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Faithfulness in Games

How we play a game is an essential part of what game we are playing.

When playing any sort of game, there are all kinds of ways to play. There’s win-at-all-costs, which includes all sorts of dishonorable methods including cheating, things less than honorable but short of cheating, and still other things that aren’t necessarily dishonorable but perhaps outside of general strategies (e.g., gimmicks). There’s also faithfully playing the game, regardless of how badly the game is made or the consequences on things such as time or sanity.

There are other forms still. When playing with young children, non-evil people will adopt something like a lose-at-all-costs strategy. We let kids win. As they get older, we adopt some sort of lazy-try strategy, where we will win sometimes, but we aren’t cutthroat.

When playing against adult beginners, or perhaps against older children beginners of sufficient determination or natural ability, we tend to adopt a faithful gameplay strategy with an opportunistic lose-to-teach caveat.

We can vary our gameplay quite a lot. It can change moment to moment, based on all sorts of factors. If we’re playing and drinking, for example, our impulses might get the better of us and we become ruthless. Nieces and nephews soon learn the real meaning of fish in Go Fish. Or if our opponent is drunk, we may go easy on them (assuming no stakes and a friendly, not-annoying-when-drunk adversary).

We see the variation used in the tactics of a pool shark—going soft until the stakes are high enough to justify playing at-skill.

But we also see the variations arise in single player games. If you want a lazy game of solitaire, software allows for endlessly going through the stock. If you’re frustrated in a platformer, you might seek out cheese—a way to get past a difficult portion without doing the insanely precise set of moves it usually requires.

Speedrunners adopt their own rules depending on the community and the game. They allow or bar the use of glitches, they have any% (any percentage complete) runs and full runs. Some games have categories piled atop categories. The goals of variety in speedrun rules is to build gameplay styles that suits the runner community interests. If the runs get too easy, too fast, the challenge is gone. If the runs are too long and too hard, nobody will want to attempt the feat.

Speedrunners also throw certain aspects of game faith out the window entirely. Enemies are not tough or scary to runners. They are often avoided entirely, raced past or jumped over without a thought. The runner treats the game much more like a program, looking for the set of conditions that allow progression regardless of the internal experience.

Multiplayer video games have their own variations as well, even within the same game. This depends on the players, on the community norms, on server modifications, and so on. But you might have moments when the game devolves into silliness, only to turn competitive again. You might have whole eras of a game take place in the span of minutes. A dynasty of one gameplay strategy can erupt and decay as players switch their focus from one objective to another.

All of these variations are forms of faith in gaming. There’s the rigid way-it’s-meant-to-be-played form which some would say is most faithful, but others would argue that play-for-fun or play-to-maximum-skill are more faithful to games and sports in general.

But we can also look through the looking glass the other way. There is a whole inverted set of game design that follows the same course. There are games designed to maximize revenue of the publisher or developer. There are games that feature the kinds of variations in design that jump from silly to scary to cutthroat to lose-at-all-costs (i.e., let the player win).

For multiplayer games, some game makers make some effort to let players pick the type of game they want. They offer casual modes and competitive modes, and custom servers have their own flavors of the games.

The same is true for games that allow user created levels. Some make really hard levels, others make easy ones. Some make art with the tools they are given, levels meant to be enjoyed for their design rather than their gameplay.

As with rules of dining, faith in gaming is a side dish. The goal of games is to nourish the brain’s capacity to understand systems. While wine-pairing and proper course compositions may enhance a meal, the goal is to suppress the appetite, to be fed.

Mario, Psychology, and Design

Spoiler: sometimes a brick actually holds ten coins (if you can jump fast enough).

Super Mario Brothers makes use of something akin to a random reinforcement schedule in order to add to the fun of the game. It’s not a true random reinforcement, as the rewards are the same from game to game, baked in to the levels. But to the new player, these choices feel like a random reward.

The first level, known as one-dash-one (1-1, some pronounce it one-one), features these elements early on. The first set of above-your-head blocks include bricks and question-mark blocks. It’s natural as you start to feel your way into the game to try jumping around, and you’ll jump into the bricks and blocks, if only by accident. You’re rewarded for jumping with coins, or perhaps a mushroom pops out. You happen to touch the mushroom and become super. You jump some more, collide with an overhead brick, and it breaks!

As you move through the level, you want to hit these blocks. You’ve learned the simple and rewarding task that makes up one of the core mechanics of the game.

Harder to discover elements remain. First is pipes. you come to your first pipe only slightly past your first blocks. It’s bigger than you! Perhaps you can go inside it? If you can, it’s not obvious how. You tried pressing down (), but it did not do. Oh well. You carry on jumping over or on enemies, on to the next pipes, trying to go inside. The fourth pipe, you can go down!

