We have now switched to a studio model at SAE. This means the teaching shifts from a lecture & workshop model to one in which students jump straight into creating games from our brief, and we mentor and do lecture & workshop follow-ups based on need. I am running a studio on “Making Meaningful Games,” and one of the things students do in the studios is blog each week about their practice. I said I would do it with them and sooooooo: I will be blogging every week for the next few months! I’ll be blogging like it is 2007! 😀
The first news? AUTHENTIC has won two awards!!!! The Australian Writers’ Guild awarded AUTHENTIC in the “interactive media” category for the 47th Annual AWGIES. AUTHENTIC was described as “category-busting”. I couldn’t be at the ceremony, and so I did my first pre-recorded award acceptance speech! Although there were no other nominees, I do know there were other submissions. More on this in a moment. The second award for AUTHENTIC was in the “Digital Narrative” category for the 2014 Western Australia Premier’s Book Awards.
AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS is transmedia storytelling at its finest, borrowing the best of existing narrative techniques across a range of media, harnessing these to tell a compelling story about mortality and materiality in a playful but meaningful manner. AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS is held together by a luscious audio story, not dissimilar to radio plays in their heyday, but now updated with interactive pathways, bespoke online locales and a series of beautifully designed interactive web pages.
(thankyou for the photo Tama!)
I was able to be at this ceremony and I had a ball! It was a thrill being driven around and toasted, and hanging with fellow award-winners. I also thanked the Premier and the Library for having this category, the only in a literary award in Australia. Afterwards when I was having my photo taken with the Premier he asked what digital narrative is. So if the category is suddenly removed it is because of me. I hope not, it is a wonderful thing for us.
There are a couple of things I have learned from the award experience. Firstly, I now know that winners in most cases find out before the ceremony. I didn’t know this before and so when I submitted to the ADG’s award and didn’t hear anything I thought maybe I was in with a chance. Like the AWG I won, they had only one nominee and announced it on the night. So if you didn’t win you not only find out you didn’t win, but also that you didn’t even score a nomination. Both at the same time. It is a pretty crap feeling. I wish there was a different system. Indeed I did contact the ADG and suggest they let the unsuccessful nominees know. But I guess that just sounds silly in retrospect. So for those of you that submitted to the AWG Awards – I know how it feels.
Secondly, I didn’t know what to do when I had found out about winning the awards. I didn’t feel like an award-winner (I submitted hoping for a nomination). There are things I would like to change in the project. Not just things that you learn over time post the project. But things that I knew at the time I needed to change but I didn’t have the budget for. At the same time, I also have people who experienced AUTHENTIC that send me emails about how much they love it. So I can’t deny their experience. In the end I have accepted the awards as a gift for all the work I have done, and I celebrate it because it means the crazy work of digital storytelling risk-takers is not always a lonely beacon.
While in Perth for the WA Premier’s Award ceremony, I gave a workshop on “Making Meaningful Games” for the Film and Television Institute there. Kate Raynes-Goldie invited me and it was a delight. Among the great people I was able to meet in person finally, such as Anthony Sweet and Wesley Lamont, was Will Kirk. Will has started a gaming news site called GameCloud. He dedicates lots of time to writing articles about the local scene and beyond for no financial compensation. He is also really keen to understand more about the process of making games, to make him a better game reviewer and critic. Will shared his experience of my workshop: “Designing Deep Games with Christy Dena”.
On the weekend I was lucky to help out as a co-game-master for a Megagame being run in Brisbane. Megagames are live games that run a full day. They’re designed by a UK group of designers and privilege strategy and some role-play. I was so excited when I saw the ShutUp and SitDown video about the event (see below), and have been hanging out to play one. It was a fascinating day – playing non-stop for 7 hours straight. I think I would prefer to play than game-master though, as there is so much running around and calculations going on. Although writing my own is the really exciting path…
I have also been watching and discussing the crazy events that have been taking place in the gaming world these past few weeks. I have been watching for a while how different women respond to feminism and shaken my head at the anti-feminism movement. At the same time, I have also looked back at my own behaviour in the past and seen how I have done damage myself too. Specifically, one event sticks in my mind because I actively took a role: the StoryWorld Advisory Board complaint. Writer Andrea Phillips bravely put forward that the board for StoryWorld was sexist. I was the only female on the board and so I felt it my duty to say something. Although I was not intending to reduce the seriousness of sexism, I did with my response.
