Upcoming Events
Unite 2010
11/10 - 11/12 @ Montréal, Canada

GDC China
12/5 - 12/7 @ Shanghai, China

Asia Game Show 2010
12/24 - 12/27  

GDC 2011
2/28 - 3/4 @ San Francisco, CA

More events...
Quick Stats
65 people currently visiting GDNet.
2406 articles in the reference section.

Help us fight cancer!
Join SETI Team GDNet!
Link to us Events 4 Gamers
Intel sponsors gamedev.net search:

The Yin and Yang of Games: Code and Content

Avoiding the breakdown

The experience of a game breaking down is not pleasant for the player, bringing boredom and emptiness and doing little to convince people that gaming is not an abstract, nerdy pastime. Games that break down are in effect betraying their own content, and betraying the gamer's understandings of that content. But it can be avoided if developers realise that what they are doing is consciously deciding what a game object can be. By using subjective content to represent a fixed, underlying order, they are actually engaged in building a particular perspective, a particular way of viewing a world. Knowledge of this could be very empowering for an artist, and could lead to a new expressionism, new artistic styles that accurately portray what the designer-defined object is underneath.

There are other, less esoteric ways of avoiding a breakdown. Games that offer visceral experiences such as first person shooters and some driving games show that if the system is fast enough and intense enough, then the player will not have time to look around and perceive that something isn't quite right. But the code game demands that the player comes to total system knowledge eventually as he/she increases in skill and comes to understand the structures underneath.

Some designers have maintained that the more complex and hidden the underlying system is, the better the experience for the player, I agree to a certain extent. This works to a degree in non-goal oriented games such as Sim City and Black and White. Games with a definite goal break down by definition: the existence of a certain goal in the code game implies the existence of a limiting system. The breakdown in non-goal (or user defined goal) games comes when the player understands the game environment, and what it allows him to do, the goals he is allowed to pursue.

Graphical realism can cause a breakdown if this realism is not reflected in the underlying system. In older games I think we are more willing to forgive breakdown because the game objects they contain are so vague and unrealistic. They do not infer many real world qualities so gamers are more likely to accept the ones given by the developer. For the designer, this is a question of balance, of finding the right way to represent an object or character with just the right kind of detail to suit the game.

It seems to me that this breakdown occurs in every representational system. The only system that could avoid breakdown would be a system of such scope, and such great interactivity that all the content used in the game was completely context-free at the system level, that is, a system that lets the user create his or her own perspective. I cannot tell whether such a system would ever be technically or even philosophically possible. Even the gathering of data for such a system would force a point of view, by the nature of who or what did the gathering. But that is for the future. At least by understanding the relationship between code and content we can have a clearer picture of what a game can be.


Poole, Steven , Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Video Games (Fourth Estate, 2000)

If you have any comments relating to this article, or would like to discuss its ideas, please feel free to contact me at: richarddare@netscapeonline.co.uk

Copyright © 2001 Richard Dare

  A Hidden Process
  Avoiding the Breakdown

  Printable version
  Discuss this article