Why does it seem like modern game designers have such contempt for their audiences? Treat players like guests with Game Design Xenia.
Length: 2325 words, 12-14 minute read
If I was treated in someone’s home the same way I’m treated in modern video games, I’d be out of the door in minutes. And this is exactly how game designers should be thinking of their players.
Treat players as guests
This is the founding principle of my concept of Game Design Xenia.
Xenia is the ancient Greek concept of showing extreme levels of generosity and hospitality to anyone who is a guest in your house.
Xenia goes beyond just offering a cup of tea and a biscuit. With xenia, the more you can offer, the better. You bring the finest wine, the best meat, have a feast, offer fine clothes and a place to sleep. If you can shower your guest in gold and riches, even better. There is no upper limit to xenia.
This was an important concept to ancient Greeks that relied on being on good terms with neighbours to facilitate trade deals. Not to mention that ancient Greeks believed that the Gods could move among them in human form. So a guest could be an important contact from a far away land, or one of the Gods themselves.
Though this concept has fallen out of favour in modern society, I believe the concept has great value when applied to video games. Game designers often begin design with an image in their head of a gamer that is more stereotype that fact. It might be polluted with negativity. Maybe you can only picture a nerdy kid moaning on message boards about your game. Or maybe you’re a freemium design Captain Ahab – more obsessed with chasing whales than creating a good game.
These sorts of mindsets are toxic to good game design
Misrepresenting the needs of the player in your head is the fastest way to create a game that feels hostile and anti-fun, or even exploitative.
But by reframing the image of the player as instead being a guest in your home, you change the energy that you put into the game right from the start.
So how can designers use Game Design Xenia to avoid the frustrations of modern game design?
Well let’s start at the simplest example, avoiding the feeling of your game being a cash grab, or being exploitative, while maximizing monetization. We’ll call this hospitality.
Game Design Xenia example 1:
Now, imagine you’re a Grecian inviting a potential client from Carthage to visit your house for dinner, with the hopes of convincing him to buy some of your goods.
It would be a bad idea to serve dinner and inform him that he’ll need to pay a small fee each time he takes a bite of food. He’s likely to get upset that he’s been lured here with the promise of free food when it isn’t really free and no amount of arguing about whether dinners with micro-transactions are really free is going to change his mind. At best you’ll make a little pocket change and ruin your chances of ever trading with this person again.
Instead, we decide to be a good host and practise xenia. The dinner is a huge feast and you encourage your guest to eat until he’s full. You bring out the finest wines and explain what makes them so great. The guest has so much fun that he almost feels like he owes you something by the end of the night. So when you offhandedly mention that you sell the fine wine he enjoyed tonight in bulk at a great price, he’s much more inclined to buy.
The game design parallel should be clear. Let users sample premium goods first. Let them have a great time in the game before you start pushing them to buy something.
Knowing when to push for a sale and how to go about making a good sales pitch is another topic entirely, one that will be covered in a future article. But none of that even matters if the player doesn’t feel relaxed, or hasn’t experienced the quality of the premium goods firsthand, or doesn’t feel like he’s already gotten some quality entertainment from the game already.
Now this is a simple example which I expect comes intuitively to most. But it’s a good illustration of what I mean by Game Design Xenia. Let’s get deeper into game design theory with something that is very commonly overlooked. I’ll call this next example making people feel at home.
Game Design Xenia example 2:
Make people feel at home
This time, let’s imagine you are a game designer working on a cinematic AAA game. You want to wow people and create an incredible spectacle. Your opening scene takes place in a gorgeous walk through a forest. As the player progresses through the trees, birds and other small animals are triggered to scamper around their feet. At a certain point the player can see through an opening a vast world ahead of them. You imagine the player tentatively stepping through the forest, awed and impressed by the scenery.
But when you give it to your testers, people keep trying to leave the established path and get to the less designed parts of the forest. They’re ignoring all the triggered events as they jump wildly around the scenery. They don’t pay attention to the view of the world as they dash full speed through the forest.
So the solution is easy right? You just have to force the player to play it how you imagine them playing it. You erect invisible walls around your well designed forest pathway. You block access to any command that isn’t walking forward at a tentative pace.
Wrong. This is the game design equivalent of being too controlling of people in your house. Forcing a topic of conversation and getting annoyed when it shifts to something else. Insisting people play charades when no one is interested.
Making people feel at home is actually more important in games than it is is real life
This is something Johan Huizinga talks about in his 1938 book “Homo Ludens”. Huizinga describes a conceptual magic circle in games. Within this circle, people are free to experiment without fear of real world consequences.
‘Play as safe experimentation’ is a key concept of game design that is often overlooked. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga describes play as a natural phenomenon that predates human games. Play is used by both humans and animals as a way to experiment without danger. Young dogs play fighting are teaching each other how to fight and hunt effectively, without hurting each other.
