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  • Engaging Players Through Ritual

    - Brandon Franklin
  • What is engagement? To me it's just someone paying attention to the game and not wanting to do something else either in the game or outside of the game. Basically it's contentment with the interaction they're experiencing. So what is a ritual? To me a ritual is just a specific set of actions that are taken in a certain order for a certain result.

    This subject touches a lot on abstraction in games or how similar game actions are to real life actions. I actually wrote a whole article about mechanics that skew towards real life, which I call diegetic mechanics, and you can read about it on Gamasutra here.

    In summary, diegetic mechanics are verbs the player can take that align with what the character they're inhabiting in the game is doing. So if the character in the game would wait for an elevator then the player is going to be waiting for an elevator. No skips, no cuts, no super fast elevators meant just for you. It maps that real life experience that you've had and the player character has had, and presents it as an action to be taken in a game.

    The method of engagement that this article talks about is an expansion of this idea.

    What Can Be Gained?

    I've wanted to make a video or an article about this subject for a long time. The issue was that I didn't really know why I liked these kind of actions, why that kind of experience was good for a game, or why anyone would ever want to deal with the mundane elements of life in a virtual world where they can all be skipped.

    After thinking about this off an on for months and having a conversation with a indie developer friend of mine I figured it out. I concluded that these things are engaging not because of the actions you're taking themselves but because they promote a mindset and behavior that makes the other actions, conversations, stories, and choices of a game far more compelling. Or put more directly, they make you act in a way that maximizes the enjoyment of the game.

    So they're a device to make the player do what the game designer wants. Just like putting a light in an otherwise dark room, or having a character yell through a radio to "Press the 'A' button! Press it!" But these forms of player direction are entirely external. What I think makes ritualistic actions in games so powerful is that it changes how the player thinks by making or letting them reflect while also acting.

    So Let's Dive Into Some Examples


    Jalopy is game about a road trip with a junky, little car that needs constant care. This game makes you do everything bit by bit, pick up the gas can, open the hood, open the cap, pour in the gas, close the cap, close the hood, take the gas can back to the trunk. Now you have gas. Yay.

    Compare that to a racing game. You have infinite gas in a racing game. Stopping for a pit crew would stop the action and it's just a bunch of pixels anyway so they skip that step. They just let you race.

    Would stopping for a pit crew make you play racing games differently? Of course. You'd need to think about your fuel usage and not only how fast you're going. You would need to strategically get your tires switched to get more traction at critical parts of a race. It makes you think about the game differently.

    Jalopy lets you think about the game differently as well by making you connect with your car. It needs things, it's in trouble. This is not just a trip, it's about how you make the trip. The game wants you to think about the game world so it gives you time to think about the game world, to think about spending money, on what there is to spend money on, and what you can't afford. It does this through the ritual you have with the car you drive.


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