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Indepth: Kinaesthetics in game design

06 Apr

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The TLDR

Kinaesthetics is a branch of design dealing with optimising and expressing aesthetics through touch and motion. In analogue games it is a critical component of play, particularly with complex toys. In videogames it is important at the interface of player and controls and between the player’s avatars and their world. Kinaesthetics deals with a variety of subtle but powerful interactive effects that influence cultural and intuitive understandings of the media. This article first explores what falls under the umbrella of kinaesthetic design, then looks at a case study of one of my projects that had a heavy emphasis on kinaesthetics. Finally, it looks at some areas of videogame design in which paying attention to kinaesthetics may yield good results.

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WHAT ARE KINAESTHETICS?:

Kinaesthetic design is a topic very near and dear to my heart. You may not have heard of it.  This is probably because I made it up, or the terminology anyway. If you have been a regular a reader, you may have noticed a trend. Ok, so it’s not strictly true I made it up. One of my lecturers, the eccentric and forceful Damian Scott, was working on a PHD on the topic of ‘Kinaesthetic Phenomenology’ during my time as an undergrad. His interpretation of kinaesthetics in videogames was the way physical interactions were transmitted through the interface to the player. The screen shudder when you get shot or hit is a very basic example of kinaesthetics in his terms.

I’ve appropriated the term a bit more broadly to mean designing the tactile interactions between player and game interface in any sense. There are various degrees, the player interacting with the controls or pieces, the player’s avatar interacting with their environment and so on, interactions between third parties in a simulated environment etc. I tend to focus on the first, as the other two are generally quite solidly established, though I will discuss some examples of where this may not be the case later in the article.

So what’s important about kinaesthetics? To begin, our sense of touch is actually perhaps the most versatile and powerful of our senses. It tends to get overlooked given the wonders of sight, taste and smell, but in a lot of cases we feel our way through life, and our most intimate and powerful experiences involve a lot of touching and physical interactions. A ‘sensual experience’ almost always involves a large amount of touching.

I’ve noticed I’m a particularly kinaesthetically oriented individual. I constantly fiddle with things, stroke them, muddle them, shift about and so on. When I play the feeling of connection I have with the game comes through the physical interface rather than sight. I shuffle and re-arrange card hands, stack tokens, toss dice, adjust and fondle pieces, spam keys, spin the mouse around, tap my fingers on the buttons without enough force to click them etc. Yet kinaesthetics has a broad impact on our play. A particular example is the slang of M:TG players, who use terms like ‘pump’, ‘swing’ and ‘beat’ for the action of tapping a card- tilting it to its side. They also develop ritualised excessive motions, bending up the cards and snapping them back down, shoving them forwards with heavy arm motions and so on. The simple elegance of the tapping mechanic has created a kinaesthetic ritual which engages players in a deeply physical manner with an otherwise very abstract experience.

I’m obviously biased, but to me the weight and slick polish of a wooden chess piece or pewter miniature, the slickness of a deck of sleeved cards fanning in my hand, The click-clack of a good keyboard and the snap of Lego bricks coming together, all these things to me are deeply important and powerful signals that I am engaging or about to engage in play. These experiences also have a cultural value. A nice wooden Chess or Go board is a toy above and beyond its use for chess. It can sit on a table and be an object of admiration for guests, to touch or even just imagine touching.

A similarly priced plastic chess-set, identical in terms of gameplay, fails to capture the same kind of inherent kinaesthetic. I hope this ramble is sufficient to get you into what I think about when I think about this concept.

So, let’s have a look at applying kinaesthetics.

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CASE STUDY: DOMINEER:

domineerbanner

Domineer was my Senior year project at uni, a fairly ambitious boardgame design that centered around careful kinaesthetic design meshing with mechanical design. The overall goal of the game was to take a lot of the mechanics that make RTS and TBS videogames successful and reproduce these in a game that ideally would sit alongside a chess or go board.

Board and tiles 3d sketch

Domineer features a tooled board inset with octagonal sockets, into which tiles slot. There are several values of tile, which are hidden when the tile is face down, and revealed when it is face up. The design of the tiles is such that when face down they are flush with the board, but when face up, they are raised like little hills, the sides of which display their value. The inset values both serve to add some tactile depth to the tiles and also give a good grip so the tiles can be lifted out at the end of the game.

DBflipcombo

The tiles are also designed to align simple numeric values to make calculations easy- this is something I’ve carried across into the LOLDDCG’s card designs.

Resourcing image

The kinaesthetics of the board are interesting. When not being used it’s a simple, flat grid, but when played with terrain ‘springs up’ out of seemingly nowhere, creating a landscape over which the battle is fought. This system was designed to recreate procedural terrain generation in strategy games like civilization. The solid, 3d shape of the tiles and intricate socketing of the board makes the action of revealing a tile feel meaningful, a physical discovery as well as a mental one. When  I presented the (extremely expensive) 3d prototype at the end of year project showcase, people just spent most of my presentation messing around with the tiles, so I’m confident the design was successful in this regard.

The second aspect of kinaesthetic design for the game are the playing pieces themselves. For my prototype I used lego discs, but the intended design was a more sophisticated clip together token. These act as both currency and playing pieces for the game- you make your own army and you choose the composition, mimicking the customisation and composition aspects of RTS titles. You can have a lot of weak pieces (one token) or a smaller number of bigger pieces (clip the tokens together to make them). Each piece costs its value in tokens, so you basically take the resources out of your pool and put them into play as a piece. Once again, this was carefully designed with kinaesthetics in mind. The clipping together of the tokens into regular resource stacks, literally building your own army out of your pool of money and so on all add to the kinaesthetic experience of the game.

