think that’s the direction I tend to come from [63].
SimCity and The Sims combine problem solving and composition. You build things to solve problems, sometimes you build things just to build things, and other times you solve problems in order to build the things you want.
A key participatory pleasure of The Sims and SimCity is compositional. Building a city or house feels like a creative act of composition, since the state space of possible designs is huge, and state accumulates over time. Also, the space of possible designs is dense with interesting results, unlike a paint program. Your household or city is probably unique as a drawing, and returning to the same composition is very compelling, especially since they feel like living, breathing entities. The compositional pleasure also has a high degree of agency associated with it, as the layout and design of your city or household has important effects on the way it behaves.
The Sims is also stimulating as a material to shape stories out of. The Sims Exchange storytellers compose stories out of their games by acquiring skins and objects, designing sets, organizing action, taking snapshots, and narrating the images with text. The album feature of The Sims Exchange seems to have not been intended for this purpose, yet its appropriation for this function is natural.
The degree of dramatic composition that takes place within The Sims game, rather than outside of it through snapshots and narration, is weak. While you do imagine rich stories in your head while playing the game, dramatically the components are not so suggestive.
Lonely Time also has a compositional pleasure. Rich building blocks are available for you to recombine into satisfying scenes, such as moody backgrounds, character actions (sit and think, slide, cry, laugh), and game world responses. This is composition through acting rather than design. The compositions have few consequences, but are satisfying in the same way I imagine authoring stories out of the materials of The Sims to be. Like The Sims, most compositions are interesting, but the space of possible compositions doesn’t feel particularly large.
Exploration. Uncovering a world’s surprises; the process of learning the rules of a world; gaining mastery.
We started making the first Zelda game at the same time as Super Mario Bros. I wanted to create a game in which the player needs to think a lot to solve the mysteries; games before were quite simple and it was easy to figure out what would happen next. It was quite a reckless move on our part, quite a challenge, but it was widely welcomed by the players. – Miyamoto [14]
Reflecting & Watching. Sharing what you made; showing a friend; having your mom or dad hang your picture on the fridge. Watching the model train set go round and round; watching the movement of water.
Communicating. Sharing what you made. Feedback. The pleasure of a good conversation, listening to somebody, or having someone else understand you.
Transforming Identity. The pleasure of taking on a new identity, or putting oneself into flux. Becoming Mario or Link. In Miyamoto’s words,
One of the most important things with the Zelda franchise is that players really must feel that Link is really almost themselves in the game. In that sense, there has to be very natural and fluid interaction between the player and the character.
The general pleasure of transformation, described by Murray as a principle aesthetic of digital media. Transforming identity; worlds in transformation; unstable worlds; potential transformations; play which leads to changed relationships with the actual world.
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