Often, many of the choices we make when designing games can be made unconsciously or based on intuition – which might be on the mark, but also might result in experiences that are uneven, subject to whim, or non-cohesive.  Can identifying how design choices function together as a system help us to design more meaningful game experiences? 

If we consider that games are actually a communication medium, then if we want to make meaningful experiences, that communication needs to be clear and cohesive. The choices that we make when designing games matter in ways that go beyond whether or not they are purely ‘fun’. It sounds obvious, but the reasoning behind design choices is all-too-often overlooked and not scrutinized.

In music, everyone intuitively understands that minor keys are ‘sad’ and major keys are ‘happy’ (broadly speaking) – and that if I want to write an uplifting song – to communicate the emotion of joy or hope, that I’m not going to choose a minor-key (and if I did, that is a very meaningful choice – because I am obviously breaking the ‘rules’).

Like music, games also have a set of underlying rules that communicate ideas and emotions, some of which they have inherited from other media. Identifying, learning, and manipulating those rules is one of the ways that we can move towards designing more meaningful experiences in games.

Luckily for us, there is already a set of tools to help us discover and harness these rules. In the academic world, Semiotics is the study of systems of meaning. Someone who studies Semiotics, a semiotician, could decide to study the systems of meaning in games (and people do!).

I’m not going to provide the kind of lengthy and in-depth analysis here that an actual semiotician would (and I’ll spare you the jargon too!), but here are a few early ideas on how we could use some of the principles of semiotics to approach game design, taking into account a few of the ways that a game can use symbols and style (its “semiotic building blocks” so to speak), to create a meaningful and cohesive experience for players.

Tone and Style

When we take a look at the presentation elements of a game, we may think “Hey, that looks cool!” And certainly it may very well look cool. However, graphic and audio choices are deeper than just aesthetics or “how they look.”

For example, think back to when all games featured 2D graphics. Well, many of your players will also remember all of those 2D games, and they bring all the knowledge of those games to any current games they may play. So say if, in the year 2011, you decide to create a game using 2D instead of 3D, the game may not only “look cool” but it will also trigger the memories and emotions that players have regarding those old games. Is that something we want in our game? Do we want the player to compare our game to those classic games? Do we want them to remember what it was like to play one of those games for the first time? Are we simply on a platform that is better suited to 2D?

There’s an entire level of “meaning” embedded in the design and aesthetic choices we make, sometimes entirely on instinct – and learning to be conscious of those meanings can be a powerful tool.

Rules and Mechanics

One of the biggest differences between games and traditional media are the rules that govern your interactions with the game. These rules govern the world in a way that imparts meaning to every action. In a game you have the ability to drastically alter the laws of physics, dictate the situations in which players live or die, design entire economic systems, and craft experiences that were never before possible. It is worth considering then, that all of these choices that surround the mechanics of a game have meaning, and that they work together with all the other elements – audio, visual, input – in order to create the experience in subtle ways.

Designing rules and mechanics largely centers on whether or not it’s fun, but each one also brings a level of meaning to the game. For example, a game in which you can win by diplomatic means creates a very different “worldview” for the player than one in which you can win only by physically conquering the opponent. In other words, it is not simply a rule of play but also is imparting meaning by suggesting a particular view of the world for the player.

Tying it All Together

What we gain from thinking about these aspects of our designs is the ability to start to see the subtle interconnections between all the various parts, and how they work together as a system to create worlds.

If we think back to the example about major and minor keys, we can now hopefully see how that by spending some time reflecting and studying our design choices, we can begin to understand similar rules at work within games.

Creating games, like all other media, means making a lot of hard choices. It makes sense to delve into the impact of those choices, and to understand how both the things we choose to leave in, and leave out, impact not just the functionality, but the ‘meaning’ of a gaming experience.

The important point I hope I’ve conveyed here is that by breaking games down into their fundamental building blocks, and understanding how they function, we can learn to systematically approach game design so that game elements work together, creating a cohesive, meaningful, and fun experience for players.