Good Games Are Meaningful

Remember back to your first dice rolling game. I’m guessing you were probably four years old and you were probably playing something with similar rules to “snakes and ladders”.

You quickly learned that more dots means greater chance of victory but you were still struggling to learn which dice rolling technique produces the most dots.

Fast forward a year. You are a year older and far more experienced in the mathematical arts of counting and far more developed in telekinesis. You can now read the board and, simply by focusing your mind on the optimal number, roll it more than a sixth of the time! Sure, you have your off days, as the novice of any sport would, but you have great potential. You even remember outperforming your own father once. With time and practice, you will one day become unbeatable at this game!

Then one day, you learn more about dice. Your dream of one day rolling perfect games every time is shattered. The game has lost its meaning.

What Is Meaning?
Humans are incapable of interacting with the world as it really is. Our sense organs are imperfect and our brain makes up most of what we think we know.

In reality, there are collections of atoms known as people, sitting around collections of atoms known as a table, interacting with collections of atoms known as paper, cardboard, printer toner and plastic. Not very exciting when you think of it like that.

Add some meaning:

Sarah is trying to take an interest in her boyfriend Jason’s new game. She is struggling to understand the rules, but Jason is helping her.

Simon is losing, and resents Sarah and Jason for working together to crush him. They wouldn’t think they are. In reality, “working together” doesn’t exist. It’s just a bunch of atoms different people interpret different ways.

Paul isn’t doing too well either, but he’s really getting into the game. Rather than sitting home alone eating noodles in his tiny apartment, he’s the CEO of a large company ordering thousands of employees around. Occasionally a silly rule will take him back to reality and remind him it’s all just a game, but he forgives those rules and understands they’re required to make the game work.

Betty is Paul’s Mum. She doesn’t see him often and treasures every moment of it. The game isn’t quite to her taste but she’d never tell Paul that. This is the closest thing to a common interest she has.

Jason is winning, in the game. In real life, he’s lost his job for not meeting quota; his last girlfriend left him for failing to understand her; and he’s not certain how long he’ll hold on to Sarah before she does the same. But in the game, he’s a winner.

So What?
Meaning is what sells printed cardboard and molded plastic for $80.

Meaning isn’t what the game means to you, it’s what it means to the customer. As a designer, you need to be aware of the meaning your players will create as they play.

It can be tempting to only consider math, optimal strategy and component quality. Those things are all good, but don’t forget to spend time looking at your game through the meaning of its players.

What Do You Think?
People rarely comment on my stuff. Why is that?


2 thoughts on “Good Games Are Meaningful

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