Monday, May 13, 2013

Theme as Conceptual Model

Nick offers a definition of "theme" and explores the function of theme in board game design. He proposes that we think of theme as a conceptual model for gameplay mechanics instead of a wrapper that makes a game appealing of engaging at first glance.

Merriam Webster definition of "theme":
a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation <guilt and punishment is the theme of the story>
b: a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern <the campaign has lacked a theme>

When we approach board game design or board game criticism, the tendency is to talk about gameplay and mechanics: "This isn't balanced... How does this mechanic work?... How do I win?" But our experience of playing a game doesn't begin with mechanics; it begins with theme. "In this game you play cowboys trying to survive in the wild west." "This game is about a running race." "This game is based on your favorite TV show." Theme is communicated by the names a designer gives mechanics, the art that appears on the pieces, and the story the game promises to help you tell. And of course, some games are more thematic than others. In one game you earn points, in another you harvest crops, and in a third you collect a salary. These three situations coud easily involve identical mechanics, but the experience is different because of how the games are themed.

So why are themes so important to us? One reason is certainly a straightforward emotional response to something that just feels thematic. There's powerful juju in an engaging premise and attractive art. Games are also powerful storytelling tools, especially if you're talking about video games, RPGs, or interactive fiction, and a lot of ink has been spilt exploring the role of narrative in digital gaming. This is part of the puzzle, but I think something else is going on. Theme can definitely create an emotional response, and it absolutely is employed to build narrative, but I would like to propose that theme is frequently functioning as an integral piece of the game design itself.

I got thinking about this while rereading some stuff by Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist who writes about user-centered design. If you care even a little bit about how things are designed, you should read Donald Norman. And when I say things, I really mean how anything is designed from board games to web apps to light switches.

Norman writes about the importance of providing the people who use the things we design with "conceptual models" in his book The Design of Everyday Things  and further explore the idea of the conceptual model in his follow-up, Living with Complexity. In Living with Complexity, Norman writes:

A conceptual model is the underlying belief structure held by a person about how something works. When you look at the file structure of your computer, perhaps moving a file from one folder to another, you are exploiting the conceptual model that software designers have carefully put into your head. There are no files or folders inside your computer...The designer's job is to provide people with appropriate conceptual models...When we deal with the electronic world where everything is invisible, we are at the mercy of the designer to provide us with hints and clues as to what is going on (35, 39).

In fact, any time a user engages with a product or service, they're employing a mental model of what's going on, whether they're taking out a library book or rewinding a casette. Software designers need to be careful to provide their users with a helpful conceptual model to make it possible to navigate the "invisible world" of the digital architecture operating behind the user experience. Software is complex, so we need a conceptual model to make sense of it.

And really, game design isn't too different. The invisible world of variables, feedback loops, and probabilities that operate outside of player awareness can be incredibly complicated, and when it's presented without a theme, players need to work to assemble a conceptual model of how the pieces interact so that they can begin to make choices, plan ahead, and enjoy the game play experience. Players of even the most abstract games employ conceptual models, and they're often borrowed from real world experiences. Players talk about "controlling territory" in Go and "jumping" in Checkers, but both games could be strictly conceived of as a set of rules about which spaces on a grid can and can't be occupied by a given piece.

When a designer presents a game to a player, it's possible to use to the theme as an entry into the mechanics. Concepts like buying property, paying rent, and going to jail are easy for a player to map to the mechanics of Monopoly. On the other hand, if a player is presented with a screen that features a short marching line of black pixels and a randomly placed star, they won't even know where to begin. If you call the same game Snake, a player can immediately build a model where the "snake" "grows" as it "eats" "food." (And of course, other themes are always possible.)

Obviously, the actual design process isn't linear. A designer game might begin with a theme and set out to find the mechanics to match it or start with abstract mechanics and then add some kind of flavor, but the player experience of the game almost invariably begins with a conceptual model based on theme. (Huge debates rage on sites like Board Game Geek about whether certain themes feel merely "pasted on.") Designers need to think about how players interact with a game, and that interaction really starts with theme. A well designed theme means a well designed game.

The power of theme can give players a handle on intricate or hard to conceptualize systems even when the theme seems arbitrary or unintuitive. Turn the Tide is hardly a simulation of protecting sheep from rising tides, but the game rules would be much harder to understand if they strictly referred to auction bids, resource loss, and risk/reward balance. Lost Cities is far from narratively immersive, but players understand the system better when they're attaching mechanics to concepts like investing resources in an expedition that might fail instead of playing ordered cards in an attempt to balance the risk of negative points with potential score.

Players would certainly construct their own models if these games were presented abstractly, and some of the best classic and novel games are delightfully abstract. Theme is just a tool in the designer's kit, and when it's used well it can radically improve a player's experience of an otherwise well-designed system. The danger here is thinking of theme as chrome that we slap on to a game so that it gets picked up at a store or as the inspiration that leads designer to solid play. Games are complicated systems, and smart designers think about every component as a design element. Graphic design can make or break a game just as much as a the design of a feedback loop or scoring system. The box the game comes in matters, and the clarity and accessibility of he rulebook is critical. In the last ten or twenty years we've come to accept that games are about more than the gameplay, but I'm starting to wonder where gameplay ends and the package begins.


Gary Dahl said...

Great post (and Norman reference)! I'm finding in my own work that the hardest part about coupling theme and mechanics is the fact that so much changes through the design and playtesting processes. A small change in a games rules can easily make your original theme/premise non-sensical. The other day I was speculating that this might account for the prevalence of fantasy and science fiction themes in games. Because they make it so much easier to "explain" just about any kind of rule change.

Thanks again for the great post.

Nick O'Leary said...

The science fiction/fantasy idea is persuasive, but of course for the theme to be useful as a conceptual model it seems like the designer still has to give a reason, even if it is technobabble. *"Hmm...The forcefield ability is too powerful. Maybe forcefields only work on energy weapons")

I know that in my own friend groups we've found ourselves making up silly explanations (models even) for why the token on top of the stack gets to go first in Year of the Dragon and why sight lines in Kill Doctor Lucky only count if they're at 90 degree angles.