Analyzing Games

Part I: Past Models and Principals

Games and game design are expressive and creative activities which should be placed alongside film, literature, and painting as artistic endeavors. Few people recognize them as such. One thing which seems to keeps games and gaming from being generally accepted as art is that it lacks a critical theory or language. This is not to say that there have not been attempts to do so. This is a brief look at one.

One of the first and arguably the best known is the famous GNS. GNS stands for Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist. These are labels used to identify the major divisions of game design under this theory. According to Wikipedia, the theory was first named in 1997 and is based upon the “Threefold Model” that arose from discussions in the newsgroup. It was further developed by Ron Moore and others on his Indie Games development site, The Forge.

Ron, realizing some of the flaws in the GNS system eventually moved on and formed a new design theory he called “The Big Model”. It is largely concerned with modeling game design in a hierarchical structure and attempts to unify many of the disparate elements which go into the experience of playing an RPG, focusing attention on those parts the designer most desires to bring to the fore.

Both of these theories have their flaws and a number of detractors.

The GNS framework of game design types provides some categorical structure but its usefulness is undermined in that many popular systems are split across its categories. For instance, D&D has a large Simulationist component aside the obvious Gamist portion. Legend of the Five Rings can be classified as somewhere between Gamist and Narritivist because of its heavy reliance on players’ description of actions. About the only pure games according to the GNS method are Simulationist types such as GURPS. This raises questions of its usefulness. Since GNS does not provide a clear classification of gaming systems then analysis can become muddled and confused. Not a desirable artifact when attempting to create a systemic method of analysis.

GNS also lacks a critical language. While Ron Edwards and others have developed and published a sort of glossary it is not restricted to GNS and includes a wide range of lexicon created in the quest for better RPG design.

The Big Model, since it was built on GNS, shares many of these same flaws and is criticized in other ways. Most of the valid criticism is centered on the big assumption of the model. Which is, everyone participating has the same ideas and desires as to the outcome of the story being played through. A demonstrably large flaw considering the prevalence of players known as “griefers” and “munchkins”, both of whom seem to have more fun as individuals and often at the expense of the groups’ experience.

Game design, especially for RPGs, is not an easy task. The designer is asked to examine many different aspects of human interaction and come up with a system that allows everyone taking part a chance at having fun. Analysis of those ephemeral parts which go into the experience and fun is even harder. It should be of no surprise that the first major theories of RPG design have serious flaws.  But, and this is the important part, these represent the first steps towards that much needed critical theory. It started the conversation, one that in future entries I will continue.

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