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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Gamism Theory

Gamism is, in its ideal state, the whole of entertainment, plus the whole of art, presented in a digital medium. (See Semantics, Semantics, Part 2.) In the remainder of this post, I will be referring to this absolute gamism, and not the current sad state of affairs, when I talk about "gamism". In other words, this new system of classification aims to be applicable to all Forms, and not only those currently considered by the general public to be "videogames".

But first: What is a Form? A Form is a discipline used for the creation of individual works. Each Form contains native design elements, which are the units the game is made out of. The recognition of particular design elements is subjective, and is usually open to interpretation. For example, if a platformer asks the player to jump from one platform to one of two others, it can be seen as containing nothing more than animation and input, or it can be seen as containing a "risk/reward cycle", or it can be seen as a small part of the world design, or the decision of which platform to jump to can be seen as a puzzle. Very often, isolated design elements can be seen as individual works themselves, and analyzed accordingly. For instance, world design and puzzle design are both Forms in their own right, yet each can be contained within a larger work as nothing more than a single element of the design.

I will discuss several separations between different types of Forms*------- (The most famous is the divide between "forms of art" and "forms of entertainment", but I won't get into that here.), but the first distinction I must make is between "simple Forms" and "complex Forms". A simple Form's design elements contain one "dominant element", with all the rest being "subordinate elements" which serve the dominant element. For example, the exploration Form's dominant element is world design, and any other elements, such as puzzles, music, or interface all (in theory) serve the world design. Therefore, exploration is a simple Form. A complex Form is one which has not one dominant element, but several which complement each other. For example, film contains both video and audio as design elements, but they complement each other by each providing an aspect of the experience which the other could not.

Every design element produces some sort of value for the player - I call this content. Content can be a burst of adrenaline, or world design, or engaging the mind, or frustration, or sound, or control, or just about anything else you think has a value. The "primary content" of a game is the content of its dominant design element, and "supportive content" is the content of its subordinate elements. Story is a special type of content because it is made up of the combination of other contents. If you follow one emotion with another emotion, that's a basic kind of story. A story of some sort (literal or more vague) will always be created in the mind of the player even if no story is intended by the gamist, because that is the result of the combination of design elements present. So in a complex Form with no single dominant design element, the primary content is the story produced by the game's elements.

Sometimes a game contains secondary content (and with it a second set of priorities), in addition to the primary content inherited from its Form. Almost always, such a game can be expressed as "a X serving the purpose of a Y". For example, The Sims is a simulation serving the purpose of a dollhouse. It follows all the traditional rules of the simulation Form (a simple Form) including using the dominant design element of rules for addictive gameplay, but it also inherits the dollhouse's dominant element, which is the reflection of day-to-day life. So its primary content is the addictiveness of its micromanagement, and its secondary content is its depiction of ordinary life using doll-like characters. When a complex Form, such as the RPG, follows this model, the foreign dominant design element takes the place of primary content, since there is no native dominant element to take precedence. For example: Pokémon is an RPG serving the purpose of a collectible series such as sports cards. Normally, an RPG's primary content would be story, since as a complex Form there is no single dominant element. But in this case, there is a foreign element to take precedence; Therefore, Pokémon's primary content is collectibility.
How does it help to know which content is primary?
The primary content (and secondary content, if there is any) is the main source of the game's identity in the mind of the player. As such, it is usually best to focus artistic efforts on the primary content more so than the supportive content so that the game stands out and creates an identity for itself. This knowledge can also help in the creation of sequels; the primary content is the only part of the game which absolutely must change or improve from original to sequel so that it does not become redundant.

Additional laws and terminology

Some Forms are fully contained in larger Forms. For instance, as Rayman 2 proved, the platformer is part of a more general Form (which I have no name for) which includes such games as Ball Revamped. The larger Form is called a "parent Form", and the smaller one a "sub-Form". It is valid, though pointless, to view all of gamism as one parent Form with a tremendous number of sub-Forms.
The term "Form" should not be mistaken with "genre", which is the classification of the style of a game's primary content.

A "strong Form" is one whose dominant design element is flexible enough to allow for many different genres, while a "weak Form" is one whose dominant element isn't. The terms should generally be used to deal with small sub-Forms, since almost every reasonably large Form is strong.

If one segment of supportive content is a short interactive game, and it is not native to the Form of the containing work, then it can be called a "minigame". A noninteractive segment, under exactly the same circumstances, is called a "cutscene" or "transition". I don't know why such a silly distinction is made, but it is, and this issue is too trivial to be worth fighting over, so I accept this terminology. A minigame/transition has no impact whatsoever on its container's classification.

Forms evolve over time, gaining new rules and breaking old ones. Occasionally, the native elements of a Form evolve to the point where they can be isolated and expanded upon as new Forms. This new Form can be called a "derivative" of the complex Form it broke off from. For example, the exploration segments of the RPG evolved until there were clear traditions for the specific exploration of towns (as opposed to other areas). This design element broke off into the "communication-game" Form with Animal Crossing. We can say that the communication-game Form is an RPG-derivative.

A "hybrid" is the result of combining the design elements of two separate Forms. For example, David Cage's Fahrenheit is an adventure-film hybrid, since it takes elements from both the adventure (heavy level of scripting activated by player input, interactive dialogue trees, object selection, etc.) and film (acting, choreography, camera movement).



The line of thought which led up to the ideas in this post can be seen in this post on the Tale of Tales forum:

Primary Content

The distinction between a hybrid and a game with secondary content is a bit fuzzy to me. But here's the idea: If the elements of a game are all native to its Form, but it's got a different focus, then that focus is secondary content. If it's got elements which didn't evolve as a part of its Form, then it's a hybrid.

I've totally rewritten the definition of primary content, and adjusted the rest of the post accordingly. It's still messy, but it sort of makes sense now.


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