Definition: Role

Role

The features, mechanics, situation and purpose which define an element’s function in a game

According to Aristotle, we can claim to have knowledge of something only when we have understood its causes.  These causes come in four types: the material cause – the matter of which the thing is made, the formal cause – the pattern or idea which that matter takes, the efficient cause – the motivation which formed the matter, and the final cause – the purpose for which it is used.  Once we understand all four causes, we know an object fully.  In game design terms, once we can explain all four causes, we know an element’s role.

The Material Cause

Video games are not physical objects, so technically they don’t require a material cause.  However, they do have underlying components that make their existence in the game possible, like models, textures, effects and sounds.  They also require other engine features like physics, particles, etc.  Some elements even require completely unique features, and explicitly specifying these features is important to defining the role.

The Formal Cause

This aspect of a game element is what we traditionally think of as “design.”  The form of an element is the pattern that it follows and the systems in which it operates – the game mechanics that constrain it.  Aristotle is referring to the Platonic idea of an object, but in-game design this is the Paper Design.  Just as in Plato’s theory, real life cannot match the perfection of the world of ideas; the in-game experience will never realize the paper design exactly, but it does provide an objective standard.  Much like a craftsman making a chair is attempting to create a material version of the ultimate idea of “chairhood”, the designer tunes an experience to get as close as possible to the original game design.

The Efficient Cause

Often called the “moving cause” because it provides the motivating force for an object, the efficient cause is closest to our modern concept of “cause and effect.”  In game design, the efficient cause is always the player and their desires.  A game element that does not have a corresponding player desire will never be used (at least not without coercion) so it is crucial to identify and meet those needs.

The Final Cause

The most important cause, at least to Aristotle, is the purpose for which an object exists.  In a game, this is especially true because games are fundamentally about using tools to solve problems, and game elements are usually classified by the types of problems they solve.  This is why it is so important to limit an element’s power so it is only effective for its designated role; if an element is an effective solution for multiple types of problem it becomes difficult to tell what its purpose is intended to be.  This is also why a problem should be presented before or at the same time as the solution, or else the player will not have a way to categorize the solving element.  This purpose is communicated to the player through affordance and reinforced by rewarding feedback.

Taken together, these four causes define an element’s role.  The features that allow it to exist.  The mechanics that give it a form and constrain its use.  The situation that creates the player’s need for it.  The purpose for which the player will use it.  Once a designer understands all four causes for an element, they understand an element well enough to implement it successfully.

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Definition: Affordance

Affordance  (Also:  Usability, Discoverability, Intuitiveness)

The quality of an object or environment that allows a Player to intuitively discern and perform the gameplay action associated with that object or environment.

In his most profound philosophical work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger makes a distinction between two types of attitudes that we can have toward an object.  First, an object can be “present-to-hand”, which means that it exists and we can observe it and theorize about it.  Heidegger claims that this is an uncomfortable mode for us, that it is inferior to the more natural second attitude where an object has an immediate purpose, which he calls being “ready-to-hand”.

Imagine you are walking through a Home Depot and see a collection of hammers hanging from pegboard in the tool section.  Let’s say you are an English major and you have never seen a hammer before.  You might assume that you had stumbled into an unusual art gallery and start admiring the variety of colors and shapes the artist had created.  Clearly they are a phallic representation of our patriarchal history…

In this example, you would be treating the hammers as if they were “present-at-hand”.  In a game, every time the player is forced to stop and think about the possible actions an object affords they are forced out of their flow state.  If this happens too often they will never be able to relax and enjoy the game.

Killer Queeeeeen

Chess - A terrible example of percieved affordance

Now imagine you are in a burning building and the only exit is blocked by a flimsy plywood door.  This time when you see the hammer on the wall you do not perceive it as an object, but as a tool with a clear purpose.  There is no hesitation because there is no analysis.  The hammer is “ready-at-hand” and that door is “ready-to-smash”.  There is no break in flow because both the hammer and the exit door have clearly perceived affordances.

This is especially important in games, because the player cannot even begin to play until they understand what actions they can take.  The faster they can understand what is possible, the earlier they can get past the theorizing state and into the flow state of proper play.