Finding of the week #253

Inspiration and Hope

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how computer games can inspire and give us hope which especially is helpful during rough times in our normal lifes.

Computer games, like any other medium, can inspire users and give them hope to believe in themselves. This can especially be helpful when they go through a rough time in their real lifes and need some motivation to continue finding a solution. However, in contrast to music or movies that only reach a listener or viewer in a direct and emotional way, computer games can also inspire players by challenging them to overcome dire situations or even save the entire world. Thus, games provide an incentive to actively take part in a meaningful process that often is much greater than the player’s role.

For instance, the games of the Mass Effect series put the player into the role of a star ship’s commander who is sent through the Milky Way galaxy to stop an aggressor from eradicating all organic civilizations. During this adventurous journey, the player often has to make important decisions that affect and change the game’s narration. In addition, the player meets a lot of virtual inhabitants of the galaxy that ask for help and thank the player in a very emotional way. As a result, the player not only changes the lifes of many others, but can also save all civilized life in the galaxy.

By playing a central role in such a meaningful process, players often start to feel powerful as they can change the world when they put enough effort into the gameplay. This motivating feeling is even enhanced as computer games induce flow by providing clear goals, immediate feedback and a constant stream of new challenges that increase in difficulty. In the end, players can get into the mood that anything is possible and nothing can stop them. This mood ultimately can give them hope to be able to solve their real problems and/or inspire them to tackle the problems in a very energic way or with a new approach.

Finding of the week #252

Optional Goals

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the way how optional goals are implemented and advertised inside of a computer game.

Computer games often provide additional goals to encourage players to carefully explore the game world instead of simply following the main story line. The optional goals can range from simple collection goals requiring players to find special tokens in the game world to fully fledged side missions telling a unique story. Non-mandatory goals additionally increase a game’s replayability as players might have missed some of them thus experiencing a different story or discovering new and special places during a second playthrough.

However, optional goals are difficult to implement from a game design perspective as they are intended to surprise a player and inspire them to thoroughly explore the game world. On the other hand, optional goals also have a high chance of being overlooked by players even during a second playthrough as they need to be hidden in the game world. As a result, some hidden goals are rarely seen by players or players are not aware that a particular non-mandatory goal exists.

Optional goals (photos to take) in „Life Is Strange“

Therefore, game designers often implement achievements or other summary screens indicating a player’s progress towards having discovered all hidden game elements. While this approach guides players and motivates them to revisit specific parts of the game, it also reduces a bit the optional aspect of those goals as they suddenly receive a higher value. In addition, players might feel discouraged when they realize that they overlooked something and can not complete the game to 100 percent. Moreover, by implementing a collection screen a player can unlock over time, the surprising aspect of discovering something unexpected might be lost as well.

In the end, it is very difficult to find the right balance between indicating the existence of potential goals and simply surprising players. Personally, I would prefer to have the chance to be surprised instead of being aware of optional gameplay elements as this makes them more special and turns them into true secrets.

Finding of the week #249

Hiding Limited Behavioral Patterns

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how a game’s story hides limited behavioral patterns that would otherwise be noticeable.

Many computer games allow players to experience atmospheric and exciting narratives by presenting great and dangerous problems only they can solve. The presentation and the overall embedding of a game’s story is often achieved with Non-Player Characters (NPCs) that inform players about a particular problem, provide background information or react to a player’s actions.

An NPC’s reaction can be twofold: 1) The NPC can either react to a player’s successful completion of a task by thanking or rewarding the player, or 2) react to a player’s presence or recent accomplishments by simply acknowledging her existence or expressing the own gratitude or fear. In both cases, an NPC’s reaction rewards the user with positive emotions as they managed to potentially change somenones life or even saved an entire planet. In contrast to virtual items, emotions affect a player in the real world thus ultimately leading to a more intense gameplay experience and even a potential improvement of a player’s mood and general well-being.

Seen from a programming point of view, an NPC’s reaction merely follows the settings of a couple of variables that determine success or defeat and the player’s general reputation. This is due to the fact that simulating realistic behavioral patterns is currently still impossible and would require a lot of expensive development. However, as a game’s narrative normally provides players with clear goals they simply need to complete in order to progress with the story, this limitation is rarely noticed. That way, atmospheric and believable reactions can be modelled and subsequently activated when the required conditions are met. As a result of this, the player experiences the impression that the NPC really saw what the player did and hence feels emotionally involved.