I posted about how everyone agrees there is sexism. I now know this isn’t true, as some are still blind to it, and some deny it’s existence for various reasons. I also said that some of the criticisms about the board list were veiled criticisms of the people, rather than sexism. That I believe is still true. I then also said that I was concerned about the focus on Alison. This is also something I regret as I feel I jumped to her defence too quickly. I should have let her and others feel the depth of the experience. And further, I don’t think she did learn from the experience in the way I had hoped at the time. I am a supporter of Alison and she has a special place in my life as I mentored her many, many years ago. But I don’t think she understood the impact of having all-male boards – considering the following year no women were added to the board. I criticised women for messaging Andrea privately rather than speaking publicly. Doh! Of course they did, as there are many unreasonable repercussions of going public. I also encouraged more women to step up and take on directing positions etc. While I still want to see this more, it wasn’t appropriate to put such remarks in the middle of a discussion about sexism. There wasn’t an all male board because women don’t bother to step up. I think my post had a silencing effect, which is harmful and not helpful.
So I see how I have done things that didn’t help feminism. Indeed, if men are the majority of people agreeing with you then you may want to check your internalised sexism. So I apologise for the harm I did back then, and have a bit more understanding of how early feminists can do more harm than good.
My last comment is a weird but perhaps helpful discovery. For the last few months I have noticed that I can easily fall asleep on my couch, but then when I go to bed I toss and turn in eternal awakeness. I searched the Net to figure out why and found the answer. I have been scrolling through social media in the morning to wake myself up. Once I’m awake I jump out of bed. I jump on the couch, however, usually when I’m exhausted and want to flake watching a movie or something. So I have trained my body to sleep on the couch and wake up in bed. Knowing this, I reprogrammed myself by getting out of bed as soon as my alarm goes off and scrolling through social media on my couch. Now my mind knows bed is for sleep. It has worked. My pleasure.
Earlier this year, I was lucky to be invited to give a talk at the 2014 ARGFest-o-Con in Portland. They said I could talk about anything I like, and so I was keen to discuss a problem I was having. There isn’t a budget allowance for travel from Australia though, and so I couldn’t take up the wonderful offer. I’m gutted because not only do I miss out on catching up with so many friends, I also miss out on pestering Mike Selinker about my card game! But anyway, I did let the organisers know that I would share my talk in another form. Here it is.
For a few years I’ve had a problem with some videogames. It is a problem that has even sometimes made me rage quit very early in games I wanted to spend time with, games I wanted to love. I have spoken about my frustrations with players and devs and educators alike, and their response is always: “you just want more agency in games.” While their explanation appeared to nail what is going on, it never felt satisfactory. So, for the last few months I have been searching for an answer, and guess what? I found it. In this post I’ll describe my problem with (some) videogames, how I figured out the nature of the problem, and what it means.
Exhibit A: Bioshock. I want to love Bioshock, but my experience of it is a relentless negating of my way of play. I am one of those people that can slip into “flow” or an immersed state very quickly. But I can be whipped out of it just as quickly too. At the beginning of the game, when I suddenly found myself struggling underwater, ploughing to the surface of a deep dark ocean, I was scared. I was scared to move. Deep ocean? Deep water? Sharks. I was terrified there would be sharks in the water. But I realised the only thing I was able to do was swim to shore. I had loudly splash in the water and therefore (according to movies and documentaries) attract sharks.
Then I found myself in a pod/elevator that took me below the surface underground. I land to find a terrified person trying to get away from a demented killer. I want to hide, but I don’t have anywhere to hide. I am exposed by a window, stuck watching and waiting to see if the killer will get to me. I can’t do anything but watch and wait. Then the killer leaves and within a second the radio/intercom starts. I want it to be quiet because I’m scared the killer is nearby, but I can’t do anything to stop it. The voice tells me he aims to keep me alive, and tells me to get moving. I am forced to leave the pod to where not even 30 seconds before the deranged killer with a sythe-like blade had slaughtered someone and taunted me by scratching the roof of my pod. I was terrified, but the radio voice told me to keep moving, that I had to trust him.
I had to trust him. I had to put all my feelings about the situation I was in aside and just do what I was told. I wasn’t allowed to be scared even though I had been put in situations that should make me scared. I keep moving and suddenly the killer is in front of me yelling. My radio companion, “Atlas,” arranges an attack and defends me. The killer, a “Splicer,” is gone. I keep moving and I am guided to pick up a tool to arm myself with. I am guided to pound through rocks and wood, making a noise that will attract what evil is around. I go through because that is where I’m meant to go, but I am met with a piece of burning furniture tumbling down towards me. I hear music and I run towards it because it is obviously where I have to go. I’m scared because the music will attract others too, but I’m learning that I must trust him and so I keep going. I inject what it seems I must and then I’m thrown off the balcony and have to lie there while killers poke at me and a large creature thumps past. They all leave me alone and when I come to it is clear I can move, but I don’t know how far away these enemies are. It doesn’t seem I’m meant to care either, because Atlas will let me know what I’m meant to do and when. I’m not meant to think. I’m a silent benign terrified person in a bad dream where all I can do is what I’m told. I’m not allowed to act on my feelings. I can’t hide. I can’t be terrified. I can’t avoid enemies. I’m not allowed to feel any of the things this game is so trying hard to get me to feel. There is a grating discontinuity between my character state, my state in the game world, and my state as a player. I’m not supposed to react as if I’m experiencing what is happening in the game world.
