Three Papers by Jesper Juul

Three Papers by Jesper Juul – A brief synopsis of his recent works relating to computer game design.

*Note, all of the papers below are available for free from the Jesper Juul’s website (linked above).

Paper 1 – Zero-Player Games

Juul’s analysis of gaming looks closely at the players themselves and how player is defined. Importantly, the paper shows that there’s a distinction between games and gamers, and also, that games do not require a player (the player-centric model).

Zero-player games are games which require no significant human interaction for the game to be played. These are divided into four categories:

  1. Setup only games – games where the player starts the game and observes (without interaction) the remainder of the game.
  2. Games played by AIs – simply, games where the computer (AI) assumes the role of the player.
  3. Solved games – Games played by computers with the purpose of solving it – such as figuring out guaranteed winning moves, etc.
  4. Hypothetical games – non implemented games designed to describe or examine a question.

By understanding how games can be played without a player, paradoxically, the player can be more easily understood. Juul concludes with five distinct player traits:

  1. Players have continued agency
  2. Players as humans
  3. Players as temporal beings
  4. Players as having intentionality
  5. Players as having aesthetic preferences

Juul’s paper shows that a distinction can be made between game (artifact) and games (the activity). As well, it gives a strong rebuttal to the dominance of the player-centric model, since it doesn’t actually centre on players and overlooks their aesthetic preferences.

Paper 2 – Easy to use and incredibly difficult: On the mythical border between interface and gameplay

Interface and game play are seen, by many as Juul suggests, as vastly different. He argues that there’s no distinct border between the two. Interface is the tools (software and hardware) used to affect the game state. Gameplay is the core activity of the game.

The analysis focuses on defining the two elements and understanding how they have been used in game design. Importantly, Juul looks closely at the relationship between interface and gameplay, then compares their realisation in various games.

He concludes that gameplay is usually a simple premise or idea made challenging by the interface. The purpose of games is to be fun. Doing so often requires challenging the user. There’s a lot of fluidity between interface and gameplay. Because games are entertaining they are not always designed to be efficient. Intentionally adding inefficient elements to the gameplay or interface increases difficulty. This is a desired effect.

Most importantly, games provide an opportunity for the gamer to improve certain skills.

Blizzard uses the term skill differentiation to describe how requiring a range of skills allows a player to grow: a real time strategy game can have “twitch” skills, multitasking, strategic thinking, understanding of economy, knowledge of a map, and so on, as skill differentiators.

This means that difficulties of interface or gameplay simply become a skills hurdle for players to jump. The gameplay and interface in games is often blurred and, as games become more innovating, is redefined.

Paper 3 – The Fear of Failing? The many meanings of difficulty in video games

The role of failure in games is interesting and important to consider. Juul explores two important questions regarding failure.

  • What is the role of failure in games?
  • Do players prefer games where they do not feel responsible for failing?

There are two approaches to looking at “winning” in games.

  • Goal oriented – where the focus is on winning, which should be made as easy as possible
  • Aesthetic perspective – where there should be a reasonable combination of challenge and variation

Added to that are the methods of punishing players for failure.

  • Energy punishment – loss of energy, usually leading to life punishment
  • Life punishment – losing a “life”, usually bringing the player closer to game termination
  • Game termination – ending the game, forcing the player to start from the beginning
  • Setback punishment – making the player “replay” the game from a certain point

When a player fails, they might attribute the failure to three possible causes.

  • Personal – personal traits, skills or disposition (eg. I didn’t move fast enough)
  • Entity – the characteristics such as the game elements (eg. The enemy in game is too powerful)
  • Circumstance – luck, chance or other transient causes (eg. My fingers slipped off the controller)

Juul developed an empirical study, based on an earlier study by Malone in 1982, to test how players responded to different punishments (energy punishment and life punishment). The study concluded that players prefer to feel personally responsible for failure when they play a game. When players failed, then succeeded, they gave a higher rating for the game, reflecting that they felt more satisfied. This is in comparison to players who didn’t fail at all and players who failed too often (both groups gave less positive reviews of the game).

From the overall analysis, four observations were made about games and failure.

  1. The player does not want to fail (feels sad, inadequate)
  2. Failing makes the player reconsider their strategy (making the game more interesting)
  3. Winning provides gratification
  4. Winning without failing leads to dissatisfaction

This is an interesting outcome. Gamers want games to be difficult. While they hope to win, gamers will fail and feel personally responsible. Once they’ve reviewed their strategy and tried again, they will eventually win. The gamer feels gratification and is satisfied with the game.

Failure in games creates a sense of depth. Failure forces the player to re-evaluate strategies and practice their skills. Doing so reflects improvement and success (overcoming adversity).

A game should be neither too easy, nor too hard. Failure adds content!

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