I also arrive at a design philosophy of moderate simulationism in MMOs through an analysis of features that define MMOs as concrete games.
Games can be classified along a continuum from abstract to concrete. The most abstract games, you might call them “pure”, are abstract strategy games. The most concrete game would be life itself. The gamism-simulationism dichotomy that I engage with frequently in my abstract design discussions is parallel to the abstract-concrete continuum. Gamism tends toward abstraction—rules for the game’s sake—and simulationism tends toward the concrete—rules for the metaphor’s sake. MMO design is locked in a struggle between the game and the metaphor; the debate is the center of many design discussions and also the source of many ill-conceived arguments.
“Abstract” as used in “abstract games” means a lack of reference or relation to the real world—Abstract games’ mechanics do not model or have a significant intended relationship with the real world. Think of an abstract game as conceived and played for its own sake. Any similarities we see between it and the real world are not the sources of design decisions, but simply exist because people relate their world to everything they see (a classic reformulation of “if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”).
A good example of this is the abstract strategy game of Go (also known as Weiqi or Baduk). Legend states that Go was invented some 4000 years ago by an counselor to the then emperor of China. The emperor had a son who was a bit dull. He commissioned the counselor to invent a game that his son could play so that he might pick up some degree of mental acuity. How would you design a game if put in the counselor’s situation? It makes the most sense to try to invent a game with simple rules that requires deep thought to play well. To design the game, we’re starting from the very abstract and working our way to mechanics that can be implemented using a few stones and a board with a grid scratched into it. This is demonstrative of how abstract games are conceived.
Abstract games are games designed for the sake of gaming. They do not seek meaning through association with the real world. They give meaning to themselves and their peers. In this way board games can seem utterly trivial to a mature human being unless they genuinely enjoy games (disregarding the social aspect for the sake of discussion).
The “purest” and most extreme abstract games are abstract strategy games. These games have three crucial features:
- Perfect information is available when the state of the game is fully known by both players. (Note that the state of the metagame does not matter here.)
- No element of chance can be present in the game mechanics. This means that only the strategizing of the players affects the outcomes of individual in-game actions.
- Only two players must play the game together. If more players are added, the game becomes political and no longer is purely strategic based on the game mechanics.
We can discern the abstractness of a game by judging how far away from these three features the game strays.
Concrete games are metaphors for parts of real life. Concrete games create the illusion that the laws of the real world exist in the game. Extremely concrete games are in-depth simulations that allow the player to interfere on behalf of some element in the simulation. These games cannot be played on boards or with pieces of wood or stone, they need the computational power of computers to allow them to provide a model of some part of the real world that can allow players to suspend disbelief.
Concrete games have many players, very limited information flow, and are perpetuated by chance.
If you took all chance away from a concrete game, it would most likely fall apart as a game and become quite boring. Each player would be able to precisely forecast the result of each of their actions, so all of the complex mechanics would boil down the number of viable strategies to a mere pittance. All of the highly situation decisions made in real life that necessitate the use of rare capacities and patterns of thought would be removed from the game, because chance models the interactions of the myriad minute details that a game cannot hope to simulate effectively. Quantum physics has shown us that even the most basic fabric of reality is subject to the whims of fortune. So to simulate (and therefore to be concrete) requires chance.
In real life, information flow is choked by the limits of our perception. A game that hopes to simulate real life in any way must model this stunted flow of information that may be incomplete or outright incorrect.
The vibrancy and ever-newness of our world is due to the fact that billions of people inhabit it. We are able to communicate with millions of people every day using technologies that were invented only decades ago. The effects of millions of individual interactions between diverse peoples leads to en endless stream of situations that would be fun to model and toy with in a game. Concrete games take advantage of this reality.
MMOs are Concrete Games
MMOs are virtual worlds—in no way are they abstract games. Every individual indicator in MMOs is in favor of their classification as concrete games. As such, they benefit from designs that allow simulation to happen. In this way a game can harness the natural processes of the real world that lead to endless fun and interesting situations. To choke an MMO with abstractness is to take away the very best and most natural fun that can be had in worlds full of thousands of people, saddled by necessity with limited information, and brimming with opportunities for serendipity and chance to reap havoc.