Skip a few years to Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, exhibit B. In this game I have the same experience. I find myself hanging upside down and have to swing myself free. I fall to the ground towards a pointed stick that ruptures my side. I’m taught to press a button to pull it from me. This is good. But then I have to walk into a narrow rocky corridor towards an area with an unconscious woman tied by her hands and feet. I want to help but there is no way I can. I also don’t want to make a noise. I have to go through there though, as there is no where else I can. There is so much around me but the room is leading me towards an area with a torch. The game tells me to get the torch. I don’t know why I need the torch, but I do. I use it to move into the next area because there is no where else to go, and I have a torch and it tells me I can use it to burn through. Indeed, within minutes of coming conscious and finding myself hanging upside down tied like a meal, and stumbling past a woman tied up, I am taught a feature called “survival instincts”. This doesn’t mean I do whatever I need to do survive. It means the game will give me what I need to survive the game. By pressing the button on my controller the pertinent objects in the room will be highlighted for me. This isn’t about my survival on this island or the place I’m in. It is about how the game communicates to me, the player.
I move through to the next area because that is the only place I can go. I kneel down to crawl through a space and suddenly out of no-where I am attacked from behind. It takes me a couple of tries before I successfully kick him away and a rock collapses to safely separate us. I continue, and end up walking through water up to my face. But I know I won’t drown because the game won’t let me. Then I’m through in another area. I don’t bother to look around because I know no-one will come unless the game wants them too, and I’m learning the game doesn’t want them to do that right now. Instead, I am shown the survival instincts view. It is the only way to figure out what I must do, because it is a room full of objects and levels and hidden objects and puzzles I must complete in a certain order. I’m not thinking about my attacker or where I am, or whether there is enough air, or whether I should have saved that girl. I’m thinking about the glowing puzzle in front of me.
This continues until I reach a certain point in the game, not too far along. I’m told I’m hungry, I’m shown a bow to find, and then I’m told to kill a deer. I’m immediately excited. In a split second I think: “Right! I need to hunt deer! How do I hunt deer?! Where would deer be? Do I…?” But I stop. I stop because I know the game doesn’t want me to figure out how to hunt for deer. The game wants me to follow the clues it is giving me to hunt deer. There is nothing around me answering my thoughts about how to hunt a deer. Instead, I’m given a path to follow. Don’t think. Go this way. You’re not really hunting deer, you’re learning how to follow the design of this game. The camera is angled to show you the path we’ve highlighted with light and landscaping. This is how you hunt deer, this is how you achieve your task, by following the game cues. I run down the path and I’m gone. I’m no longer in the world. I am a gamer playing a game. I’m taking cues from a designer and enacting them with my controller. I’m not in the forest, I’m on my couch in front of the TV with the controller in my hand. It is loud, my neighbours upstairs are loud. I’ve been sitting in this position for a while. I’m out.
This is my experience of some 3D games, especially some AAA ones. I want to love them, but so often they force a switch inside me to be turned off. It really feels like a switch. Like when you find yourself in the zone, staring in a trance, and then you suddenly come out of it. I like to play games as if I’m there. But the designers don’t want me too. They’re pretending quite richly with all their art and diegetic sound design and narrative design that they do, but they don’t. They want me play their game, not be in their world. So I continue playing, but I’m no longer playing in the world. I’m playing in a matrix. I’m playing with a system and I’m ignoring that narrative wrapper.
So what is the problem? Do you know what the problem is? Some of you do. Some of you think you do. I didn’t know for a while, and neither did anyone I spoke to about it. I thought maybe I didn’t understand what these games are about. Maybe I should just chill and enjoy merely interacting with a system. I mean, this is what games are: a system. I thought perhaps I’m too story-oriented to appreciate these games? And what does that even mean? Perhaps I’m expecting too much? Others tell me I’m frustrated because I want to do whatever I want in games — and we all do — but it isn’t technically possible to do what we want in games. It isn’t possible to design a mission so that whatever way a player wants to hunt deer is possible. That would send the budget and production time skyrocketing. It isn’t possible to do everything a player wants. These are the responses I’ve had from people I speak too about this problem. These are the thoughts I have had about the situation. But they aren’t it.