In the end, by using NPCs to only inform players about great problems and rewarding them for their help without requiring additional interactions with them, technical limitations can be hidden.

Finding of the week #248

Individual and Creative Virtual Holiday Celebrations

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how a high degree of freedom and creativity can greatly enhance a player’s experience of a virtual holiday celebration.

Seasonal events implemented in a computer game simulate specific real world holidays by turning major traditions into gameplay elements or simply changing the environment by adding event-specific decorations. That way, the seasonal events not only reduce the distance between the real and the virtual world, but also allow players to celebrate the holidays directly inside of the virtual environments. This convergence between the virtual environments and reality also contributes to the overall holiday spirit as it avoids breaking the ongoing celebrations surrounding a player in the real world.

Feast of the Winter Veil

World of Warcraft: Feast of the Winter Veil

These special events are directly implemented by the developers of a game and are only active during a defined time frame. Outside of this time, the event is disabled and can not be accessed by players. While this is a very effective approach as it avoids implementing additional game mechanics allowing for player-specific ways to celebrate a particular holiday, it also shows the limitations of this concept. Players merely are passive spectators that, despite being able to complete event-specific challenges, can not directly influence the virtual celebrations.

A Christmas Tree in Minecraft

However, open world building games like Minecraft represent an exception as they allow players to freely change and decorate their virtual worlds. As a result, players can decorate their long-term projects inside of the games according to their personal interpretations of a particular event. Moreover, players are also in control of an event’s duration and hence can define how an event ends. This especially is important when these create games are played in multiplayer mode as this allows all players to collaboratively achieve a very individual and unique holiday celebration.

In the end, all virtual versions of a specific holiday can bring players closer together and achieve a convergence of the virtual environments and the real world. However, as holidays are also a unique and individual occasion, giving more control into the hands of the players can result in an even higher acceptance and interest in the events. Also, being able to experience unique and magical moments that result in great memories is essence of life.

Finding of the week #247

Believable Status Indication

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how a player’s status can be displayed in a virtual environment in a believable way.

The indication of a player’s status is a critical design element of many computer games as the information needs to be provided in a clear and easy way without visually irritating the player. Often, this is done using a 2D User Interface (UI) overlay over the actual 3D gameplay that contains bars or numbers expressing a player’s state. This non-diegetic technique, however, negatively affects the overall believability of the simulation as it adds an element to the gameplay that normally would not exist in reality.

In contrast, diegetic UIs embed the information directly into the virtual world thus making it to a part of it and increasing the overall believability. This approach is easy when the computer game simulates a real world activity, such as driving a car, flying an airplane, or operating other machines, that automatically provides a diegetic UI like a cockpit or other control interfaces. In such a case, the status information can be displayed in the same way as in the real world by utilizing the simulated indicators.

However, more creative and sometimes even magic approaches are needed when the game concentrates on the players themselves and lets them experience the virtual world from a first-person perspective. Normally, we have no indication of our current states in the real world aside from our senses. We know how we feel when we are hungry, cold, wet, injured, or happy. Encoding and conveying these feelings in a virtual environment, however, is not straightforward.

Therefore, due to technical limitations, metaphors need to be found that provide us with feedback about the states of our virtual bodies and inform us when we are affected by something. For instance, Stranded Deep indicates a player’s status on a virtual wristwatch the player is wearing. By simply pressing a button, the player’s avatar raises the left arm thus allowing the user to check their health and hunger. Take On Mars puts the players into a spacesuit that displays relevant health information directly into the players helmet like a Heads-Up Display.

This especially is important in the case of a Virtual Reality (VR) simulation that visually immerses the user by utilizing a Head-Mounted Display. In VR, using a diegetic UI is very important as regular 2D overlay UI can cause a high degree of distraction as it would always be in the player’s field of view independent from the player’s gaze.

Finding of the week #245

A Peaceful and Silent World

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how computer games can positively affect our energy and motivation during stressful and chaotic times.

Normally, we play computer games to entertain ourselves by experiencing exciting narratives or overcoming difficult challenges. In addition, depending on a game’s genre, they require us to cooperatively play together with players from all over the world thus ultimately allowing us to make new friends. Finally, computer games, as they provide us with meaningful rewards, often give us the feeling that we accomplished important things and changed the world.

