The Nature of Games in the 21st Century

By Lewis Pulsipher [03.05.09] Title box"I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure: which is: Try to please everybody."
—Herbert B. Swope

Games have changed over the past few decades, because player preferences have changed. It's hard to say whether video games helped cause this or merely take advantage of the differences.

If you are designing for publication, you are not designing a game for you. You are much too unusual to be representative of a large target audience.

As a designer you need to be aware of these changes. If the target audience for a game is people 50 and older, their game interests will be quite different from those of the latest generation (Millennials born around 1980 and younger).

I am going to contrast present-day preferences with those of the 1950s-80s, and you'll see how video games fit these newer preferences.

Here is a list of these characteristics. Afterward, I'll discuss each one.
(These remarks address both non-electronic and video games. Most of game design is the same whether you use computers or not, and if you're starting to learn game design, you should be designing non-electronic games because they make it easy for you to experiment with your results, rather than be caught in the "production trap" where you spend almost all your time trying to get the video game to work. See "Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning.")

Title boxPositive scoring mechanisms that reinforce success and encourage the player to continue. A great many board games now use point scoring to determine success, and this was adopted by video games decades ago. Moreover, have you ever seen a game take points away or run points into the negative? The purpose of points is to immediately reinforce what a player has done and to encourage the player to continue. In contrast, an older game like Monopoly uses money as a substitute for points, and you lose money almost as often as you gain it. Other old games such as chess and checkers have no reinforcing mechanisms -- you lose pieces and rarely gain them.

Disinclination to plan or study. Games tend to be more active, more frenetic, than in the past. People want to do more than they want to think.

In the video game world, simpler games can include the rules within the game, with minimal reading. More complex games such as Civilization IV have manuals, but few players read them, even though those who do read learn enough to become experts long before the players who don't read the manual.

In non-electronic games this tendency manifests in "sequence of play" rules. In older games, rules were written to be read thoroughly before play. They were organized to be easily referenced when a player forgot a detail.

Now most rules are written in sequence of play style, on the assumption that the players will try to play the game while reading the rules for the first time. If that's true, then the rules must follow the order in which the players will try to do something in the game. This makes for a poor reference, unfortunately. But the fact is, most game players want to be taught how to play rather than read the rules, and if no one can teach them, they often try to learn the game as they play.

Players won't write things down. Many non-electronic game publishers want nothing that requires written records in a game, and that's a given in video games. The typical mechanism used in non-electronic games is a scoring track where a marker indicates the current score for each player.

My board game Britannia, originally published in 1986, had always required use of a score sheet to write down victory points. When the second edition was published in 2006 by Fantasy Flight Games, the company did not want to require players to write anything. At first they were going to use a scoring track, but I suggested that in a four-to-five hour war game, likely someone would bump the game board or otherwise foul up the scoring. So they decided to include scoring counters in three denominations. As players score, they receive appropriate counters.

Many Britannia players, given a choice, will still keep score on a score sheet. But when players agree not to keep track of the score separately, then the counters provide some uncertainty about scores, and consequently about who might be ahead.

Players won't do even simple math. People are now very poor at doing math in their heads --"new math" and calculators have had a lot to do with this. I've seen intelligent young people count up the dots on dice one by one rather than quickly make the sum. And I've known intelligent young people who could not figure out the amount of a 10 percent tip at a restaurant (let alone 15 percent).

If this is true, why would people want to do math as part of a game, unless it was specifically a mathematical game? Video games take care of this automatically, of course, but board game designers have had to adjust how they do things.

Title box Players want a reduced number of plausible choices, and not many pieces and items to deal with. Many popular strategy (war) games of the 60s and 70s involved moving dozens of cardboard counters each turn. There were many choices, much to think about. This has gone out of style: in a sense we're back to centuries-old traditional games where only one piece is moved at a time. This "piece," in video games, is usually the player's avatar.

This helps avoid "analysis paralysis," where the player has so much to think about that he cannot decide what to do.

This is related to entertainment. Fewer people nowadays regard a thinking game as entertaining. So they want a game of physical challenges, or a game with only a few plausible choices at any given time, perhaps we could even say, a game where intuition (which is quick) is just as useful as logic (which frequently is not quick).

Not much down time. Players are less content with waiting for their turn than in the past. They want to constantly participate in a game. There is much less interest in patience, or in downtime that enables one to plan one's next move.

Board games and card games can achieve downtime reduction with constant trading of resources (Settlers of Catan), with simultaneous movement, with small partial plays during an overall turn so that there's less time between each part of a player's turn, with interrupts (such as event cards) that a player can execute while another is playing. Video games are frequently simultaneous, all players playing at the same time, so the problem is rarely an issue.

No look-up tables. Look-up tables, such as dice-roll combat tables, were common in board games of the 60s and 70s. Now, players don't want to look anything up. Often, cards are used to supply the rules/tables needed at a given time. In video games, of course, the computer keeps track of the tables and the rules.

Episodic. People have shorter attention spans, perhaps because there are so many distractions, so many ways to spend one's leisure time. In any case, games tend to be more episodic these days. Many board games are a limited number of turns: you don't actually play to completion (where one player predominates), you play for a while and then rely on the score to determine who won. Many card games are naturally episodic, as you play one "hand" after another. In video games, the entire concept of "levels" is a way of making a game episodic. The end of each level is a natural point to pause or even to save the game and stop playing for a while.

Dice versus cards. This is not something strongly related to video games, but is obvious in board games. Many people nowadays do not like dice rolling in games. The preferred method of introducing a random element is cards. Cards are more manageable than dice, and much nicer to look at as well. Yet there are still many popular games, such as Risk and Axis and Allies, that are "dice-fests." In video games the action of "dice" (random chance) is hidden away, but it's often there; nonetheless, many players don't like to feel that what happens is randomly determined.