The thing I came back to was my experience with pervasive games. Those games set in the actual world — on websites, social media, newspaper, in your street. Is my frustration because I’m corrupted by my background designing and playing pervasive games? In pervasive games I could actually pick up a bow. I could actually be crawling through the cave. Is the problem that I want the seamlessness of mission play and can’t get it in some 3D games? So I played with that idea. What is the difference in how the missions would be designed and experienced in a pervasive game versus a 3D digital game?
Game Competency First I want to start with a key difference in the experience of these types of games. A difference is at the “input” level, or specifically, the “interaction semantics”. A helpful essay on this topic is ‘Game Play Schemas: From Player Analysis to Adaptive Game Mechanics‘ by Craig A. Lindley and Charlotte C. Sennersten. In their paper they explain how gameplay competency can be determined by three factors:
Learning how to play can therefore be divided into three phases: (1) learning interaction mechanics, that is, the basic motor operations required to operate, for example, a keyboard and mouse in a largely unconscious way; (2) learning interaction semantics, that is, the simple associative mappings from keyboard and mouse operations to in-game actions (and meta-game actions, such as setting play options, or loading and saving game states); and (3) learning game play competence, that is, how to select and perform in-game actions in the context of a current game state in a way that supports progress within a game.
Interaction semantics, they continue, “represent a basic level of competence in playing a particular game.” These are understood as the mappings that are needed to connect the interaction mechanics (tapping a keyboard, or shifting a controller stick) with the in game action. For example: using the “w,” “a,” “s,” and “d” keys to move a player character forwards, left, backwards and right.
In pervasive games, the fictional world we create overlaps with the player’s world. We therefore can use any media that exists in the player’s world. You don’t need to a console to access the world, because ‘the world’ of a pervasive game includes the player’s. You could include a console game in a pervasive experience, but it would be a console game in the world as opposed to a world that begins and ends on the screen. Characters use the same email providers that players do. Characters use social media like players do. Characters eat at the same cafe as players do. This means there are no special interaction semantics. The keys and mouse you use to send an email or browse online are exactly the actions you execute in the game. There isn’t an extra layer of abstraction. If you want to run to a character, you actually run to a character. No QWOP needed.
What this means is that in pervasive games we rarely construct a special physical environment. We use existing environments such as streets and homes and online spaces. In 3D games, level designers construct an environment based on the gameplay needs and the fictional setting deemed by the designers. In pervasive games we don’t have total control over the environment. So how do we design our missions? How do we lead a player through our world, through the world we want them to be in? We either:
Create a mission or puzzle in response to the existing environment (whether it is in the streets or inside, or on the web); or,
We tweak the environment where we can, so it corresponds with the mission or puzzle we’ve created based on the existing environment.
Architectual Design and Videogames How are people guided through spaces? The majority of literature of this topic centers around architecture and theme park design. Indeed, for years I have drawn on concepts like “wayfinding” to understand key universal principles of navigation:
Whether navigation a college campus, or the wilds of a forest, or a Web site, the basic process of wayfinding involves the same four stages: Orientation, Route Decision, Route Monitoring, and Destination Recognition. (p260, Universal Principles of Design)
This confused me though. Of course we need these markers in games. How else can we guide the player to where we want them to go? Do I not want markers? Is that my problem? No. It isn’t that. We have these markers in pervasive games. But the more I looked again at spatial design and navigation the more I realised a pattern. They all talked about driving navigation purely by external visual (and sometimes aural) cues.
Level Design & Extrinsically-Motivated Navigation I flick through level design books and discover all provide extensive (and necessary) lessons on guiding a player through spaces using external cues. Indeed, primarily influenced by architecture and theme park design, level designers use techniques to guide a player: landscaping, Weenies, lighting effects, camera angles, and sounds. You want a player to go in a certain direction? You create one path for them to go there. Or you create one obvious path, or lots of inhospitable or difficult obstacles around. Other ways to accentuate important areas include: moving geometry like machinery, flickering lights, broken flickering lights, steam, flags or banners blowing in the wind (p77-78, The Hows and Whys of Level Design).