That way, playing computer games and solving a continuous stream of new challenges during the gameplay is a very active process in which we can mentally immerse ourselves. However, this active process is also very physically and mentally demanding and requires a player’s full attention to solve a game’s puzzles or to exhaust the very own skill level. Thus, when a personal level of exhaustion is reached, playing computer games, like all other hobbies, starts to cease being entertaining. This phenomenon, however, is moderated by the game’s complexitiy, e.g. complex strategy games have a higher mental demand whereas first-person shooters rarely require complex decision making.

As a result, during stressful times, when a quick break and distraction is needed to regain some energy to continue working towards the completion of demanding tasks, simple and quick computer games are providing players with the highest degree of satisfaction. This is due to the fact that they save the limited amount of brainpower and still immerse a player in a completely different and entertaining activity.

Skyrim

Skyrim

Alternatively, walking simulators or open world games provide a similar distraction from stressful times as they allow players to delve into a virtual world they can freely explore and enjoy without directly being required to solve challenges. Instead, these games allow players to simply enjoy beautiful and, depending on the game’s visual presentation, even emotional or magical moments without actually playing the game.

For instance, games like Skyrim provide players with a vast and magical environment that features beautiful views and colorful sunsets. Those games can bring a player to a completely different scenery within the fraction of a second and, as a result of this, also allow them to relax during stressful times.

Personally, during the last days before the end of a paper deadline, I observed this behavior myself as I just started Minecraft to explore my virtual world without directly changing something in it. The simple act of enjoying the vista over my small little world from the top of a mountain allowed me to regain some energy and fully distract myself from a long to-do list. After a short amount time, I felt refreshed and ready to continue working.

As a conclusion, small journeys into a quiet and peaceful virtual world can have a very positive effect on the personal energy and motivation level during stressful times.

Finding of the week #244

A Difficult Game Design Challenge: Climate Change

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about some critical game design problems that arise when complex problems like the climate change are addressed in a computer game.

Some time ago, I got asked how I would design a computer game that addresses ecological problems and tries to educate players about the effects of pollution, climate change and global warming. Although I strongly believe that computer games can help us to visualize and potentially even solve these global problems, it is not that simple to come up with a design for a good computer game. The reason for this is that this ecological subject has three main requirements which are hard to combine:

  • Global scale: Pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases affect the entire planet and are not just limited to a small area. In addition, different ecosystems react differently to certain changes in the global climate. That way, the game needs to present a resulting climate change on a global scale to demonstrate and educate about the underlying principles and effects.
  • Large time scale: Although the climate change is rapidly affecting various ecosystems around the world, it is still relative slow in respect to the way how we perceive time and change. As a result of this, it is necessary that the game allows players to control the flow of time to speed up the process and thus achieve a better understanding of the underlying principles.
  • Personal attachment: For the purpose of emotionally involving players in the gameplay and the game’s narrative, a personal attachment to protagonists in the game world is important. In addition, a first person perspective can also provide a more subjective, immersive and intense experience of the effects of climate change.

This requirement analysis ultimately creates the game design challenge of finding a way to combine a very subjective and emotional view with the presentation of large scale problems. The personal view reduces the player’s distance to the global problems to a minimum thus causing the users to regard them as their personal problems they have to solve–in the virtual and in the real world. The global presentation, on the other hand, demonstrates the underlying principles and allows players to develop an in-depth understanding of them.

Hopefully, this design challenge will be solved at some point, soon, as it is more important than ever before that the awareness of climate changed is raised in an intuitive and immersive way.

Finding of the week #243

Observing Limits of Cognitive Abilities

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how computer games can be used to test the limits of our own cognitive abilities.

Frequent and deliberate practice helps us to internalize knowledge and, as a result of this, the knowledge’s performance becomes more fluent and even automated. This especially is the case when we acquire and practice a particular skill such as typing, dancing or driving a car.

At first, a skill’s performance is very slow as the underlying steps and rules are followed closely. Over time, the underlying rules get internalized and, subsequently, subconsciously executed thus achieving an automatization of the knowledge. Finally, after frequent and deliberate practice as well as general performance, the skill can be mastered which results in a total automatization and quick skill performance.

However, the automatization and subconscious performance can also result in a certain degree of inflexibility which can be observed when only a small parameter of the knowledge’s rules get changed. In this case, especially when the person is not aware of the changed rules, the skill is performed in its internalized form thus resulting in unexpected outcomes and a high degree of irritation.

