Why Do We Play?: Aesthetics Of Play

Dusting the draft entries.

I think the game design discussion is quite limited today due our inability to create a well defined set of concepts that compose agame design theory. If you have read this blog before, you might noticed that theory is actually developing, but the fact is that  most game developers (and I’m talking about every conceivable definition of game developer) aren’t thinking about that set of concepts, they are thinking about making games, which is good, but is not the only thing necessary to move the field forward.

One thing that worries me the most is how we describe games based on its most basics characteristics. People doesn’t realize that we, as developers, often don’t have a way to talk about an specific game in a descriptive unique manner, as we could do with movies. The thing is that cinema, as well as other art forms, has a very well known set of concepts that define what a specific instance of cinema (a movie) is trying to express or communicate, and that’s what is missing in games. Well, is not actually missing, is not widely spread to be honest.

We end describing games in very vagues terms, often refering to specific game components such as art design, music, animation and so on but, and I know this is source of debates, those components aren’t what games are known for nor the most efficient way to describe them.


Mechanics are what make games different from other media, and the primary way to describe them. So, what does it take to describe games in terms of their mechanics?

When we go to a movie we usually know what we are looking for in that movie, and that reason is the way we define cinema genres: you don’t watch a war movie looking for comedy to be the main reason driving the plot, and if in fact comedy is the reason, we change our perception of that movie from war movie to a comedy set in a war. We don’t go to a romantic comedy looking for the same experience we would expect from an adventure movie,  or a musical, or a drama. There is an underline reason we watch a specific movie genre.

We could expect the same phenomena in games: we go to a specific kind of games looking for an specific set of emotions, in the same way we go to movies, but the difference lies in the way each media delivers those emotions. So, given that (and I will assume you agree with this idea) cinema and games have different ways to deliver emotions, a fundamental question can be formally stablished:

Why do we play games and how do we can describe efficiently those reasons?

Back in 2000 Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek wrote a paper on the matter called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, which is one of the first and most solid attempts to formalize game design. I wrote about it  a few months ago comparing it to another formal source. I encourage you to read both the original paper and the entry in order to fully grasp what I will share below, because what I’m trying to do here is to complete what is missing in the first text. I focused mostly in the Mechanics and Dynamics part of the MDA Framework, now is time for the Aesthetics.

(Also, every single entry about game design in this blog is heavily based on that paper, so you could read the rest of the blog if you want a deeper approach of what the paper says)

Aesthetics could be defined as the set of emotions a game is delivering, but that’s not a very useful way to put it, the best way is: why I’m playing this game? the answer, whether or not we can explain it clearly, is what we would call the aesthetics. And as I mentioned above, these aesthetics are different from the aesthetics on other media, because the way games deliver them. We can specifically talk about The Aesthetics of Play.

The authors of the paper listed a quite small set of aesthetics that can describe every single game we play. Those aesthetics are: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, Submission. Let’s take a look on each one of them.

Sensation: Games as sense-pleasure. Is what a game makes us feel by stimulating our senses. Is the reason why we play games based on a particular game engine: OMG!, did you see what Unreal Engine 4 can do!. But isn’t limited to realism, or even to graphics. We could play a game because its unique art style, or its compelling OST. What made Wii games unique is that they stimulated a sense not quite developed in games to that point: tact. What about the time when games will stimulate taste and smell? and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because the five sense notion goes back to Aristotle, and nowadays our senses expand to a larger list, and it is actually not finished. So there’s that.

Heavy Rain


Gears of War



Fantasy: Games as make-believe. Is basically putting the player in a role is not able to be in real life. Do you want to be the next Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? FIFA is for you. Do you want to experience the adrenaline of a soldier recklessly saving the world? Call of Duty is the way. Do you want to be compare to Jimmy Page? Rockband is the game. Of course you can argue that every game puts you in a role you are ussually not able to be in real life, but thats a point you can make about every single aesthetic in this list, so I will get back to it later on.

The Ellder Scrolls: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII

Narrative: Games as drama. The story we are witnessing instead of the one we , as players, are creating. This is maybe the reason why cinema and games are compared, and often confused. When you go to a movie you are witnessing a particular set of actions that correlates to tell a particular story. Of course games could do that, but you aren’t only witnessing, you are part of the story. So when a game focus more on the witness part from time to time you could say it’s delivering on Narrative. I developed  more about this point in the entry cited above, and in these two: I , II.



The Curse of Monkey Island 2

The Curse of Monkey Island 2

Challenge: Games as obstacle course. In one word: Mario. That’s it. I can’t explain it better than that. Seriously. There is a lot to say about Challenge as an aesthetics, but is not the goal of this entry.



Super Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy



Fellowship: Games as social framework. Everything that traces back our need to feel part of a pack, a community or clan, that’s Fellowship. You know where the examples are pointing at: every single Zynga game is delivering on Fellowship, but of course we have better examples out there.


World of Warcraft

Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead

Discovery: Games as uncharted territory. If we play a game to find out new ways to finish it, or new lands to walk into, new results to different combinations of mechanics, that game is delivering Discovery.

Age of Empire 2

Age of Empire 2

The Incredible Machine

The Incredible Machine



Expression: Games as self-discovery. The need to stablish a sense of self is a need for expression. We dress in certain manner, listen to certain music or watch a specific kind of movies because they help us to stablish that sense of self. They help us to express ourselves. Games are actually a very powerful expression tool for the players, not only for the creators, and I believe that is the major difference between games and other media.





The Sims 2

The Sims 2

Submission: Games as past-time. This could sound weird, but is the need for disengage. We came home, after a hard day, and then we plug some RPG just to level up a little bit. We now how to do it, where to go to do it.  There is no major mental effort there, we do it just for distracting ourselves for the hard day we had. That’s Submission.