Important objects and paths in the level should attract the player. Use composition to guide their eyes toward these places. Don’t allow the players to hunt for them. Unless required by design, the risk that a player will miss an important object should be avoided. Players in multiplayer games get very frustrated if they run down the wrong corridor while being chased simply because the real exit was ‘hidden’ from them by bad composition. Even in singleplayer it can be quite frustrating for players to walk around for hours looking for the one little item they need for a quest. (p76, The Hows and Whys of Level Design)
It doesn’t matter if the level is on rails , a garden path, open staged or or a sandbox (Steve Engels), these attraction cues are all utilised. These activities are also used in pervasive games. Of course we use signs in some way. We help players orientate themselves. We use techniques to highlight areas of interest. But there is something missing from the discussion. So I approached colleagues in the larping world, and tried to explain the difference:
Imagine for you’re navigating yourself through Disneyland, keen to get to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. In one universe there are signs that point to the Pirates ride, signs that are in old wood with olde ye font. In another universe there are gold pieces on the ground, signs to the nearest Inn, signs for sails repairs, raucous laughter, music, and the occasional gun shot. Each of these paths would feel different to navigate. This is the difference I’m exploring here.
Indeed, I thought maybe this is about character-navigation. You’re navigation from the character perspective. But that isn’t always the case. In the end I provisionally described it as internally-motivated navigation, and sent another call out for related readings.
Looking for Internally-Motivated Navigation I looked at works that seem to be about this internally-driven navigation of space: Michel de Certeau’s ‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life [PDF], Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space [PDF]; Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project [PDF], John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. I jumped from flâneurs to the larp movement to (with the help of Johanna MacDonald) Laban drives (link, link) — all in the hope of finding design techniques relating to internal motivation. I remembered my theatre experiences and thought maybe that relates to my type of play.
These works are all about internally-driven movement, but specifically about a free-movement, where you walk (or run) where you please and with a particular way of seeing. This is related, but doesn’t explain exactly what I’m talking about. A common thread in these works, however, is that it is about being present in the moment…in the world…in the streets. I look around to the rise of digital exploration games, and see a similar trend. Indeed, I don’t think the growing attraction to open world games, experiential games, and thin play is coincidental. These are parallel phenomena that speak of an urge for a different kind of experience: one of being present in the (digital) world. But these types of experiences are often couched in phrases such as agency or choice that an open world games affords, such as the “exploring freedom in World of Warcraft.”
There are many reasons for the attraction to these types of experiences (both as designers and players), including having an alternative to the magical dad stories of first-person shooters, and the reflection a “walking simulator” affords. Indeed, there are more and more of these sorts of games, or “first person exploration games, ” “first person adventure,” “story exploration games,” “a game of audio-visual exploration,” “non-combative exploration games,” or “not games,” or whatever. There are well known ones such as Gone Home, Dear Esther, Proteus, Bientôt l’Été, as well as ones more recent or in development such as Ether One, Dream, Sunset, Firewatch, Virginia, and HomeMake, and Hohokum.
“Players have been realizing that these are legitimate experiences,” he explains. “An experience entirely predicated on discovery or surprise. If you get rid of everything else, you could still have that one emotion and that would be a game. We’re getting more in that direction, and I hope that more and more experiences are considered valid.” (Davey Wreden, IGN)
It isn’t as if exploration is ignored in conventional videogame and theme park design though. For instance, Scott Rogers talks about enabling exploration by creating subpaths or alternate paths that people discover that get them to the main attractions. But this way of navigating space is different. It isn’t just about exploring space either. Most of the internally-driven movement I found though, was about exploring or viewing space differently. There is something else. Then I found it.
Here it is: “Top-down Attention Design” In my research meandering I came across a research paper by Magy Seif El-Nasr and Su Yan. The paper, “Visual Attention in 3D Games,” [PDF] documents an experiment with players of videogames. The experiment investigated the difference between “bottom-up” and “top-down” visual attention. I’ll just quickly draw on another research article (“Bottom-up and top-down are independent“), to explain the differences between them (and show the extent of the field of research):
[C]urrently, two types of attention are commonly distinguished in the literature: bottom-up and top-down attention, or stimulus-driven and goal-oriented attention (Carrasco, 2011; Corbetta & Shulman, 2002; Desimone & Duncan, 1995; Kastner & Ungerleider, 2000). Top-down attention refers to the voluntary allocation of attention to certain features, objects, or regions in space. For instance, a subject can decide to attend to a small region of space in the upper-left corner or to all red items. Both cases are examples of top-down attention, the first of top-down spatial attention, the latter of top-down feature attention (Beauchamp, Cox, & Deyoe, 1997; Bressler, Tang, Sylvester, Shulman, & Corbetta, 2008; Giesbrecht, Woldorff, Song, & Mangun, 2003). On the other hand, attention is not only voluntarily directed. Salient stimuli can attract attention, even though the subject had no intentions to attend to these stimuli (Schreij, Owens, & Theeuwes, 2008; Theeuwes, 1991, 1992). For instance, if a subject is engaged in a conversation, but a loud bang occurs, this bang may attract attention. Or, in the visual domain, someone may be looking for red items, but an unexpected, sudden appearance of a nonred object may inadvertently draw the attention of the subject.