Most people saw others play first, learned that some pipes are enterable that way. The entering of pipes isn’t as obvious as hitting blocks by jumping up into them. The designers tried to make it more obvious by making the pipes bigger than you, suggesting something your character could crawl into. After you complete 1-1, you’d see your character enter a pipe to get to 1-2, which might make you try entering pipes. In later levels you would see piranha plants—something like venus fly traps—come out of pipes, another possible late hint.

The others are slightly more discoverable, perhaps: there are bricks that act as question-mark blocks, and there are invisible question-mark blocks. By getting in the habit of busting bricks, players would eventually find the secret that some bricks aren’t mere bricks. And by jumping around in random places, one could discover that some hidden blocks lurk in the air. (There aren’t many hidden blocks in Super Mario Brothers, but they still add to the effect of pseudorandom reinforcement.)

(Later iterations of the Mario franchise would expand on these elements with other block types, checkpoints, doors, end-of-level-roulette, and more.)

The first level teaches you to play, an enduring and outright essential feature in gaming. But it doesn’t only teach you how to play Mario, it teaches you how to play video games in general. It says that gaming is a world where sometimes things work a little weird, seem a little random. It’s an experience you have to experiment with. Try jumping into things. Try pressing down on top of pipes.

But it also gives you that reinforcement, that feeling of reward, for trying things out. While many games lean heavily on combat—killing enemies and beating the game, Mario includes these other reinforcement options as well:

  • Finding which blocks and pipes contain what.
  • Coin collecting (numismatism).
  • High scores.
  • Best times.

These extra dimensions add something to the game, particularly because they reinforce your effort. They make you want to do better. Without reinforcement, animals including humans wouldn’t learn, I’m sorry to say. When you bump into one of those blocks on 1-1, you’ve learned something. This is known as the law of effect (Wikipedia: “Law of effect”), which basically says that things that have positive effects we (being those with averagely-wired brains) want to repeat (and, by extension, those with negative effects, we seek to avoid).

There are several kinds of learning here:

  • Action–reaction mapping, where we discover some action has (probably) some result.
  • We learn what games are like (so that in other games we will check for invisible blocks)
  • We learn that there are tradeoffs in game design, that breaking some design rules makes gameplay stronger

In the last case, the designers could have made pipes indicate which were enterable or not. They could have avoided having bricks that give coins. But they wanted it to be a surprise. Normally that’s bad design, to have two things look identical but behave differently. Does it get a pass because it’s in a game? For some players it does. It frustrates some players, but for most of us it’s a game. The game world has different rules that makes it okay to a point.

The point where things break down is if there’s too much inconsistency, too much incoherence. Even there, some players would still go along. But most wouldn’t. There has to be logic in the departures, and it needs to be limited in number. You can’t keep adding more breaks in the game reality, where some koopas grant powerups, some fireflowers are poison, some platforms are really pits, and some bricks are secret flagpoles.

There wouldn’t be a game left, if on every level there were no rules to depend on.

Scores and Gaming

Thoughts on game scoring systems, which help make a game a game.

I recently played Cortex Command, a 2D game similar in some respects to Terraria except rather than being built with blocks, it is built with pixels. You are a brain in a vat, and you can control soldiers and robots to assault against another brain in a vat (also in control over forces).

It took a bit to get into the game, to get a feel for it. It does have a tutorial, but the initial experience is rather clunky until you get a feel for it. The tutorial only gives a sense of what the game is. It’s a game about digging (you can mine gold to buy more forces) and assault in a pixel-destruction environment.

The tutorial has a small pile of dirt you dig, with gold in it, but in my first attempt it wasn’t clear how much digging I would be doing in the game. They should have buried an object to dig for, just to make the point clear.

It’s a fun enough game, once you learn the ropes and begin trying the combat challenges (called scenarios). But it doesn’t quite gamify itself enough.

I’m currently playing AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, which is another simple enough game. You jump off a starting point and fall down. You get points for falling close to buildings, among other things. But A for the Awesome has something going for it that Cortex Command lacks: a point system. That’s really all it took to make something that would seem about the same (a fun mechanic without a lot beyond it) into a game that has more depth. Counting up the scores at the end, and seeing what points are needed to get five stars really gives the game a different element that it needs. A challenge, something to dig for.

In many games, there is a narrative structure that provides that challenge. And there may be upgrades that the player can seek out along the way. But these goals, these challenges, are what makes it a game. It’s not just a simulation, but it’s a mountain to climb.

That’s what Cortex Command seemed to lack. It didn’t track points. How did I do last time? Can I do better this time? The past didn’t exist. It was a blank slate every time. That lack of continuity, of any kind of goal, made it less of a game, less likely to draw you back to try again.

It was still a fun enough experience, once you got into it. Same with The Long Dark‘s survival mode in some ways (though they have a story mode that’s really great). Surviving can go on for ages, but every time you start it’s a blank slate again.

Maybe The Long Dark‘s survival mode could add a version more like what A for the Awesome does. I believe they are working on more challenges, which are separate from both survival and the story. Anyway, fun games. Time to go jump some more.