That list was created to be comprehensive, but not be complete or absolute.

First of all, to talk about the absolute part, we should introduce the concept of Core Aesthetics. That would be the main reason you play a particular game. As you should conclude from what I said talking about Fantasy, games are delivering more than one aesthetic at a time. Mario tells an story (Narrative), but you don’t play Mario for the deep and intense drama involving Mario, Peach and Bowser (because there is none, the story is just an excuse), you play Mario for Challenge (and maybe Sensation). You could like the art design of World of Warcraft (Sensation), but you are primarily going to that game for Discovery and Fellowship.

Core Aesthetics is the main reason you play a game, but also the best way to describe it. You often could describe a game using one, two or three Core Aesthetics. In the images above, Skyrim not only delivers on Fantasy, but on Discovery and Challenge too, Portal delivers on Challenge and Narrative and so on.

What is impressive about this list is it can describe a very large set of game experiences, allowing us to understand each game as deep as we desire. For example, depending on what game mode you are playing, Minecraft could deliver every single aesthectic. Age of Empires II could deliver Submission as Core Aesthetics if you set the difficulty accordingly, even when Submission is not a Core Aesthetics meant by the game, and Narrative in GTA IV is (somewhat) an optional Core Aesthetics of the game.

We can explore and describe game not only inside of the limits of its purposes, but above and beyond them.

What about completeness? the guys at Extra Credits added another aesthetic to the list: Competition, that would be games as expression of dominance. Every single AAA multiplayer game is delivering on Competition. Also, they changed the term Submission to Abnegation, which describe better what that aesthetic means (and avoids the sexual innuendo implicit in it) So, the list isn’t complete, and as long as we continue developing games we will find different aesthetics that isn’t developed enough or even discovered yet.

Modern Warfare 3

Modern Warfare 3

Is this one the only way to describe the Aesthetics of Play? No, it isn’t. And actually isn’t the first either.

In 1989, Richard Bartle studied  what kind of players one can find in a MUD game. He came up with four categories.

Achievers: Point gathering as the main goal.

Explorers: Discovering the internal machinations of the game, from land to mechanics, as the main goal.

Socializers: Knowing people and what they have to say as a main goal.

Killers: Imposing themselves to others as the main goals.

Those categories are known as Bartle’s typology, and it was the first attempt to clasify the Aesthetics of Play (even when the objective wasn’t exactly that). You could easily see the resemblance of MDA perspective there: Achievers want Challenge, Explorers want Discovery, Socializers want Fellowship and Killers want Expression (and Competition, if we allow ourselves to expand the original paper)

On the other hand,  Katey Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their seminal book Rules of Play talk about the Typology of Pleasure, what I think is a way to generalize the concept of Aesthetics of Play. They included the MDA perspective (but credited only to LeBlanc, the original creator) but also included two more typologies that I think are worth mention.

The first one of those comes from the eassy A Structural-Phenomenology of Play (1991) by psichologist Michael J. Apter. He created a list based on which cognitive arousal play can provide. I share the list with a very short description based on what Apter studied (as cited by Salen/Zimmerman) and its equivalent in MDA framework.

Expose to Arousing Stimulation: intense and overwhelming sensation. It’s basically Sensation.

Fiction and Narrative: emotional arousal from character identification. Narrative and Fantasy.

Challenge: Difficulty and frustrations arising from competition. Well, that. Challenge. We could also include Competition taking into account the MDA paper expansion.

Exploration: Moving off the beaten track into new territory. Discovery.

Cognitive Sinergy: Imaginative play. It’s mostly related to Expression, but also to Fantasy and Discovery as ways to improve and enlarge the original scopes of the game.

Facing Danger: risk withing the “protective frame” of play. Challenge and Competition. Discover could be related in particular instances.

Negativism: deliberate and provocative rule-breaking. I left this one as the last because there is no particular equivalente in MDA framework. You could argue that Fellowship could be related, because rule-breaking is only provocative to other players, but is not the way LeBlanc et al. intended to describe Fellowship as an aesthetic. The same thing for Expression: rule-breaking is an expression of the self, but is not the only thing Expression can embrace. Actually, Negativism is an interesting subject matter regarding the very nature of play as Johan Huizinga defined it, but it’s a discussion far beyond the scopes of this entry.

The second typology Salen/Zimmerman gathered is original by sociologist Roger Caillois in his book Man, Play and Games, first published in 1958. Caillois defined four fundamental categories to describe the phenomena of play:

Agon: Competition and competitive struggle.

Alea: submission to fortune of chances.

Mimicry: role playing and makes-believe play.

Illinx: vertigo and physicall sensation.

As Salen/Zimmerman point out, Caillois categories are a very condensed version of the MDA perspective, which offers a very generalized framework to describe games, and also includes chance, totally ignored in the MDA paper.  You could refer to Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery (and Competition) in terms of Agon, Submission in terms of Alea; Fantasy, Narrative and Expression in terms of Mimicry and finally Sensation in terms of Illinx.

Notice that both Caillois and Apter works are prior to LeBlanc’s. Caillois published his little eassy more than fourty years before the MDA framework was stablished, but Caillois wasn’t study games under the same perspective LeBlanc et al. did. Caillois was interested in games as a social phenomena, and LeBlanc et al. intention was more directed to create the fundations of a game design theory.

Keep in mind that this theory applies to every kind of games, not only videogames which are the only examples here.

I want to develop more on this regard in following entries, but for now I think this is enough as an introduction to the subject.

Hopefully you can find it useful.



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