Tuesday, September 18, 2018

What if Mario could choose his Princess?

I had my game design students read Keith Burgun's "What Makes a Game?" essay. I think it's an interesting perspective for helping students think about the roles of decisions, solutions, and ambiguity in their game designs. I used it myself a few years ago in a retrospective on my own game design projects. As I have done in the past, students had to bring with them examples from each of Burgun's four levels: Interactive System, Puzzle, Contest, and Game. I pointed out to my students, as I will also do for those of you unfamiliar with Burgun's taxonomy, that the names of these levels are essentially arbitrary: he's not claiming that only things at this level in his taxonomy count as "games", but rather that the things at this level in his taxonomy are what he references as "games." This is reminiscent of the classic McDermott article, "Artificial Intelligence meets Natural Stupidity," which points out that just because you make a Lisp function called Understand doesn't mean that you've made a program that understands anything.

A student presented 2048 as an example of a Puzzle, Super Mario Bros as a Contest, and Hearthstone as a Game. This was enough to spur serious conversation when I asked if the rest of the class agreed or disagreed. Students provided reasonable justifications for their claims. Once the conversation settled down, I clarified the taxonomy based on having read several other essays by Burgun as well as his two books, Game Design Theory and Clockwork Game Design. In one of those (I honestly cannot remember which), he uses Super Mario Bros as an example of a Puzzle because there is a series of inputs that will lead you to the "correct" solution. I pointed out that, in Burgun's lens, the choices you make in a level are not meaningful, not in the same way as the moves are in a game of Hearthstone. We also discussed how you could turn a Puzzle like Super Mario Bros into a contest by, for example, trying to beat your past high score, or by playing it in a tournament, but that now you're essentially making a new Contest where Super Mario Bros is one of the elements.

This got the students thinking back to their understanding of the reading, and I asked them to look at their peers' work, which was posted to the classroom wall, to see if they saw anything in particular that they thought strongly exemplified—or completely missed the boat about—Burgun's taxonomy. One jumped out to me: a student had identified Fallout 4 as their example of a game. I asked if, after the previous discussion, they agreed with this assessment. A student responded that, indeed, because the game has multiple endings and your choices are meaningful to which ending you get, that it was therefore a Game. This got me thinking about the Super Mario Bros example, so I took the devil's advocate position and asked, "What if, at the end of Super Mario Bros, you got to choose whether you got a blonde princess or a brunette princess? Would that now make it a Game instead of a Puzzle?"

We had actually run a minute over time, and so I left them with the challenge of considering where Fallout 4 fits into the taxonomy. As we packed up, one of my students told me that he was pretty sure it was "just" an Interactive System, and not a Puzzle, Contest, or Game. I encouraged him to write up his thoughts on the discussion board or share them in our next meeting.

I wanted to capture this little piece of my teaching experience in part because I like the idea of adding "narrative choice" to Super Mario Bros. I think we can all look at that and say it's not really an interesting decision, but it's harder to distinguish the systemic differences between choosing your princess and any of the binary-ethical-choice BioWare games. Isn't Mario choosing his princess effectively the same as Commander Shepard seducing a selected crew member? What if it didn't matter what you did the whole game, you just picked an ending that you wanted? Then, as I was writing this, I realized that I was describing the conclusion to Deus Ex.

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