Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 03/05/2012

Imagination, player engagement, and (war)gaming

Phil Sabin’s Simulating War Yahoo Group has seen a great deal of stimulating discussion in recent weeks of a range of issues relating to war-game (and, indeed, game) design. I hope to excerpt some of it here on PAXsims from time to time, both to broaden exposure to the discussion and to publicize the group itself.

One of the issues under discussion has been the importance of imagination in gaming. This is not a new issue, of course—a great deal has been written about promoting player engagement. Bill Haggart, however, stated (or restated) it particularly well, so I thought I would reproduce his summary:

There’s been a great deal of study in the area of players’ use of their ‘imagination’ in game play, which also references ‘immersion’, ‘pretending’, ‘suspension-of-disbelief and with many games, ‘acting as if’ the game is real, whether ‘Chutes and Ladders’, risk or Monopoly.

Part of the reason for this interest is that this ‘pretending’ and ‘imagining’ an important part of a game’s entertainment. This is true of movies and reading novels.

It is also true for simulations, in fact it is critical to participatory simulations. They don’t work if the players don’t ‘pretend’, acting as if the wargame is real. When a soldier stands up in an Urban Tactical Laser-Tag exercise to declare the simulated firefight he’s in isn’t real, and they aren’t firing real bullets, or that villages in Afghanistan don’t have umpires following squads down the street, it is true. However, the soldier has ruined the exercise, breaking that ‘fourth wall’ that renders the simulation inoperative. This happens if it is ‘unrealistic’ play or ‘gamesmenship’ in what is a game, but also a simulation.

Some of the things that have been found to enhance a wargame’s ability to support a player’s pretending, things that designers can do, are:

1. Detail

It is easier to pretend it’s reality when there are details from reality to relate to. Whether it is isolated chrome or a complex game, a player’s willingness and ability to immerse themselves in the game when they have details they can relate to the real world. The details of Advanced Squad Leader are an example, even though too much of a good thing, too many bits of chrome and detail wrecks a player’s ability to immerse themselves. Even so, specific details or ‘anchors’ are important.

A designer recently posted an experience where he was playtesting a combat process involving several dice rolls. The playtesters never questioned the process. When he found he could get the same statistical odds for the various results from a single die roll, he jettisoned the detailed combat process. Immediately, the same playtesters felt the results were ‘unrealistic’, even though the actual results of both processes were identical.

2. Representation explanations

Players find it easier to immerse themselves in a game system ‘that makes sense’ to them. This means either the new game is similar to old games, so the representations are already assumed and felt to be known, like the “Command Radius Rule.” Or if the designer has created unfamiliar systems, particularly if it’s attempting to be innovative, designer’s notes, with are important here, particularly identifying the specific reality the rules are meant to mimic. All of us have experienced being ‘popped out’ of that suspension-of-disbelief by rules, player decisions, or game results don’t ‘make sense’ within the world supposedly being represented… or at least the players assume is being represented if they don’t really know.

3. Related Graphics and words… ‘Flavor’

This means anything that is not necessary for playing the game, but enhance the ‘period’ feel of the game. Pictures and illustrations, quotes and sidebars with interesting history, not designer’s notes, as well as the graphics of the pieces fit here. The picture of the leader or soldier on a card or chit also fit here.

4. Role Play

It is easier to become immersed in a game where you ‘represent’ one real person, one decision-maker, rather than thousands as wargamers are asked to in games like GMT’s “Rising Sun.”

5. Flow

A big thing with computer games, this is the challenge level of the system. If a game offers ‘flow’, that means the challenges are not so great to seriously frustrate and discourage the player, but not so easy that the player is bored. Often being in ‘the flow’, that challenging level where a player can be successful with work, but never bored is often called ‘immersion’ though most game designers will recognize ‘Flow’ more often.

6. Control

Games are about player decisions. If the players feel their decisions are scripted, or that they are more a victim of the rules than playing them, it is very hard to become immersed in it. This player control is related to, but not the same as ‘flow.’

7. Play outside the rules

Games that keep on being played are those that provide an arena for covert play, part of that immersion draw. The classic example is Poker. The rules say nothing about bluffing, reading opponents and noting their ‘tells’, and card-counting etc., but those activities have become a major part of ‘the game.’ Diplomacy and Monopoly are games with a wide arena for ‘covert play’, or play outside the
actual rules.’

8. Variety and opportunity for improvement

All games are puzzles to some extent and once they are solved, the game loses a player’s interest AND the ability to provide that immersion. Wargames that allow players to continually find new or better solutions to tactical issues etc. Tick-Tack-Toe is the antithesis of this quality. Take That Hill doesn’t offer much in this quality either, which is why there are so many ‘add ons’.

9. Meaningful Play

This is a wider quality, which can encompass qualities #1-4, but includes what the play represents in learning. What can I learn about the Waterloo Campaign by playing Zucker’s game? What can I learn about everything from geography to tactics, and the original participants? Much of the ‘learning’ that goes on in any wargame happens here and in #10.

10. Narrative or “The Story”

When people, children or adults, pretend, they invariably do it in context, in relation to some situation or drama. For wargames, the story is ‘the battle’ or ‘the campaign.’ So, the game system has to provide actors [players and non-players, challenges and events, whether it is following what happens to that tank when the wall falls on it in Advanced Squad Leader to the Roman Army at Cannae. Players find that wargames that allow them to ‘tell the story’ afterwards more inviting when it comes to pretending.

There are more of these qualities that designers can and do design for, but none of them are ‘magic bullets’. Rather a little here and there as well as a lot of one quality can create a ‘critical mass’ of qualities that provides ‘easy access’ to player immersion and makes players more willing to suspend their disbelief for an afternoon of gaming.

This is a ‘player’ aspect of the game system/player components of successful game/simulation/wargame design. It is fun to design for these things and then see that ‘immersion’, that magic spontaneous combustion happen for players when enough of the above qualities are present.

With thanks to Bill Haggart for permission to repost. 

Picture above: an aircraft-listening horn. Such acoustic location devices were used during WWI, and into even into the 1940s.

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