No player elimination. In most video games, a player is never eliminated; he can go back to his save game, or he simply re-spawns. In older non-electronic games, players were often eliminated, knocked out of the game, as they are in Monopoly. Of course, in a two-player game when one is "eliminated", the game is over; here I'm talking about games with more than two sides. Today, player elimination in board games is quite unusual.

Players may have an inviolate area to survive in, or the game may simply have a time limit that will be reached before anyone can be eliminated. Moreover, in many cases, the game is designed so that most players have a chance to win at the very end of the game-do you want to continue to play if you have no chance at all? For example, there may be a progressively increasing scoring scale, or some mechanism allowing a surprise win.

Insofar as the popular Euro board games have grown out of family games (some people refer to them as "family games on steroids"), it is not surprising that there is no player elimination, as that would leave someone out of the family fun.

Simple and short. Games tend to be simpler and shorter. "Simpler" is related to a dislike of reading rules (many teenagers skim almost everything they read, rather than read it thoroughly). "Short" is a matter of attention span. This sometimes means games that rely on intuition rather than logic, as intuition comes quickly, while logic generally requires information-gathering and long thought (sometimes resulting in "analysis paralysis").

Many people simply won't play a long game, or think they won't. They often find that if the game is satisfying, they'll play two or three hours, at times; but many aren't willing to try.

The trend in video games toward short experiences (casual games) and toward episodic play, reflects these changes.

Title boxPacifism. This can be quite surprising for the hardcore video gamers, who tend to prefer games where things blow up or die. But remember that half of game players are women, and the great majority of female game players are not interested in violence.

It is quite easy to find gamers who just will not attack other players. Games that are essentially multiplayer solitaire are fairly common in the board game world-you can't do anything to harm or much to hinder the other players' situations. "Euro"-aficionados might put this differently, saying that the games use indirect means of influencing other players rather than the direct means common in war games.

The extraordinarily popular board game (and now video game) Settlers of Catan includes the "robber" in order to give players some way to negatively affect other players; yet this can be seen as a kind of kludge, perhaps added on when the game was otherwise too much like multiplayer solitaire.

Sharing and cooperation.
The millennial generation is known to prefer sharing and cooperation more than preceding generations did. Competition is sometimes frowned upon by parents and teachers. We also now have a higher proportion of adult women playing games than in the past, who tend to be less interested in competition and more interested in cooperation.

People are much more interested in games where you build up things, than games in which you tear down an opponent. (Yes, the hardcore video game players are an exception. They often like to destroy.)

Perhaps the popularity of the Wii and Wii-like games reflects this change. Dislike of player elimination is another indication. The out-and-out pacifism of some players is another symptom.

Much stronger visual orientation. In the age of color television, of computers, of the Internet, this is hardly surprising. Inasmuch as people are less likely to read, they are more likely to be interested in images and good looks. Just as some players will criticize a video game for outdated graphics, players will criticize board games for "boring bits" (components). One reason why cards are much more popular, and dice less, in non-electronic games is that cards can include colorful, varied, interesting illustrations.

I've even heard a teenager say that music "isn't real" until he sees something to go along with hearing the music. Hardly any older person would have that point of view (except perhaps for opera?).

Uncertainty of information is much more common. Traditional games, even commercial ones such as Monopoly and Risk, have "perfect information" or nearly so. On the other hand, card games were the bastion of hidden information. Early video games provided perfect information, as nothing was hidden from the players. Now hidden information ("fog of war") is the norm, thanks to the power of modern processors. In board games, too, the use of cards and upside-down tiles is much more common, introducing uncertainty.

Player interaction without overt conflict.
In war games the inevitable conflict results in constant and strong interaction between players. In traditional commercial games not about war, such as Scrabble and Monopoly, some interaction exists but is not based on violence. Interaction in card games can vary a great deal from one design to another. Modern board games have many ways of encouraging interaction that were uncommon or unknown decades ago, such as auctions and trading. Early video games, almost always one player against the computer, technically involved no player interaction at all, though there was plenty of interaction with the computer opposition.

Much of the interaction in video games is still based in warfare and violence. But we have seen an increase in non-violent games, as in The Sims, in resource management games such as Settlers, in "casual" games such as Bejeweled and Diner Dash, and in a great many games made for the Wii. You could argue a case that the "real future" of interactive video entertainment is in games with more than one player and with lots of interaction among players, often of a non-violent nature.

Young and old game playersGenerational Differences
I have already described many characteristics that differ between generations. Here I'll try to generalize about them. Some people prefer to think that everyone is the same, but employers and researchers have seen that there are definite differences between generations, and have described how this affects game preferences. Entire books have been written about generational differences, this is only a taste that will help you be aware of how differently people think about games.

The Baby Boomer generation is highly competitive and willing to forego immediate gratification for future reward. They don't need constant encouragement to continue playing, in contrast to much younger people who do expect immediate reward for any accomplishment.
Generation X, people born between about 1964 and 1979, tend to be the generation of the lone hero, in game terms, while Millennials or Gen Y (born around 1980 and later) tend to think in terms of sharing and of groups accomplishing tasks.

The MMO is the new face of video gaming, then, because it can accommodate both, in the individual adventuring that appeals to Xers and the multi-player raiding that appeals to Millennials.

As you can see, modern video games reflect most of these changes very well, though early video games often did not. I'd guess that the changes came first, and video games reflect them, but video games have certainly reinforced these differences, as they've become part of the national and international consciousness.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, was described in a recent "Armchair General" online review as "one of the great titles in the world of games."

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