The result is that the physical Domineer maintains the sophisticated kinaesthetics that games like chess, go, backgammon and so on have in their traditional forms (rather than versions like travel chess for example). It looks good set and ready to play on a coffee table or shelf, feels great to play with on your own and so on.

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If you’d like to have a go, here’s a kit with the domineer rulebook, a set of paper prototyping graphics and an asci digital implementation by none other than Captain Jack ‘I eat sparrows for breakfast’ Kelly. As befits such a prototype it takes no prisoners so you need to know the rules and expect to feel rather silly until you get the hang of it.

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KINAESTHETICS & VIDYAGAMES: 

Enough about these old fashioned hijinks, let’s go digital! The kinaesthetics of videogames are subtler than physical ones, no surprise there, but they do have significant effects. Here’s some examples close to my heart

  1.  Clunk

Clunk is what I call the physical presence a player’s camera has in the game world. Particularly in modern shooters, the camera is stuck to a weighty body that bounces, grunts, stumbles and impacts with things creating sticky, heavy movement. A perfect example of this is the development of Unreal Tournament through the years. In the original UT (and other contemporaneous shooters like quake, halflife and so on) movement lacked any sense of ‘clunk’, players floated like butterflies, their movements instantaneous and sharp. In UT 2004, there is a slight amount of discernable clunk, while in UT 2007 clunk is omnipresent. Compare the original to 2007 and you get a huge difference in the kinaesthetics of the game. While 2007 is more realistic and visceral, the clunk factor detracts from a player’s sense of control over their agent in the game. Even though in a pure motion sense, the games are very similar, Compared to UT, UT2k7 is like playing in a fat suit, and I feel this may be one of the reasons for the decrease in the popularity of the fast paced, duelling shooter of old.

  1. Blizzard Syndrome

I shouldn’t really call it a syndrome when it is so positive, but people who play a lot of games will know what I mean when I say that Blizzard games have a unique feel to them. I’m unable to pin it down precisely, but I think the primary reason is that Blizzard’s engines are very good at dealing with animation canceling. This makes your character/units feel responsive and active (though I must note that Warcraft 3 is a partial exception thanks to the movement design) as it feels like you’re directly touching them, moving them and acting through them. Your connection is immediate as your actions are transferred immediately, not qued up to wait until a bunch of animations or processes complete.. Be it Diablo, Starcraft or World of Warcraft, Blizzard games feel great to play in a way that few other games do. This is because of the attention to kinaesthetics the developers have paid. By ensuring there is minimal delay between you acting upon the game world and the game world responding to your touch, the link to the player is strengthened. It’s no exaggeration to say that a few dozen milliseconds of latency can kill immersion stone dead under the wrong circumstances, so consider this a similar if more subtle effect.

  1. Sense games and Sex games 

The use of rumble packs in interface devices is probably the simplest example of videogame kinaesthetics that springs to mind, but such devices have had very mixed reactions. Some people like the feedback, others find it annoying, often because it’s either constant or inconsistent. Yet sometimes the rumble pack achieves… well, interesting results. Rez and its infamous ‘trance vibrator’ perfectly illustrates a really interesting development of kinaesthetic play. Sensual and arousing experiences in games are rare, because rumble packs are almost always used to emphasize random, non patterned violence, but I think the most potential in the technology is regular patterns of vibration to lull, emphasise or arouse. Imagine feeling your character’s heartbeat thumping through the controller as you navigate the shadowy corridors in Amnesia, spiking as terrifying events occur and slowly rising into a panic as your sanity fades. Add some more subtle, programmable sense pads to the palm holds of a controller and you can convey a gentle touch, confusion, a sharp shock or many other things that would infinitely add to the immersion of a game.

I’m also vaguely surprised that this kind of sensory hardware hasn’t been used for more games like Rez, with an inherently sensual, likely sexual bent. Whether it’s prudishness amongst designers or publishers, there’s a seriously untapped market for that sort of thing. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s really not hard to come up with a variety of ideas that could bear fruit in that regard and I can think of no better way of merging digital and kinaesthetic design than creative sexual games. As a society, we love sense and sex play, but are terrible at actually going about designing for it (Ok, so Twister was a stroke of genius, but it stands alone). The videogames industry has got to grow up and get their heads around this, if only for the fact that the first person to come up with something really good will immediately become so rich Bill Gates will be their butler. Intelligent, well researched kinaesthetic design would be key to any such a project.

  1. Kinect

For all their flaws, the Kinect and Move are the biggest leaps forward in kinaesthetic videogame tech we’ve ever seen. The ability to involve the body fully in the game adds a lot of potential, but I think it remains largely untapped. Kinaesthetics is all about physical exploration and feedback, so while that’s technically what you’re doing when you wave your arms about like a mad person. To really begin to use the potential of the system you need to be able to reach out and touch something. Figuring out how to register toys and objects into the system will give designers the tools to give players a powerfully kinaesthetic experience. I can’t claim to have looked into this particular area particularly hard, so this might already exist. If you know of anything, be sure n’let me know.

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So there’s my introduction to Kinaesthetics. Like most of my indepths, I’ll use this as a springboard to explore smaller, more contained circumstances as they arise. I’d love to hear your thoughts and enter into a discussion about this rarely discussed aspect of games design. This article doesn’t go into many specifics, just explores general concepts and areas where kinaesthetic design is applicable. If you’ve used kinaesthetic designs in practice, or have specific challenges to overcome that you think might be solved kinaesthetically, then I’d love to talk to you and use these as ways of developing a discourse on kinaesthetic design.

There’ll no doubt be some chat both here and over on Reddit where Magot articles are posted in /gamedesign and /ludology, so start up a topic or join in as you see fit! 

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One response to “Indepth: Kinaesthetics in game design

  1. Daniel

    April 15, 2013 at 8:23 am

    You may be interested in reading Steve Swink’s book Game Feel.

     

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