In the last post I was wondering where the sense of urgency was for creating meaningful games. It even sparked some interesting discussion on whether or not one should reduce the solution to a formula. I don’t think we’re in a race, but I think there seems to be a disconnect between the number of people willing to play/calling for games that are more deeply meaningful and the number of people doing something about it.

Brandon Boyer GDC 2011 #1

A Definition

Several developers have asked “What does a meaningful game even mean?” This is a very fair question. Here is my own attempt at a definition of “meaningful game.”

Meaningful game: a game that has significance or provides purpose for how one lives life.

Games that are meaningful try to reach outside of themselves. They are about more then their own consumption. Maybe they give players deeper empathy, or sympathy, or comfort, or inspire an action outside of the game world. They are meant to transform, even if it’s just a little bit. A game that’s “only fun” might be nostalgic by referring to past 8-bit games, while a “meaningful game” might be nostalgic by referring to a child-parent relationship.

Earlier I linked to a video of Brandon Boyer’s GDC talk. He mentions the 3 artists he keeps praising whenever he meets people. His reason for continuing to share them was because their art was meaningful to him in this same way. Their art affected how he lived.

Brandon Boyer GDC 2011 #2

There are some games out there that create this effect…as a secondary, often temporary point that serves some other goal. But very few games are completely dedicated to this, and there are even fewer resources for how to make more games like that.

The Problem

So why the disconnect? Part of the reason is that when a designer sits down to try to create meaningful gameplay, it’s simply hard to know where to begin. It’s easier to start designing a competitive fighting game dedicated to gaining coordination skills, or an RPG dedicated to managing stats well or character development in an armor-building or combative sense.

But what about a fighting game that explores the philosophy of fighting? What about an RPG dedicated to character development in an emotional or psychological sense? Let’s get real here. Do we even know it’s possible to dedicate a sizable game to something like that?

There just isn’t that much out there to build on, even for smaller games.

A Possible Solution

Therefore, we need some baby steps. We should hold game jams fully dedicated to meaningful gameplay. It’s a chance for designers to help each other learn how to make more meaningful game experiences and to explore the potential for games to affect peoples’ lives.

What happens at a meaningful gameplay game jam? We each explore a game mechanic or other non-mechanic game element using prototyping tools. That means the intention is not to create an entire game, but to explore an element of a game from multiple perspectives. The challenge is for a developer to pick a mechanic or element that would result in meaningful gameplay and (1) develop several prototypes of it in the first 36-40 hours or so. The last 8-12 hours would be dedicated to (2) writing a critical analysis of the resulting prototypes in a text document and then having a (3) show & tell to share the prototypes and analysis. Then the analysis and feedback would be (4) posted on a website dedicated to meaningful gameplay to share with the game development community. That way we are providing resources for making all these meaningful games that everyone was asking for at this year’s GDC!

An Example Result

When I explain the idea to people, I keep going back to Jordan Magnuson’s Loneliness as a perfect example of this. If loneliness as a mechanic was explored at a meaningful gameplay game jam, you’d have 4 or 5 different versions of where he put his “message” or different versions of how the boxes moved around, followed by an analysis of how he thought the concept was communicated in each version.

Jordan Magnuson's Loneliness

Then later, as a developer who wanted to create a game that explored the concept of loneliness, you could go to the website, play through the prototypes, read the analysis of what the developer thought, and then start prototyping your own, maybe completely different, take on loneliness. The resources help you keep in mind something that did or did not work, or otherwise they just give you food for thought.

The collection of prototypes and analyses acts as a scientific journal of sorts for game design that other designers can then use. So you’d have something that’s not only useful for the creators, but also something useful for the game development community at large. That’s a good thing because you will then rely on that community in the future to help you improve.

A more informal version of this is already happening at sites like Experimental Gameplay Project. It’s just that there’s usually less analysis since developers are rushing to finish a game for a competition.

But What About Art?

Some developers have suggested that this sounds like meaningful experience is being reduced to something easily quantifiable, like a mathematical formula. I am very grateful to see this, because as a person who enjoys good debate, I would probably be presenting the other side as well. But that is not my intention.

It would be hard to disagree that there are (at least) two sides to the process of making games: the artistic side and the design side. This is a problem with the design side of games, not the artistic side. I think great progress can be made in game design through more experimentation, critical analysis, and building off of each others’ discoveries, as evidenced by science as a whole for the last 1000 years or so.

Noby noby boy

When it comes to the artistic side of games, Keita Takahashi seems to have it right when he says that progress can made in games through game developers living a rich and varied life and taking in inspiration from many things outside of the field of games. So let’s assume that a game developer who wants to create meaningful games will fulfill artistic needs in a more personal way, or at least in a way that’s less relevant to a quantifiable design process. Most of us have the life experience needed to at least take games a step deeper, either through trying to communicate our own experience or through creating a “space for searching.”

In the end, this is meant to improve the craftsmanship of design and its process. Its the ability to take what needs to be communicated by the artist and successfully express it through the medium of games, or the ability to build the space for searching. That ability is something we’ll need in order to create more meaningful games, and this kind of game jam could help develop it.

Special thanks to Jerry Shkavritko for suggesting I take the meaningful gameplay analysis idea and match it with a game jam!

