Breaking Boxes

Video games are hard to categorize. Genres bleed and the boxes of traditional media rarely fit. For both gamers and developers, conversations suffer. We can do better.

By nature traditional media categorization focuses on content. Books and movies are storytelling formats. Consumed passively, they can be reasonably grouped in terms of characters, setting, and plot; the content. Video games can and do borrow some of these genres. We have horror games. We have sci-fi space operas. We have modern action blockbusters. But video games are just that – Games. They revolve around user interaction and often exist as toy, sport, or community, as much or more than story experience.

When we look to user interaction we find labels such as: Platformer, Puzzle, Adventure, Fighting, etc. The issue is that there are just too many different ways for gameplay to work. You end up needing qualifiers like: Point and Click Adventure, Side Scrolling Twin Stick Shooter, etc. When this all gets tacked on to the story genres and you realize you’ve still left out important features like multiplayer or that new twist that’s supposed to set your game apart… It’s unwieldy at best.

The core problem is that we’re labeling things. The content, the mechanics, the technology, that’s all just stuff. Collectively that stuff is literally all the game is, but it’s too much to describe concisely. Being unwieldy in discussion is bad enough, but the worst part is that these genre labels are declarative. They say what the game is, not why. As such they fail to function as a source of acceptance questions for new features.

We need to go deeper. We want some way to talk about the why. Why would one player want to experience this game over another? Why should we include this feature over another? We want some set of common threads that concisely encompass the value games provide.

Inspiration on this problem came to me somewhat indirectly. In reading through modern attempts to enumerate human psychological needs I began to notice that I could always match one or more video games to every single need presented. This interested me at the time for a discussion on how games can be so captivating, even addictive at times. But one day I realized that we can flip this around. We can leverage human psychology to discuss games based on the needs they fulfill in their players.

Tony Robbins presents a list of six human needs. They are well described here but the TLDR is roughly:
1. Certainty: We want to feel safe. We like to know how things work so we can predict the future through causation.
2. Uncertainty: We want novelty. We like to find and try new things. We like to take risks, to gamble.
3. Significance: We want to be important. We want to have purpose. We want to be special and needed.
4. Connection: We want to bond. We want to trust. To feel close and in sync.
5. Growth: We want to improve. To become more than we are now. An extension of #3.
6. Contribution: We want to help. Extends #4 and #5, identify with a group and improve it. Expand the sense of self.

I won’t defend the scientific merit nor use in any other context, but for categorizing games and communication with and about players this is a powerful starting point. Note however, that I say starting point. This list is not exhaustive nor sufficient. Taking a moment to run a highly successful game down the list, you’ll likely notice it touches every item in at least some way. This is good, we want to cover all needs when possible. But for grouping and discussion the important thing is to isolate which are important and how they are filled. The specific way a game fulfills these needs is the fingerprint that connects players between outwardly dissimilar games and can help focus design direction for developers.

For example, I’ve played both Minecraft and League of Legends on and off for years. Grouping these based on mechanics, presentation, or content is anything but straightforward. Yet the reason I keep coming back is the same. They provide a value I’ve taken to calling “self expression“. This value fills my need for significance by letting me feel special and different. Additionally it fills connection by allowing me to feel understood and trusted by those I play with. The specifics vary, with Minecraft enabling expression through unique buildings or sculptures while League allows unique choices and play patterns, but the value drawn is the same.

Conversely, the way these games fulfill my other needs differ significantly. The draw of uncertainty in Minecraft is from exploring new areas. League however, has the same map every time. Uncertainty comes in the form of unpredictable opponents and the gamble of risky plays. Another major difference revolves around the need for growth. This is a weak element of Minecraft with most growth consisting of in game construction and acquisition of items. Meanwhile, League has some introductory leveling elements and some permanent progression but otherwise resets advancement with each match. League fulfills player growth with a value I like to call “mastery“. This value is core to competitive games and reflects player knowledge of game systems as well as in game decision making and execution. Note that outside of growth, mastery also fills the need for certainty through in depth knowledge of mechanics and the ability to correctly predict game flow and opponent actions. Mastery also rewards by feeding into significance, in this case by allowing a player to feel extremely strong and impactful when ahead.

The specific value labels used and even the originating list of human needs is largely irrelevant. We gain from speaking in terms of player value rather than traditional genres without regard for uniform jargon. Take a moment to think about your favorite game. Run it over the list of needs above. What needs does it fulfill and how? Which of those are core for your personal enjoyment? Make up your own terms for those values you care about as a player. Then the next time you’re working on a game, see if you can pick out the values it’s fulfilling human needs with. For new features or changes, start asking if they’re supporting those values. If not, maybe don’t do them?

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