This week, I once again found myself listening to one of Geoff Englestein’s excellent “GameTek” segments on the podcast Ludology. Geoff’s short segments cover scientific and psychological topics related to gaming, and the topic from this installment – episode 230.5 – was “Implicit vs Explicit”. Geoff’s analysis underpins a foundational struggle underlying game design, one which I feel explains many of the recent trends in the game mechanics found across both video and tabletop gaming. In case you have six minutes to spare, do go listen to Geoff’s eloquent and insightful analysis for yourself:
In this brief segment, Geoff uses a case study from his historical game Versailles 1919 to describe a common tension in game design: when should designers make the systems of a game explicit for player’s to understand from the outset of play, and when should they leave parts of the system hidden such that players must learn by discovery? In his own design, Geoff wrestled with whether or not he should make the political stability of regions explicitly stated on the game board, or if he should make differences in stability expressed varying ratios of each region’s cards in the deck, the latter being an implicit way to show region’s individualities that requires repeated play to learn for oneself.
There is evidence that player’s engage in implicit learning before they can even articulate what they have learned. Geoff cites the Iowa Gambling Task, an experiment in which individuals could draw from any of four decks (each with different ratios of cards) and gained or lost money based on what they drew. Although it took forty draws before most players could articulate which decks they felt were better or worse, after only ten draws players showed stress reactions when they decided to draw from one of the bad decks.
Geoff concludes that designers can leverage implicit information in games to reduce the cognitive load on players. He also notes how video games tend to do this well – hiding lots of information about the strengths and weaknesses of various options so that players must discover the system through play. Implicitly learned systems can likewise create a more immersive experience within the fiction of the game world by not plainly explaining their rules.
Nevertheless, there is a degree of control gamers can gravitate towards when rules are explicitly stated. Many board games are easier to approach competetively as a first time player than many video games, as it’s far more difficult to shortcut the learning curve of discovery than it is to efficinetly digest a rules explanation.
As I read this part of Geoff’s analysis, I realized I saw a trend in popular gaming over the last two decades. Video games often seem to be utlilizing smaller rules systems and online communities that work to provide explicit conslidation of those systems, while new tabletop games are striving for the open-ended allure of video games, wherein systems are largely implicit and left to be discovered.
For example, the most high-profile Kickstarter successes by board game designers in the last decade have been games like The Seventh Continent and Gloomhaven, games with massively expansive worlds and stories to be explored over repeated plays. New types of cards and challenges are unearthed as the game progresses, effectively melding the immersive discovery of video games with the tactile nature and social allure of tabletop gaming. On a personal level, I was intrigued by both of these designs when droves of reviewers called them innovative, and after trying them found myself impressed with the way in which both games put players on a constant brink of discovery, both in terms of the fictional world and gameplay mechanics.
Conversely, one of the major genres of games to succeed in the last five years are battle royal and arcade games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty: Zombies. These games see players repeatedly playing in the same gameplay space, one which is very small by video gaming standards, and striving to improve their performance in game after gme with relatively little randomness to obstruct the player’s agency. Sound a lot like a digital implementation of a tabletop game? I think so too. Moreover, the increasing popularity of forums and write ups in video gaming communities has led to more sharing of explicit information than ever, and increasing numbers of players are flocking to these articles to find out the exact mechanisms at play behind their favorite game’s flashy graphics. In essence, video game communities are writing and sharing the rulebooks to their games, even though rulebooks are an often maligned attribute of tabletop gaming.
I don’t foresee these trends continuing forever, but I do think they represent much needed growth from designers in both digital and analog games. Implicit and explicit systems have their place in all kinds of games, and judicious employment of each is crucial to design. As a game designer, I’m keen on identifying the strengths of various mediums, but I also love to identify where design has restricted itself based on unfounded assumptions. Why should a Skyrim fan limit their gaming to digital worlds when analog games like Gloomhaven might satisfy the same itch? Mediums should indeed play to their strengths, but all games can bring in new audiences and innovate in their respective fields by studying other game forms and rethinking hitoric assumptions.
– Dylan Kistler