The introduction of the internet has done a lot to show just how confused our understanding is. Players used to be able to sit at home and imagine that everyone else playing the game had more or less the same experience they did. Now they can read what other players are saying, and are discovering that the world is full of crazy people. You like auto-leveling foes? What's wrong with you? You want more obscure boss fights? Nutter. You like games where you get sent back to the beginning of the level? Masochist. Players are slowly realizing what tabletop enthusiasts realized decades ago: There are all kinds of players with wildly different preferences, and there's no one experience that can hope to please them all.

If you want to force-feed your brain until it pukes, you could try reading up on Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist theory, where players are described in robust terms that define them according to why they game. A couple of roleplayers can talk to each other for a minute or two and immediately have a pretty clear understanding of what sorts of things the other person is looking for in a game. Some people want to take part in and help weave an epic tale, to inhabit a deep and authentic world of lifelike characters. Other players just want to pit themselves against an endless series of cunning challenges that test their strategic mettle.

Contrast this with how videogamers are divided up: Hardcore. Mainstream. Casual. So instead of identifying players by what they look for in gaming, we end up sorting players by how much they play or how skilled they are.

This is a shame, because if we're going to pigeonhole gamers there are far better and more interesting divisions we could use. I'd much rather we sort people by why they game than by how well they do it. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be better than what we have now. I'm constantly amazed by the sheer diversity of motivations people have for videogaming. In those low-tech early years games were purely a test of skill. You put in a quarter and played until you lost. That sort of experience has been relegated to flash-based browser games and retro remakes. Now there are games which are explicitly not about skill, but instead about exploration and experimentation. (Spore.) Many are about building, caring for, and optimizing complex systems. (Sim and Tycoon games.) Some are overtly social, either with in-game characters or with other players. (Animal Crossing, party games.) Puzzles. Player-versus player. Storytelling. The selection of ways that games can appeal to people is large, and every few years it seems like someone adds a new one.

My goal here is not to define every possible type of game, but to point out that a well-designed game will be intentional about how it meets these player expectations. A lot of games could be greatly improved if the designer just asked, "What need am I trying to meet with this gameplay element?" Most good games actually focus on a small handful of these goals and attempt to do them well, and most bland or annoying games fumble around throwing elements at the player haphazardly.

Q: Why do we have a jumping puzzle here?

A: Because other games have jumping puzzles?


Shamus Young is the author of Twenty Sided, the vandal behind Stolen Pixels, and believes that if he could just find a way to use my plastic dice with a videogame, then he would be truly happy.

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