GDC 2011 Take-Away: Dynamics: The State of the Art

This was the first lecture I checked out at GDC 2011. This one was definitly a thought provoker; How can your feelings towards something influence how you play the game?

Dynamics: The State of the Art by Clint Hocking, LucasArts

1 – Elephantrocution

Did you ever hear about Topsy the Elephant? Topsy had an abusive trainer, and ended up killing 3 people in her career with the circus. Her owners considered her dangerous, and, with Thomas Edison’s help, they executed her by electrocution. Thomas Edison recorded the whole thing. He sent the film around the country, and it became infamous.

People were moved by what they saw. Did they see a murderous elephant get brought to justice? Or did they see an animal punished for being an animal?

Kuleshov Effect

“Emotion: Agitation or disturbance of mind; vehement or excited mental state.” It is also a powerful and irrational master. – Criminologist, The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It's just a jump to the left...
Where's your effin' neck!?


Back in the 1910s and 1920, film maker Lev Kuleshov was messing around with ways to influence the audience’s emotions with imagery on the screen. He made a short film where he had an actor presumably staring into the camera, and the camera would cut away 3 times to the item he was presumably staring at. First was a bowl of soup, then back to the actor, then to an attractive woman, then to the actor, then to a little girl’s coffin, and back to the actor. Audiences claimed to have seen the actor react differently to each cut back – hunger upon seeing the soup, desire when he saw the woman, and grief when he saw the casket.

Well, nuts to them, because that shot of the actor was the same shot each time. He found that people empathize with emotions shown on the screen with given context (bowl of soup + hungry looking person = hungry, hungry audience). Think back to the scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton beat the daylights out of Jared Leto. The beating was brutal, but what really was gut-wrenching was the look on the faces of people around them.

My Take-Away

Lets take a look at Tetris – line up blocks, rows disappear. Tetris has a simple MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Asthetics (Or, more simply, Rules, Behaviors, Feelings (And yes, I am using nested parentheses in a blog post about design. I’m a programmer, damnit!))). Tetris’s MDA is pretty much Percision, Anticipation, and the will to Keep an Opportunity Alive (not sure if there’s a single word for that). But what if you changed the meaning of the game?

Meaning? What meaning?! It’s blocks falling in Soviet Russia! What kind of meaning is that? What does that have to do with anything?

Well, it’s found that gamers will make decisions in a game based on how they feel for a certain topic. You change the meaning behind something, you change how the gamer plays the game. Lets say, now (and this is the example Mr. Hocking used in the session), that the Tetris blocks were actually people in Nazi Germany, and you were lining them into rows to ship them off to work camps. How would you play then? Would you play it the same way as before and send people to their deaths? What if the score was a genocide counter? Would you, instead, sabotage the game an try to lose intentionally?

Say you’re playing another game, and you find a man held at gun point. You shoot the guy holding the gun, and save the man. The next time you play, however, you find a secret room you missed before, and find that the guy you save murders people. You continue playing and find the man held at gunpoint. What do you do now?

The players feelings will determine the actions they take in the game. You give the player some context, and they could do exactly what you want them to do, or to do the complete opposite. How you affect the player’s feeling will ultimately change the flow of the game.

That’s what I got from this lecture. Pretty mind-blowing stuff. Wish I could sit down and talk with Clint Hocking on game design for a while. I’d probably end up spending most of the time picking up the pieces of my blown mind. That’s all for right now! Take care! Watch out for Nazi Tetris!



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Computer Scientist for Engility, and Indie Game Dev from New Jersey. Loves playing games, and loves making them, too.

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