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Level Five: Architectonics
Beat 5. Participation
Excitement & Enchantment
Now that we have explored the nature of autonomy and agency, choice, decisions, and problem space at some depth, let’s turn our attention to participatory play.
By definition, participatory play is taskless play. No physical tasks, no cognitive tasks, no empathic tasks. It’s just the player and their character, the level, and the excitement of being there.
This excitement can take different forms. Let’s have a look at three of them that are probably the most relevant and most frequent: suspense, spectacle, and communality.
Suspense is the activity of waiting for something to happen, coupled with the pleasures and anxieties of anticipation. It’s when you’re standing on a hillside in a real-time strategy game, having arranged your troops into an effective battle formation, or so you hope, and watch the enemy’s army approach. It’s when you are playing a turn-based game or a multiplayer game and wait for another player to make their move. It’s when you crawl through an air vent, hide in a basement, or cower under a tree in the forest at night in a horror or survival game. It’s when you guard your team’s flag and wait for the enemy’s assault. It’s when you ride an elevator to the topmost floor, or wait for the elevator to arrive. It’s when you’re at the plate and the pitcher takes their own sweet time. All these situations, and countless other situations like them, are participation through suspense. If done well, none of these are in any way less exciting for the player than answering a physical, cognitive, or empathic challenge.
Spectacle is the activity of marveling at the extraordinary. This can apply to elements from the Plurimediality territory, from the Narrativity territory, and from the Architectonics territory as well. It’s not exploration, which is often a task, but it can be the result of exploration. When a dazzling landscape enraptures you. When you watch an epic conflict unfold. When you’re listening to the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. When you appreciate a beautifully crafted item. Or, for Architectonics, when you contemplate a surprising turn of events. When you’re enthralled by a sudden insight. When a mysterious character captivates you. When you’re absorbed in an illuminating conversation. Every time the player is confronted with something extraordinary, there should be room to marvel, to appreciate, to digest.
Communality is the activity of partaking in something larger than oneself. Being a part of the Tenth mounted legion or the 1960s Packers. A social movement, a sorority, a crime syndicate. A flash mob or a festival. In Digital Storytelling, Carolyn Handler Miller points out the similarities between highly participatory video games, especially MMOs, and highly participatory religious holidays, like Yom HaKippurim. These similarities are striking. Being part of something larger than oneself is established and expressed through customs, rituals, and ceremonies, the making of history and the cyclical reenactment of that history. Myth, of course, is a powerful corollary. Certainly, communality is suffused with tasks of all kinds, physical, cognitive, and empathic. But it’s not these tasks that create the rewarding emotional experience of participation for the player. It’s the commitment to such tasks by way of obligation, duty, and sacrifice.
There’s another, different approach to taskless play, developed by Brian Upton in Situational Game Design. His three components of what he calls non-interactive play are anticipation, interpretation, and introspection. Anticipation certainly corresponds to suspense in our model, and elements of both interpretation and introspection are related to our model’s spectacle. But there’s a crucial difference between these two models. Upton’s model focuses on outcome-oriented moves, developed within the player’s mind during non-interactive play, to solve situations and resolve meaning. Our model focuses on taskless in-the-moment participation. Needless to say, both approaches can complement each other nicely. It’s like two sets of tool boxes that you can mix and match, and each box is filled with endless possibilities.
Wrapping up this beat and its preceding beat, agency and participatory play are both essential design parameters. Their respective uses vary from game to game and from game type to game type. They always need to be handled with care. Horror games or MMOs are high on participatory play by design, twitch or bullet hell games are low on participatory play by design. In between, there’s a world of game types and games whose playing experiences you, as a game designer, can refine with the just-right combination of participation and agency.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One and Level Six.
Level Two through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.