So “bottom-up” or “stimulus-driven” attention describes what all those architecture and wayfinding and digital level design books are about. How to get people to move through a space using a variety of visual and aural cues. But there is another type of attention too. This “top-down” or “goal-oriented” attention is about where a person intentionally puts their intention. Indeed, A. L. Yarbus’s pivotal study, Eye Movements and Vision [PDF], outlines the differences in how people look at stationary imagery based on what they’re looking for:
With this background in mind, we can see what El-Nasr’s study was trying to find in in digital games. Their study wanted to find out (among other things), if different game genres stimulate different visual attention patterns (bottom-up or top-down). They had a small pool (6 participants), but they included “novice,” “casual,” and “core” gamers. Of interest to me is this: they found action-adventure games, such as Legacy of Kain Blood Omen II, “are highly goal oriented and so top-down visual features control players’ attention more than bottom-up visual features.” Here is an example of what they observed:
(“Figure 5” from “Visual Attention in 3D Games”)
In one segment of Legacy of Kain Blood Omen II, the player found himself trapped and attempted to find an exit. All the participants in our experiment first paid attention to doors, no matter if the door was opened or closed. They tried the doors; then they shifted their attention to something that looks like an exit, e.g. the fireplace. Figure 5 shows the scene where the bright wall is the right exit point. The designer intended the wall to be noticeable, hence gave it a very bright color. However, only one subject from the six subjects noticed the wall in first sight. This incident happened around three times within the ten minute segment of the interaction. In the second and third incident, only two out of the six subjects noticed the wall. Most players after several trials were able to finally grasp that the wall was the object presenting an exit. However, the brightness and color did not impact this decision for the participants.
There it is. This is my experience in some videogames … and I’m obviously not the only one. Now, before you lift your finger to make a point about the number of participants in the study, or argue that designers cannot put things where players expect them to make things a bit harder, know that you don’t need a huge petition to see this approach as beneficial and improving the gameplay experience. Indeed, in this popular talk at GDC (that I only just stumbled upon again when doing this research), game designer Richard Lemarchand tackles this idea: “Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way” [video, slides]. He argues that attention, “in the way psychologists talk about attention, is very important when discussing the core of a good videogame experience, but it rarely gets discussed by designers here at GDC.” Lemarchand describes attention in general and how it works, and he also points specifically to “top-down” or “goal-driven” attention, using the terms “executive” or “voluntary” attention. He continues, explaining that this kind of attention is underutilised in mainstream gaming:
Now the whole spectrum of executive functioning, where we make choices and take actions, is right at the heart of our craft as videogame developers. This is what we’re talking about whenever we talk about agency. But it seems that we rarely talk about what the player is choosing to pay attention to. I wonder if that is because our executive attention is is kind of out-of-sight out-of-mind. In any case, I think we shouldn’t forget that the players of the games that we design have a freedom and a capacity to express themselves simply by choosing what to pay attention to next, before they even take an action. And I don’t know that the mainstream of videogames often take advantage of this in a thoughtful way; and I’ll admit to often being guilty as a character action game designer of thinking of the player as pretty reflexive, running from one shiny thing to the next that we’ve placed in their path.
Most games offer some kind of extrinsic reward separate from the experience of play itself, be this in the familiar forms of points, upgrades or unlocks. For Journey, Dear Esther and Proteus, exploring becomes a reward in and of itself. It’s an intrinsic, emotional pleasure that blockbuster games rarely attempt to capture but sometimes stumble across by accident, or introduce small moments of.
We know intrinsic motivation is more effective. And now I know thwarting intrinsic motivation is what breaks immersion for me. But what does ‘immersion’ mean in this case, and what does all of this have to do with pervasive gaming?
Goal-Driven Attention, Pervasive Game Design, and Immersion At the beginning of his talk, Lemarchand reveals his aversion to the term ‘immersion’. He quite rightly criticises the inference that technology that surrounds our eyes and body is not automatically immersive, but he goes even further to say that the term immersion is vague and the ideal is not desirable in games:
If I could reach into your mind, make you forget who you are, while leaving all your skills and emotions intact and have you literally believe that you were Nathan Drake, hanging out the back of a cargo plane with a desert floor a quarter of a mile below you and a bunch of gun-wielding enemies up above you. You probably wouldn’t be excited and entertained in the way that everyone at Naughty Dog hopes for, for the players of our games. In fact, you’d almost certainly be scared shitless.