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Comments ( 11 )

[…] written a post on my own blog detailing how a Meaningful Gameplay Game Jam is different from normal game jams. Check it out if you’re […]

What to Expect at a Game Jam | Meaningful Gameplay added these pithy words on Aug 11 11 at 2:10 pm

[…] = {"data_track_clickback":true,"ui_language":"en"};Josh Larson of God At Play wrote about meaningful game play. Josh’s definition: Meaningful game: a game that has significance or provides purpose for how […]

Meaningful Game Play Game Jam | GBGames - Thoughts on Indie Game Development added these pithy words on Aug 12 11 at 10:02 am

I support this idea and I would like to participate in any “meaningful gameplay” game jams that come about. :)

axchoNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 18 11 at 11:49 pm

There’ll be a jam the weekend of August 12th-14th in Iowa and on the internet. Can you make that work? Because I’d love it if you could. :)

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 19 11 at 12:57 am

The jam is interesting, although it’ll depend massively upon the group of people you get.

It’s certainly true that meaning in games can be made more straightforward with attention to the mechanics, it’s hard to distinguish an application of those mechanics from satirical reflection. As with poetry or anything else, a poor attempt at the form will often be crude but can still be effective.

There have been a slew of titles with monochromatic visuals and introspective titles. Classical or discordant music is used, sometimes without any sort of response or consequence. The number of games in which you control a circle or geometric abstraction is large. Whilst I’m a proponent of what are best referred to as mopey walking games, I’m also very conscious that we’re seeing a lot of common building blocks, often handled crudely and without empathy.

Art Games often feel like a ‘for or against’ situation, and it can be hard to discuss, defend or criticise anything within the genre without facing hostility. I’m glad to see people trying to push the medium forward, but I also hope we’re big enough to see the limitations of our own work.

DockNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 19 11 at 2:36 am

Thanks for commenting :)

Yeah, I know what you mean. I guess I’m more excited about the game’s formal qualities rather than its aesthetics. The thing that’s exciting is that I get an emotional feeling simply through the stripped-down interaction delivered at an effective pace. And almost most important of all, the process revealed through the game’s form seems right on.

Regarding the common building blocks handled crudely and without empathy, the goal of these jams would be to learn to create building blocks that are helpful, refined, and full of empathy. But overall, the focus would be on process over result. And if the result is crude, the analyses should help illustrate what elements tend to make a game crude!

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 19 11 at 3:13 am

I think the descrepancy between the desire to play meaningful games and the practice of creating them is quite normal. It’s easy to want to play “something meaningful”, whatever that may be, surprise me, etc. But nobody really wants to “create something meaningful”. In my experience, creators capable of creating “something meaningful”, have a very specific desire. They don’t want to talk about anything that happens to be meaningful. They want to share specific ideas and emotions. I think a lot of people who have these creative desires are simply not attracted to the medium of video-games. There’s a multitude of reasons for this and until these have been dealt with, there will not be any significant number of meaningful video-games. This is one problem the games industry cannot engineer its way out of. This is about passion, desire, vision, talent, inspiration and not about pipelines or engines or best practices or office policies.

Michael SamynNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 20 11 at 6:42 am

Thanks for commenting, Michael. Well said.

You’re right, engineering will not create meaning. But a better design process could help refine how meaning is communicated.

I think passion, desire, vision, talent, and inspiration are exactly the kinds of things that can be fostered by community. I’ve already seen it start to happen in the notgames community.

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 20 11 at 1:25 pm

One of the great thing about the medium of video-games for me is exactly that it’s not a medium for communication. Or it can be something else (or a new type of communication). A new type of medium where meaning comes out of exploration. I am familiar with this type of exploration, this search for meaning, through my artistic activity. And with the interactive medium, now it beomes possible to allow the audience to also engage in this exploration, rather than uni-directionally broadcasting the result of such explorations, which I fear “communicating meaning” might degenrate into if one searches for general tools and design processes.

So I think the concept of “a better design process” in your jam should be defined very broadly. It should be about establishing a kind of attitude, an approach, a mindset, a (re-)orientation. And for that, I’d recommend looking at artistically more mature media. Asking questions like “What is it that a painting, film, poem, song does to me?” and ” How can I achieve the same (or better!) effect through my medium?” is more fruitful than breaking one’s head about “How can I making people believe in my truth?”

Michael SamynNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 21 11 at 3:03 am

A new type of medium where meaning comes out of exploration.

I really resonate with this comment. I think early attempts at inserting meaning in games becomes a didactic exercise that strips free will from the user. You, the user, are told where you should go and what you should do and how you should act and you’re not given any option.

In real life, truth is often found by discovery. It is something that is sought out. and when it is found, you’ll do anything you can to attain it. Matt 13:44


Asking questions like “What is it that a painting, film, poem, song does to me?” and ” How can I achieve the same (or better!) effect through my medium?” is more fruitful than breaking one’s head about “How can I making people believe in my truth?”

I fear that meaning in games without truth will become a bit like emotional pornography. Where, as designers, we’re more interested in making the user cry because crying is meaningful than offering them an open framework to discover a truth we’ve hidden.

I hope meaningful games don’t become a method of titillateing the user with meaning. I want the designer to have something to say, a truth they want me to discover or a situation they want me to empathize with.

I think you’re right in saying I shouldn’t beat my head about “making people believe in my truth,” but i don’t see much reason to make anything if I don’t have a truth the reveal.

RyanNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 22 11 at 11:34 am

Great discussion guys! I resonate with this as well:

A new type of medium where meaning comes out of exploration.

Because there is “meaning coming out,” I think it’s still communication, just not in the broadcast sense. You’ve talked before about how this is a medium of being, and I really think you’re on to something. The delivery is not told like oral tradition or even shown like cinema, but is more of an enabling of being.

However, enabling being still involves craftsmanship. It’s still our job as artists and designers to make sure the meaning is unlocked in an effective way, even though the meaning isn’t handed to the player explicitly.

Right now I’m not really sure how to do that well as a designer. So I’d like to figure it out with others and share those discoveries with everyone. :)

godatplayNo Gravatar added these pithy words on Jul 22 11 at 12:49 pm

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