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The Designer's Notebook: Don't March, Dance!
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The Designer's Notebook: Don't March, Dance!

October 28, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In his latest column, design consultant Ernest Adams explains why, instead of concentrating on the complicated, realistic, and ugly, games should aim to create joy in players -- and how "joy" is a distinctly different idea from "fun".]

Emotions were all the rage in game design circles a few years back, before casual gaming came along to distract us with big pots of money. It was the buzzword du jour; many people thought that if video games exhibited, or elicited -- they're closely related -- more emotions, they would attract bigger audiences. Sony even named the PlayStation 2's CPU the Emotion Engine, which was excessive -- but marketing people are shameless.

The simplest games aren't emotionally subtle. Abstract games normally produce only two: the "Yahoo!" of triumph and the "Damn!" of frustration or failure. There are sometimes others: suspense, boredom, relief. More representational, less abstract games evoke additional emotions through the games' characters, situations, and stories -- aesthetic pleasure from great artwork, pathos from sad endings.

Multiplayer games arouse still more because they involve interactions with real people: jealousy, anger, protectiveness. Even though nobody sees emotions as the best way to make bigger sales any longer, games are becoming richer all the time.

But it seems to me as if there's one that's missing. I'll illustrate it with an example from another medium.

Back in 1963, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band underwent a revolution. The students took it over from the university.

They got rid of the traditional Sousa music and quasi-military uniforms (marching bands are the last remaining vestige of the Napoleonic wars) and replaced them with a huge rock 'n roll repertoire and a decidedly non-uniform getup, one element of which is "the ugliest tie you can get your hands on." New instruments arrived: the drum section now includes a stop sign, a beer keg, and a kitchen sink.

What the LSJUMB lacks in precision it makes up for in exuberance. Aboard airplanes, they're fond of imitating flight attendants' safety instructions en masse. They run everywhere, and turn up without warning to play in unexpected places.

Their self-chosen signature tune is Free's "All Right Now" (with a little of Beethoven's Ode to Joy thrown in), which has to be the least aggressive "fight" song in college football. The band's mascot is a dancing pine tree taken from the university's logo, which again contrasts sharply with the usual bears, bulldogs and Trojan soldiers. They are irreverent and incredibly loud, and above all, they don't march, they dance.

The Stanford band is about music and joy. There's plenty of music in video games, but there doesn't seem to be much joy. I can't remember the last time I experienced unalloyed joy when playing a video game. Too much marching and not enough dancing.

But isn't joy just fun by another name? Not quite. Joy is unmixed pleasure. Fun is more complicated. It can include the dark and dangerous. People think it's fun to go to horror movies, but horror movies don't elicit joy. Entertainment is richer still; it doesn't have to be fun at all. Serious movies such as Schindler's List and serious books such as Lolita aren't fun, much less joyful, but they are entertaining. Video games seem to be stuck in the middle.

What kills joy? Almost anything, really; it's fragile. In games, any Twinkie Denial Condition will kill joy (and speaking of Twinkie Denial Conditions, December's column is the annual No Twinkie roundup, so send 'em if you got 'em). Marching kills joy: Grinding. Frustration. Repetition. So does negativity: Ugliness. Cruelty. Fear. Death. These are qualities we associate with hardcore games and with games made for teenage boys, to whom joy is a distinctly uncool emotion.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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