Lemarchand continues, arguing that it is more effective to think about how “videogames en-trance us by getting our attention, and then they give us what we call a compelling experience by holding our attention.” So for me then, stimulus-driven design that conflicts with goal-driven design is what stops a game holding my attention. It stops the game holding my attention, though, because I am being forced to interact with the designer’s system rather than the world. This is where I think dismissing immersion in the sense of a player ‘feeling scared shitless’ can miss a key aspect of the goal-driven experience.
Indeed, it isn’t as if most level design ignore this kind of approach. I can see glimpses of it in discussions about “player investment” and “believability and consistency” in Ed Byrne’s Game Level Design:
How will players truly believe that they are in a real space when they are always, to some degree, aware of being in their living room holding a controller and simply watching events play out on TV? Well, really it’s no different than someone getting “lost” in a book or at a movie theatre and forgetting where he is in the real world. They are invested in the experience, and the events unfolding before them. (p288, original emphasis)
So what do I mean when I feel immersed? What I’m specifically thinking about the psychology and narratology term “transportation”. They way I have understood my experience of it, is to bring together a couple of concepts. I draw on theories from literary communication (as in text), but they describe my conceptualisation of transportation in any medium. These concepts are snatched liberally from my PhD discussion about ARGs.
A fictional world is not just the sum off all the words, images, and sounds read, heard or seen. A fictional world is the combination of what is seen or heard in the game and and my interpretations of them. I construct in my head a mental model of the world (Doležel, 203), and I determine “how the actions and events recounted relate to what might have happened in the past, what could be happening (alternately) in the present, and what may yet happen as a result of what already has come about” (Herman, 14).
Deixis is “a psycholinguistic term for those aspects of meaning associated with self-world orientation” (Galbraith, 21). But it was psychologist and semiotician Karl Bühler that developed the notion in relation to narrative, and refined the definition to include
three orientational axes: here, now and I. Fundamentally, these notations help orientate the reader with the place, time and person that is speaking in the fictional world. It is based on the assumption that “[r]eaders and writers of narratives sometimes imagine themselves to be in a world that is not literally present” (Segal, 14). “They interpret narrative text as if they were experiencing it from a position within the world of the narrative” (ibid.).
Cognitive scientist Erwin M. Segal argues that “two worlds [are] relevant to the experience of narrative: the reader’s world and the story world” (Segal, 73). “In fictional narrative,” he continues, “these two worlds are deictically independent of each other” (ibid., 73). The “deictic center” refers to the center of the “story world” (a fictional world), “a center in space, time and character from which events are depicted” (Zubin and Hewitt, 131). A “deictic shift” refers to the recentering that occurs when an interpreter relocates conceptually to the space and time coordinates of the fictional world.
Because the real world and fictional story worlds are deictically independent of each other, a reader cannot move from one world to the other. The magic of fiction is that a person, in the blink of an eye, can shift from being cognitively in one world to being cognitively in another. We do not doubt that readers can shift their deictic center to a spacetime location within the story world. It is a cognitive move that is analogous to everyday phenomenal experiences such as dreaming, daydreaming, and playing games with imaginary objects and people. […] We just need to identify some of the cues that guide this move. (Segal, 73)
As Herman explains, a deictic shift involves a storyteller prompting “his or her interlocutors to relocate from the here and now of the current interaction to the alternative space-time coordinates of the storyworld” (Herman, 271). That prompting, those cues, includes all of those signs that facilitate a “conceptual leap” from “the real world to a story world,” a deictic shift (Segal, 73). It is a physical impossibility to move from the “real world” to a “story world” and we do so conceptually, as directed by cues. A successful deictic shift facilitates the “illusion of experiencing the fictional world directly, because we unconsciously adopt the deixis of the DC [deictic center] as our own” (Zubin and Hewitt, 131).
As you would have seen in my descriptions of playing Bioshock and Tomb Raider, the games did trigger a successful deictic shift to the fictional world. I was feeling and wanting to make decisions based on my state IN the game. But the use of stimulus-driven attention cues that conflicted with my goal-directed/intrinsically-motivated attention broke the shift. It thwarted the deictic-shift, and therefore my transportation or involvement. I stopped paying attention. But even ‘attention’ now seems a way of describing what I’m doing from the outside?
