Effectance in Game Design

What: Master thesis (topic: use and possible application of the “effectance” concept in game design)

Where: University of Applied Sciences in Augsburg, Germany

When: Summer semester 2011

“Effectance” is a term used in motivational psychology and refers to experiencing one’s own influence on the environment. That experience is seen as inherently enjoyable, and is cited to explain, among other things, the exploratory behaviour of small children or animals.

In recent years, it has been proposed that the effectance principle can be applied to fundamentally explain the fascination with interactive forms of entertainment. Digital games, so the suggestion, provide extraordinary feedback to a minimal effort, and therefore provide a particularly strong effectance experience. In my master thesis I sought to examine the effectance principle and its suggested relevance for the enjoyment of digital games, specifically in terms of how that might benefit the game design process.

Klimmt's key dimensions for the enjoyment of interactive entertainment: The cyclic feeling of suspense and relief, the identification with the player character, and the experience of effectance.

One of the most important aspects for the experience of effectance is feedback. Only through feedback will the effect caused by one’s own action be registered, which is required for the effectance experience. Feedback is, of course, already a very important aspect of game design. But so far the literature on game design merely suggests that good feedback has to be functional. Feedback conveys important gameplay information, and bad or insufficient feedback is said to be a cause of frustration. But according to the effectance principle, feedback is the source for the enjoyable effectance experience. Thus game designers should view and design feedback not merely as conveying gameplay information and as having to be functional, but as one of the game’s sources of enjoyment.

In order to make use of the effectance principle, a game designer should consider both, the interaction opportunities the game provides and how an interaction is signalled via feedback. Players can often interact in very different ways with computer games. There are, for example, the simple interactions with a game object or character via a controller input. More profound interaction with the game world might require a long series of controller inputs, a prolonged play session, or choices made by the player. In the thesis, I propose to differentiate between four different “layers” of interaction, to aid a game designer in examining the various gameplay elements of a concept in terms of their provided effectance experience.

The basic layer refers to the most straightforward types of interaction, where the player pushes a button and triggers a response in the game. These actions require immediate audio-visual feedback in the form of sound effects or animation.

The central layer refers to the player formulating concrete game play strategies and employing them during game play with varying degrees of success. The interaction does not take the form of simple actions being executed via a button press, but of the player deciding on a particular approach for the gaming situation. His chosen approach might lead to a differentiated outcome or a more or less beneficial result, and the game should adequately convey that the particular outcome is the consequence of the player’s chosen approach.

The advanced layer refers to more far reaching effects on the game world or narrative. In some games a player might conquer large parts of the game world or might be able to affect the progression of the story. Such influences are usually not the immediate result of simple controller inputs, but the consequence of choices made at some point in the game or the result of longer play sessions. Such significant influence by the player should be conveyed in the game’s narrative or in the presentation of the game world.

The external layer refers to the possibility to influence another player. Technically, a player will influence another player in every type of multiplayer game. However, this layer addresses massively multiplayer online games in particular. Not because of the large number of players, but because of the unique form of interaction that only occurs in these type of games. In regular cooperative or competitive multiplayer games, all players knowingly and willingly enter into the multiplayer scenario. Each player is aware of the agreed game goal, and of his role to either play against or in support of other players.  In MMO games, however, while cooperative and competitive play is possible and encouraged, it is not required, and players will sometimes play these games in sessions without an intention to play with others. During such solo play sessions, the player will none the less occasionally run into other players from a friendly or a hostile faction. In those situations, one player can chose to engage the other player either in a supportive or hostile manner, without that being a mutually agreed playing scenario. In those instances, the acting player draws gratification from having affected another player in a helpful or in a harmful way, and the feedback and interaction opportunities can be designed to support that.

Essentially, one of the fundamental virtues of interactive entertainment is that the player can experience his own actions on a fantastic environment, and it is up to the game designer to design those experiences. He will decide how the player can influence the immediate environment in the game, whether the player can choose to play the games on his own terms, whether the player can have a significant influence on the development of the game’s story or game world, and in what way other players enjoying the same game can be influenced. And a crucial part of the game design to facilitate such experiences is the various feedback to all those actions.