Gaming the Game

Posted on 25/08/2010


One recent mechanic found in a insanely fast rising number of modern game designs are morality systems. Those are inherently worthy of their own discussion, so I will leave discussing those systems specifically to another time, while taking them as a primer for a discussion about something else: Gameable character customization. Gameable character interaction. Background mechanics that oftentimes don’t stay in the background.

Many modern games taking over certain influences from RPGs have background systems that can be used to tailor the player’s avatar in certain ways. From the character’s “social” standing in the game world to outward appearance there are a lot of tightly customizable things in recent games. And in that there is a problem, that some if not even most of those system encourage minmaxing, gaming the system, and thereby – possibly – demeaning the gaming experience and to a certain extent breaking the narrative of the game apart.

It can be argued of course that there is no right or wrong way to play a game, and some people just like exploiting a game’s systems for their own ends. Which is inherently true, if something is possible within the confines of a game’s mechanics, it cannot be wrong to persue it.
Still, in order to get the most out of a gaming experience, for the developer being able to pursue a certain artistic vision, some design choices prove to bring the message – for better or worse – across better than the other.

Ideal and experimental situation: A game that has all these stats, but never shows them to the player, levelling according only to the player's actions in the game.

One example of gameable mechanics would be the Bethesda approach. Every action a character takes, leads to him leveling up the skill that the action is connected to. Jump a lot, you get good at jumping, run a lot, your stamina rises. The origin of this system is clear, the character is supposed to get better at something because he does this something, maybe even a lot.
This system starts getting into the what I dub narrative’s way, in the way of the coherent world, when the player starts ‘abusing’ the system, and – for example – starts jumping around like crazy in order to improve his jumping skill. Then the player is no longer really playing the game, then the player has started gaming the mechanics.

This is something inherent to a lot of roleplaying titles, where character actions see more or less instant rewards, and where the underlying numbers game is always easily accessible. In a way it’s just one step removed from the good old “why did you guys attack the goblin camp? They never harmed you, or did anything to provoke you? – Well, you know, a goblin makes 2 XP, and I was just 10 away from gaining the next step.” problem of desktop RPG.

Disruptive displays of game mechanics can seriously break flow.

Ideally, character and interaction mechanics should be invisible, ungameable, and just find representation in how competent a player character acts in the world and the social sphere of it. But that is indeed ideally thinking. There are very few games that handle that kinda thing in the way I would prefer. Heavy Rain for keeps all systems behind the scenes invisible, without any measurable, gameable impact of the player’s actions.

Usually I am quite far from being a “games need realism” person – but in this very case I would really like games to be more like real life. I can’t tell which of my actions influence my social standing with my peers by a percentage rating, I can’t tell how regular exercise increases my STR rating, or how the clothes I wear impact on my attractiveness score.
I don’t ask for games to mimic real life’s ultra complex systems that govern how well liked, attractive or strong my characters are. I just ask for games to hide their systems and not make the players endlessly converse with the guys behind the curtains.