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Game Design as Make-Believe: Imagination

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Based upon part one of the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial.

Game designers are tremendously imaginative people, and as such we often make a serious error in dealing with other players: the great majority of people have vastly more ordinary imaginations. This observation – which should be a truism given the popularity of predictable soap operas, 'reality' television, true stories and other down-to-earth entertainments – goes unnoticed so frequently that a great many imaginative people (both game designers and otherwise) find themselves expressing dismay that such-and-such a game is a commercial failure while yet another war-based first person shooter racks up mighty sales.


I first began to appreciate the idea that imagination was a talent in varying supply when I was a teenager, playing tabletop role-playing games every week. My older brother, whose physical skills outstrip mine in virtually every context, mentioned to me that he'd be interested in joining our games but he felt unable to do so when the entire game was verbal. If we would play with lead miniatures, say, to represent what was going on in the game, he would be up for it, but in the absence of this it would be too hard for him to keep up with what was going on. I didn't realise it at the time, but I was discovering an important facet of human imagination: the easier something is to imagine, the more people can participate.

This is the secret behind the success of World War II shooters (and indeed Modern Warfare), the reason for the popularity of games based around real cars, and a key aspect of the appeal of Wii Sports. Any game hoping for astronomical commercial success has an easier task if it minimises the amount of imagination required, and the more that such demands are reduced the larger an audience can be reached. Even the obvious exceptions often have mitigating circumstances: Pokémon is a rare case of a wildly successful imaginative franchise, but its popularity was greatly aided by the accompanying cartoon series which assisted players in visualisation. In general terms, you can count on the formula of 'greater imagination required, smaller numbers of players attracted'. (Note, however, that there is a psychological trade-off involved in the talent of imagining, and people who are highly imaginative generally suffer from other issues, frequently including problems with social integration).


If this claim concerning the limitations of imagination is valid, why are there so many science fiction and fantasy boardgames and videogames – not to mention so few successful "real world" tabletop role-playing games? There are several factors behind the success of genre fiction in the various games industries, but they all amount to a crossover in audience. As a crude approximation, one might say that the most imaginative people are able to play the most imaginative games (such as tabletop role-playing games), the middle tier is comfortable with the imagination entailed in science fiction, fantasy and horror and the control of a graphical avatar but struggle with the demands of a purely verbal game, while the least imaginative people require "real" content in their fiction and their games. Wii Sports succeeds not only because of its accessible interface, but because it reduces the degree of imagination required to play a videogame to the point that essentially anyone can play.

This sequence of posts, which is based upon a philosophy serial detailing the work of Professor Kendall Walton running in parallel on another of my blogs, takes the make-believe theory of representations and applies it to the field of game design. In brief, Walton's system can be summarised as stating that representations – including toys, novels, plays, movies, boardgames and videogames – can be understood as props which prescribe specific imaginings. A toy gun prescribes that we imagine it is a real gun. Hamlet prescribes that we imagine the Prince of Denmark grappling with a vexing dilemma. A game of Monopoly prescribes that we imagine a property investment battle. A game of Wii Sports prescribes that we imagine that we are playing tennis, bowling, golf etc. We play a game of make-believe with every kind of representation in which we enter into a fictional world implied by the prop in question.

By looking at game design from the perspective of the make-believe theory of representation, the objective is not to dictate how game design must be performed – there is no unified method for game design, and to seek one is a fool's errand. Rather, the goal is to offer a different way of thinking about the play of games (one inspired by Professor Walton's theory), and an approach to game design that recognises the role of imagination and the limitations this implies. Furthermore, since in Walton's system novels, movies and other stories are seen as props with which people play a game of make-believe, this perspective brings all forms of art under one roof, considering them all as games. This makes questions about the artistic status of videogames (for instance) entirely irrelevant, for all art is a form of game in Walton's theory.

Despite the observations made above, game design as make-believe is not intended as a system for designing mass market games requiring less imagination to play. The reality of the market for games of all kinds is that more imaginative games do achieve a measure of commercial success precisely because the more imaginative players spend more time and money playing games than less imaginative players, and this situation is unlikely to change. It is my hope that by presenting this unique perspective, game designers working at all corners of the market will find new ways to think about game design problems – whether they are aiming for a wide audience of limited imagination, or a smaller audience whose capacity for make-believe is practically unbounded.


Next week: Props

Reprinted with permission of Chris Bateman.

Chris Bateman is a philosopher, game designer and writer, best known for the games Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, and the books Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames and Beyond Game Design. Chris runs International Hobo, a consultancy specialising in market-oriented game design and narrative, and has worked on more than two dozen videogame projects.


Graduating with a Masters degree in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, he has since pursued highly-acclaimed independent research into how and why people play games. His most recent player model, BrainHex, is based upon neurobiological principles and the test has been taken by more than 30,000 people.

As well as his many books, Chris writes at two blogs:, which carries pieces on game design and the videogames industry, and Only a Game, which contains an eclectic selection of articles on philosophy, ethics, metaphysics and other nonsense.