I’ve written poetry for the last nine years of my life, but only three years ago did I come to a point where I could say what made poetry “good” from my perspective. I came to understand that the root of all communication is managing meaning. Each word is a unit of meaning that cooperates with those around it to manifest ideas in a reader’s mind. The meaning of the word lies not directly in its letters and their arrangement, but on all of the associations that a reader already has developed with that word. Managing meaning seems obvious at first, but understanding it is the key to producing great writing—and it’s also the key to designing great games.
Games are complex networks of meanings—much more complex than writing could hope to be. Games involve written word, visual abstractions, and audio that all contribute to the meaning created and managed.
Whence Comes Meaning?
When we notice the interrelations of phenomena, we attach meaning. We notice patterns in the world around us: we see that when dark clouds loom overhead, rain often follows. So clouds mean rain. In this way, meaning indicates precipitation. “X means Y” is the same as “X leads to Y”, or (maybe) “X causes Y”.
(I’ve always found the “clouds mean rain” example to be funny because it involves physical precipitation to describe the association of precipitation.)
Another philosophically significant definition of meaning is substitution. A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a
camelhorse (thanks, Logan); wherever we see “mule”, we can substitute the phrase “the offspring of a donkey an camel” and lose no meaning, because the word and the phrase stand for the same thing. Thus, meaning signifies equivalency.
Meaning in Games
Games use both of these meanings of meaning.
The greatest source of meaning for entities in a game is the real world. Here, we’re talking about meaning as equivalency. The easiest way to give meaning to an in-game entity is to make it a copy or representation of a real entity. But this copy cannot be perfect, because games cannot be perfect copies of the real world. Games contain theoretical models of how parts of the real world might, or should, or could work. These models are implemented as mechanics that relate the game’s abstractions (or entities represented by art assets) to one another. In the real world we have similar theories that apply to the relations of real world phenomena. In games, we reflect the real world that we perceive and our theories about it into a limited virtual reality. This reflection may seem trivial at first, but if you want to deconstruct and analyze why and how games work, you need to realize how they use this reflection to create meaning.
Abstract games do not have this problem. They rely on their own mechanics and interface to supply them with meaning. A Queen in chess isn’t meaningful because it represents a real monarch; Players derive the Queen’s meaning through the mechanics that define its role in the game. If you were not a native English speaker, you would still understand the strategic importance of the Queen—even though you do not understand the meaning of the actual word—through a quick review of the game rules.
Meaning Only Exists in Context
A part of mentally maturing is searching for meaning in life. Such a search is less trying to find meaning and more trying to find a context for events that allows them to have meaning. The events in your life seem meaningless when taking into consideration the endless expanse of the universe and the miniscule amount of time you are given to inhabit this planet. In an attempt to place yourself in the universe—to give yourself meaning to yourself—you try to find the broadest context possible, the “real” context. This context is so broad as to consume everything, but in a context that consumes everything in the infinite expanses of space and time, any one thing is dwarfed into utter insignificance. If we’re all insignificant, then why bother living? In such a situation, nothing can have meaning.
But the vast majority of people do find meaning in their lives. They do it by limiting the operational context of their judgment of significance to a manageable scope. By including fewer things in your context, you can better discern significance and insignificance and not be forever dwarfed by the immensity of all things. This can be done by both secular and religious people. A Christian may place their life in the context of God’s work and His creation, and in this way allow their actions to be significant and meaningful in their spiritual journey. A non-religious person can come to the realization that a meaningless life is not worth living, and so consciously change the context of judgment to her community (or the collection of communities to which she belongs) so that events can have a relatively much wider and more satisfying gamut of meaning.
Likewise, parts of games have meaning only in certain contexts. If that context is violated, then the game becomes meaningless to the player. This context is purely subjective—it is the current state of the player’s mind and his understanding of games. No player remains unchanged after playing through a game; I don’t mean this in an emotional sense, I mean it in an experiential sense. We cannot go back into games ignorant once we have learned. This is actually a very important factor in creating games that stay fun for extended periods of time.
Managing meaning is about being aware of context—it’s about being aware of your audience. What do they know about the real world and about other games? How can you leverage that knowledge in unique and interesting ways to make your game worth player?
Players have fun when they have a view of where they’re going and what they can expect once they get there. Players love putting plans together and acting to bring them to fruition and, ultimately, reap both the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Through this most basic and fundamental process, players create and manipulate meaning.
Here is how to create meaning in a game (this operates on multiple levels, from the very smallest side quest to the most epic world-spanning adventure):
- Let the player know what success will lead to. Tantalizing rewards can cause even an otherwise bored player to trudge further. Sometimes players will reward themselves and this point becomes secondary, but most times the game provides rewards.
- Let the player form a plan about how to reach her goal.
- Let the player know what she can do.
- The player should understand, within some reasonable degree of error, the chance her plan will have at succeeding.
- Give the player reason to believe that they had something to do with their success. (This is the “agency” that I referred to in my post about abstract strategy games.)
You would be surprised at the number of games that fail—and the number of ways they manage to fail—to accomplish these three seemingly simple tasks.