I wanted to interact with the world from within it, not from the controller on the couch or keyboard at the desk. I’m not talking here about having no controller. I’m talking about my mental position. I believe that ignoring goal-driven design forces people to orientate themselves as a player interacting with a game — with a series of signs from the designer — rather than the world. There are plenty that love this approach. Indeed, it is the dominant mode and it what many believe is the identifying factor of a game. But I believe a goal-driven emphasis and its ability to promote transportation is a play style that could be facilitated for more benefits than cons. It also doesn’t negate stimulus-driven design either as those players who prefer that style may never be aware of a different way of approaching the experience.
But how does this relate to pervasive gaming? I think that because of the heavy use of existing environments, pervasive game designers naturally mix goal-driven and stimulus-driven attention design (with an emphasis on the former); whereas because of the use of specially-constructed environments, videogame designers primarily work with stimulus-driven attention design. If you have to create puzzles and channel activity within environments you have little control over, then you have to motivate and direct movement through pointing the player’s minds towards cues you co-opt, rather than design overt directions.
What does all this mean? I think this playing style — where I’m projecting myself into the world and making decisions based on my place in the world — is the sort of playing style players and developers alike would actually like to see more of. The talks and research I have cited, as well as the parallel phenomena of exploration games, and pervasive games, show an attraction to this style. Is it more expensive? Not really. For the cost of a little bit more, a wider or more satisfied player base could make up for it. But how could it work? Some quick thoughts. In the Bioshock opening scene I mentioned earlier, think about what the goals of the character would be in that situation. Decide on key goals and integrate them into the gameplay. For instance, give me the option to swim slowly (to avoid attracting sharks) or swim fast and splash around (to attract sharks or simply get to the goal faster). Give me the option to turn the light off in the pod/elevator (and then perhaps ending up attracting the Splicer’s attention). Give me the option to turn the radio down a bit. Give me the option to be there. Yes, Bioshock was about questioning our agency. But I wanted to spend time in the world, not in a meta conversation with the designer. Give me the option to be there, and this approach will bring us closer to the holodeck than any wraparound technology. It involves throwing controllers and gadgets and all those levels of abstraction away and letting us get straight to the scene. It isn’t about the tech, it is about whether we can move through an imagined world, not navigate signs in a game.
For me, I now understand why the design of some 3D games doesn’t work for me, and what can be done about it. Indeed, I now understand why some level designers rely heavily on stimulus-design, and I understand what that means now. I also think that my experience is an example of what happens to videogames when more people enter from different backgrounds. My hope is that more videogame designers think about an overlap of stimulus-driven and goal-oriented cues, and even the triggers to involvement and/or holding attention. I hope that more design cues are not just things we have to blindly follow, but that designers think about why we want to do things in your world. I’d love more games that care as much about the whyfinding experience of players as much as the wayfinding experience.
[A big thank you to everyone who talked through this with me, and gave recommendations.]
One of the hardest things to do with interactive plots is to write it so it makes sense in whatever order the player or user accesses the text. Plot is about cause and effect, and so having lots of possible points-of-entry is hard to design for. I just read a short piece by game designer Eric Zimmerman on a graduate school experiment he did years ago, where he explains how he tackled the problem.
“Life in the Garden” is an “interactive paper book” — box set of cards with text and images. You shuffle them in any order and reading them produces a coherent narrative. In the essay he wrote for Second Person [PDF], Zimmerman describes the strategies he used:
The garden of Eden is a set of characters, situations, themes, and ideas that are incredibly pregnant with meanings and possible interpretation. Members of the cast (Eve, God, Adam, the serpent, and the occasional anonymous angel) can be invoked without resorting to backstory exposition. By writing into a story-world that already exists, I take advantage of the reader’s presumed knowledge of that world, and the personal meanings that the reader brings.
Creating the text for Life in the Garden was part story-writing part building-block design. Like a set of LEGO bricks, the pages are modular, and must work well in any configuration. Any individual page needs to be able to function as a first page, as an ending page, or as something in the middle. At the same time, the content of the pages must add up to an expressive and varied experience.
Part of the “sense” of a Life in the Garden story results from a limited number of content themes that are repeated often. Sleeping and dreaming, the time-based processes of nature and their inevitable decay, and the mythologized origin of writing and naming occur throughout the pages. Chances are that in any given story, themes mentioned on some of the pages will overlap.
The pages are a set of ingredients for a procedural stew, and the parts had to be balanced to result in a properly variegated texture each time. My playtesting process resulted in a very specific ratio of “short” one-line pages, “medium” pages with two or three lines, and “long” pages of several lines. Themes and content were also parsed carefully into the mix. For example, by only including a handful of genuinely perverse incidents (such as the serpent crawling up Adam’s anus) these pages retain their pleasurable surprise, even upon repeat reading.