Failure without consequence is a key part of learning and it’s part of the reason why children can learn so much faster than adults. By playing and pretending to do something, children can fail and learn from failures that much faster, since they aren’t held back by the consequences of that failure (e.g. ego damage, which prevents most adults from feeling comfortable with failure).
“Play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age.” – Lev Vygotsky
So going back to our cinematic game example, the conceptual magic circle of that game is far too small. We’ve constrained the players options so much that they don’t have room for experimentation and learning. We’ve taken away the capacity for our players to actually play – which is defined by Huizinga as “the exuberant exertion of energy”.
Bearing in mind the concept of exuberant exertion of energy, let’s think about the classic N64 game Ocarina of Time. How would this game feel if you could only draw your sword when combat with an enemy was formally established? No more wildly hacking at signs or plants for fun. How about if rolling was a context sensitive action that could only be used to get under set objects, not as a primary method of traversing the world?
The magic circle would be reduced, the player choice would be limited and there would be less opportunity to exert exuberant energy. The game would be less fun to play.
The parallels with xenia are clear. Let guests feel at home to do what they want to do. Even if that doesn’t match your grand design of how things should go.
Facilitate play as much as possible. Avoid forcing players to do anything. Avoid punishment for doing something unexpected.
This brings me to the final example of using Game Design Xenia to combat an all too familiar problem in games – overwrought political messages.
Game Design Xenia example 3:
Have discussions, not arguments
Now before you freak out, I’m not against games having a strong political or moral motif. I actually think it’s a good thing that will help games become more seriously considered as an artistic medium. But modern game designers really seem to lack nuance here and actually end up hurting their chances of changing hearts and minds.
Typically moral choices in games seem to be inextricably linked to win or lose states. You either make the right moral choice (which is always the choice that lines up with the designer’s personal beliefs) and receive a reward, or make the wrong one and receive a punishment (or miss out on the reward).
You might think this carrot and stick approach would be an effective way to encourage the kind of thinking you want to encourage, but there are 2 problems here.
- Most players will typically pick the choice that they think is most likely to give a reward, rather than actually considering the issues at all.
- Players that disagree with the designers view will actually double down on their opposing beliefs, due to the backfire effect.
The backfire effect is a cognitive bias that describes the way people confronted with evidence that contradicts their view will typically strengthen those views, contrary to what you might expect.
So lets imagine we’re making a game and we want to make a character homosexual to demonstrate that homosexuals are worthy of respect and should be considered equal to heterosexuals. A noble cause.
To take the carrot and stick approach and punish players who make any negative action towards this character, is the equivalent of trying to change someones mind on a political issue at a dinner party by constantly accusing them of being racist or sexist. The person isn’t going to want to come back to your house and if anything, their frustrations and anger will only strengthen their views.
So how instead can we get inside a players head and get them to start reconsidering their views? We use something called allegory.
Allegory is a hidden message in media. Fables and parables are obvious examples of allegory, with moral messages being obscured behind fairy tale stories.
This is not a new concept. Ursula K Le Guin is a feminist science fiction author who has been using allegory to explore ideas of gender, religion and sexuality in her works since the 1960s. In her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin introduces an alien race called the Gethen, who are asexual but are capable of becoming either male or female when it’s time to mate. Through the Gethan, LeGuin is able to explore the concept of sexuality without forcing the issues. This means that her ideas can be spread to a much wider range of people than if she’d instead written a paper examining sexuality from a feminist viewpoint.
This is a much more powerful way of getting people to change their minds
Imagine again our homosexual character, but this time he’s an alien that spent part of the game as a cute female alien. At some point he decides to change his sex, but his personality and romantic interests remain the same.
In this instance, a homophobe playing this game is less likely to get frustrated and stop playing. As long as the issues aren’t forced and are presented through a logical metaphor, the backfire effect will never happen.
Maybe you’re thinking “well I don’t want homophobes playing my game in the first place!”. But if you aren’t trying to change the minds of people who disagree with you, you’re only going to be preaching to the choir.
This encouraging of the formation of new points of view, rather than trying to push views onto people, is a more Socratic (or maieutic) approach to the discussion of ideas
Socrates saw himself as a midwife for ideas. Rather than present any ideas himself, he’d simply ask questions and let people arrive at his conclusion on their own. People are much more likely to believe in an idea they think they’ve come up with themselves than one that has been forced onto them.
You wouldn’t invite someone to your house for dinner and spend the whole time putting them on blast for their uninformed points of view (I hope). So don’t do it in your game. Suggest, encourage, infer, but never force it.
That covers my 3 examples of Game Design Xenia, but that’s by no means the extent of it. Reconsidering your players as guests in your home has endless benefit to creating compelling and fun games. Let me know if you come up with any other great examples of how xenia can help with a game design problem.
Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, by Johan Huizinga