Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Game Elements in Non-Game Applications

The cover story of Communications of the ACM is on the use of game elements in non-game software applications. It's an interesting issue, but it feels to me that they're taking a fairly narrow view of what constitutes a "game element." The introduction to the section claims that games are engaging because they provide realistic 3D worlds. Well... certainly, realistic 3D worlds are pretty cool, but there are plenty of games that are not simulations, do not provide a 3D experience, and yet are extremely engaging.

What are some more basic ingredients of game design? Not every game has all of them, and the list doesn't span every design, but it still represents a useful toolkit of application properties that both make games engaging and are missing from standard (non-game) software applications.

Conflict. Games, like movies, are about conflict. You, as the game player, are a protagonist, which means that you have a goal to pursue. A nemesis is responsible for blocking your progress towards that goal. This is a more general idea than it might appear: in Tetris, your goal is to keep the well clear, and the blocks are the nemeses. Not quite on the level of Darth Vader, but still. (The flip side is the presence of in-game helpers, like those 4-block long pieces.)

Score. In many games, there's a way to keep score. This is way of providing immediate feedback to the player. How am I doing? How far have I gotten? Am I doing the right thing?

Reward. After you accomplish a task, or enough tasks, you get a prize. This might be going up a level (in the roleplaying sense), or a short movie (like the interscreen animations from Pac-Man), or a power-up, or even just a significant check-off ("You've completed all the quests on Snowy Mountain!"). The payoff is one of the things that make games so addicting, and the bigger the payoff, the stronger the emotional reaction, even if (or maybe especially if) the payoff is rare. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that I finally became a re-convert to the idea of level-based roleplaying games rather than strictly skill-based ones.)

Skill Development and Recognition. You actually have to get better at most games to win them; few of us start as skilled at playing Tetris as we eventually become. (Back in the days when you had to buy Tetris, we bought it for a friend of the family. After weeks or even months of playing and loving it, he called us up. "Did you know you could rotate the pieces??") We like this tangible feeling of mastering a skill, and of course this is reflected not only in the progress we can make in the game ("I made it across Fire Canyon!"), but in things like high scores and top ten lists.

This is just a snippet of a list; obviously games have a broad and rich set of designs to draw upon.

The best place to apply these elements is in educational and training software, which are to date embarrasingly unengaging. The state of the art seems to be drill games like Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, or typing games. Some companies, like Lucas Learning, do seem to be making games that require real cognition to solve, and in principle teach skills like design, but there are few examples with which I'm familiar that teach an actual skill or subject (say, Physics, or Algebra) in a way that's as engaging as a Playstation II game. Why not?

And it's not just for education. Every application designer ought to be considering the list of game design elements as ways to make the experience of using an application richer, more rewarding, more engaging, and more powerful.