WRC 7

Recently, I observed this particular phenomenon myself as I tried a new racing computer game: WRC 7. Normally, I play racing games with manual transmission enabled as it provides me with a higher degree of flexibility. However, in the case of WRC 7, the gear change option was set to automatic transmission which also maps the car’s reverse gear to the brake and engages reverse when the brake is still pressed after the car has stopped. In addition to this, I am using a steering wheel and pedal setup that mirrors the functionality of a real car’s controls. Ultimately, this small but significant parameter change of the internalized rules caused a high degree of irritation on my side as the virtual car was doing the opposite of what I expected.

In the end, this experience demonstrated how computer games not only can be used to train knowledge but also to test our own cognitive abilities as well as their limits. Computer games allow for the realistic as well as immersive simulation of real world knowledge while simultaneously providing a safe testing environment where those experiments can be conducted.

Finding of the week #242

Entertainment or Chore?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how repetitive gameplay is perceived differently depending on the player’s type and overall personal goals.

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion about different ways and attitudes how a computer game can be approached. In particular, we were discussing how certain repetitive tasks in World of Warcraft (WoW) can be tackled and if the resulting gameplay is still entertainment or just a chore like washing dishes or vacuum-cleaning the house.

WoW features seasonal events that take place every year and provide players with special activities and quests. For instance, every year around Halloween, the special „Hallow’s End“ event takes place and allows players to virtually celebrate this spooky event by defeating a Headless Horseman, wearing costumes, or gathering lots of candy. In addition, players have the chance to obtain unique collectables, i.e., virtual pets and toys, during an event by completing the special activities that reward players with an event-specific currency tradable for these special items.

However, this is not a simple or quick task as the prices for these items are designed to be relatively high thus requiring players to work towards their goals for several days by repeating the same activity over and over again. As a result of this, the gameplay stops being compelling and simply becomes a chore. Interestingly, as long as players add some value to these virtual collectables, this gameplay concept fulfills the requirements for flow by providing players with a clear goal and constant feedback which results in a high motivation to continue completing the event-specific activities.

On the other hand, although players have a clear goal in mind, the gameplay still stops being real fun and often is done while watching TV or browsing the internet. This indicates that the computer game itself lost its immersive effects and can no longer attract a player’s full attention as the tasks can also be completed subconsciously. This raises the question, if the resulting gameplay is still entertainment or just a normal chore.

This question can not generally be answered as it depends on the player type and the player’s goals. For instance, while a player who seeks tough challenges or new experiences will probably feel bored after a short amount of time and cease to complete the activities, a different player seeking a relaxing activity potentially keeps on completing the quests and even derives some joy from it.

In the end, while a good computer game should normally gain the full attention of the player and completely immerse them in the gameplay, certain games like WoW can make an exception due to the overall structure of being a vast narrative that spans over several years and has to provide content for all kinds of player types.

Finding of the week #241

Overall Gameplay Balance

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the need for a good overall balance of a computer game to ensure that the targeted audience stays motivated for the entire playthrough.

Conditions for victory and defeat are depending on a game’s gameplay and overall challenge. While computer games that are designed to be unforgiving and challenging can have very strict victory conditions, other games that challenge players to take risks often need more relaxed rules or the possibility to make up for a bad performance.

The former kind of computer games often gives players plenty of time to analyze the current situation and think about their next steps to overcome a particular challenge. In such a case, constantly facing a potential defeat contributes to the game’s overall atmosphere and increases the importance of carefully planning each individual step. As a result, players feel very rewarded when they beat a challenge without experiencing strong penalties. For instance, XCOM 2 challenges players with difficult missions but avoids restricting them with time constraints thus allowing for an in-depth analysis of the current situation.

The latter kind of computer games normally creates a fast-paced gameplay that challenges the overall reaction time and game-specific sets of skills. While playing these games, players often have to decide whether they like to play it safe or give it everything thus accepting the risk to lose a game. However, playing at the own skill level only is a valid option when the game provides enough chances to make up for a potential bad performance. For example, a racing game normally implements championships that span over multiple races thus providing the chance to make up for a very bad race.

However, when the conditions for victory and defeat are not matching the gameplay, players can easily lose interest or motivation to play the game. The reason for this is that users are then either bored or frustrated as well-thought decisions are not needed or taking risks is too dangerous.

For instance, DiRT 4 challenges players with rally and circuit racing but rarely offers championships that have enough events to make it worth to take the risk and push as hard has possible. As a result, the game’s career mode fails to motivate players to be aggressive as they rarely can make up for a bad performance.

In sum, balancing also has to take into account how the overall gameplay is structured and what interests the targeted audience has.