When winning isn’t the point: actual objective design.

29 May
“It’s not winning that’s the point, it’s taking part. Well, it’s not the taking part, really, it’s the sense of hopeless despair”
-Bill Bailey

Today I want to talk about a complexity in dealing with the objectives of a given game. The issue here arises from a simple linguistic failure that has yet to be clarified in formal game design language. When I talk about a game’s goal or objectives I could be talking about two different things:

  1. The stated condition under which a game is considered to be beaten or won, formally codified in the rules.
  2. The actual goal of the game in more general terms- amusement, entertainment, the conveyance of some important idea or emotion etc.

For games designers studying the structural design and development of games, it’s very easy to be caught into only examining 1) when thinking about how to go about designing a given game or, at the very least, considering only how 1) can help achieve 2). 2) however, is perhaps more important in the process of creating a valuable, or at least marketable, product. So much so, in fact, that if 2) becomes the focus of design then 1) simply becomes another obstacle or resource bandied between player and designer towards this end.


Perhaps the simplest and most ready example of why this is rather important is a brief case study of the game Twister. Twister’s objective, to be the last man standing (well, contorting), is relatively meaningless in the face of the game’s actual objective: to facilitate a breaking down of social and personal inhibitions, enabling players to build up a sense of intimacy and familiarity with less risk of causing offense.

In this sense the game’s actual objective (to get people all twisted up around each other) is almost the opposite of its stated or systematic objective (to be the only one left, thus not having anyone else up close and personal)

While the game’s designers have never confirmed if this taboo breaking outcome was a considered goal in their design (not surprising given the somewhat more rigid social customs of the 1960s), it falls in line with a sizeable genre of such icebreaker games like truth or dare and spin the bottle, differing from these two only in that it has the systematic objective (a victory condition) where they do not.

Twister calls attention to the fact that the actual goal of the game may be different to- in fact, may be in opposition to- the systematic objective of the game. In a very literal sense, winning is not the point.


In order to apply this principle as a designer, it’s necessary to take a step back from the challenge of systematic construction and observe the context under which your game may be played. For many games, particularly videogames, the context of play is not a variable considered that deeply. There are, notable exceptions- digitized party games like the Mario Party, BUZZ! And Singstar series. The genre of ‘party games’ are in this way not defined by their systematic content, but by the context under which they are played and their actual objective of being sociable multiplayer experiences.

In a like fashion, one can create new super-genres for many games whose genre definitions rely on systematic content – solitary, social, antagonistic, collaborative, cooperative and so on. These super-genres provide a new reference point for considering the actual objectives of the game. Is a game intended to assist the player in learning certain problem solving techniques? Guide them to a new understanding of an emotive concept? Help in relaxing and untying the mind after a hard day? providing a vessel for social interaction? The more you think about it the more you realise that many games have unstated objectives entirely unrelated to the rhetorics of their systematic content.


Armed with this knowledge a designer can begin to make a lot more interesting choices themselves, not to mention provide more for their player, not the least of which is the recognition that the stated objectives of the game aren’t actually that important to either designer or player. It’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part.

Systems like achievements are one example of taking this perspective into account, but are a rudimentary approach even when used to help players experience the real point of the game rather than getting trapped on the win condition. Far more often, sadly, they’re included uncritically and thus do nothing but emphasis the game’s existing systematic focuses, rewarding the player for winning when no such reward is necessary.


Let’s take a hypothetical game whose core gameplay activity is exploration and discovery. The stated goal of the game is to get through various areas by combining objects found in the environment to prosper and proceed. The actual goal is to encourage players to come up with interesting and novel solutions to problems and experience the enjoyment that generates, preferably generating a rube-goldberg shaped trail along the way. As a designer, therefore, so long as a player achieves the latter, it doesn’t actually matter if they achieve the former. If proceeding to victory gives your players that sense of achievement and creation, that’s great! But you can make a game where victory gives little benefit and instead emphasis is placed on prolonging the experience: you can deliberately choose to make victory not the point.

For such a game, I might choose to design an exit that was immediately visible at the start of each level and easily accessible, so easily that any experienced videogamer would look twice. Combined with visually attractive side paths for those players who aren’t accustomed to videogame structures and perhaps some very gentle negative feedback for just running straight through, I could create an environment that encouraged players to explore and find all the fun toys I’d seed throughout the area.

I could emphasise cleverness in exploration by, for example, providing tantalising glimpses of spectacular or mysterious sights and hints of vantage points that can only be reached creatively. Build a psychology of soft rewards for effort to ease players out of the mentality that the only valuable actions give tangible rewards- points, items, narrative sequences and so on- and into the attitude that exploration and ingenuity for the sake of the scenery are their own reward. Provide a rival who becomes increasingly smug if the player rushes through but also provides a gentle reason to proceed after a time simply by reminding the player there’s someone to compete with, even if they’re (hopefully) more interested in looking around


This particular example comes from memories of my childhood, bushwalking through wild Australia. The climb through a scrub forest to a mountain vantage, sliding up and down deep dunes to find an ancient salt lake in the red desert, jumping from great tree-root to tree-root to get tiny, hidden streams. None of these destinations would have been half so wonderful had I not had time to get peeks and build up cramps on the way.

Using this as a basis for design is a perfect example of altering from a systematic perspective to one centered around creating a particular player experience. It’s impossible to systematise the objectives of ‘experience wonder’ or ‘feel a sense of achievement‘, yet these are perhaps truer goals for both designer and player than any ‘score 100 points’ or ‘beat all other players’.

So step back, consider for a moment, what are the actual objectives of your games? Do those games make sacrifices to these for the sake of having a well defined stated objective?

Never get caught up in the rhetoric of your own games- the stated goal is just another lever, just another trick to get the player to experience the world a little bit more like how you want them to. The real goal is more elusive, unstated and infinitely more powerful and rewarding if directly manipulable.


Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Design Analysis


2 responses to “When winning isn’t the point: actual objective design.

  1. Tess Young

    June 4, 2013 at 12:18 am

    I feel a little silly making such a suggestion, but it may be helpful or less confusing to call the true game goal the game’s “purpose”. I think the word sounds more congruent with what you’re describing–not what the player is supposed to do, but more what the designer is supposed to do; in essence, WHY he or she made the game. I don’t know why I’m focusing on semantics, but when you remarked on something that’s “yet to be clarified in formal game design language”, I got a little excited. Knowing there are little things like words that game designers use which have not yet fully developed reminds me that the community and laws are still growing and changing. It makes me feel like it’s a place where I can make a meaningful difference.
    But that’s enough of my rant. I just wanted to say I enjoyed this post! I agree–I believe it could be rather refreshing to design from the grand purpose of a game rather than its superficial designed goals. Certainly something I’m going to keep in mind.

    • thereisnosaurus

      June 4, 2013 at 8:04 am

      It’s quite a good choice of word, actually, I’ll probably use it myself ^^. However, I think the real problem is not so much in word choice as in recognition.

      I don’t think this is really a problem for experienced game developers and designers. After a while you develop an intuitive understanding of the difference between a game’s structure and its ultimate objectives. The game becomes a tool for the designer to convey something- something the games as art crowd are familiar with no doubt. But like most intuitive understandings, I think many might assume others can easily see what they do and be mistaken in that. I do a lot of looking at student and amateur game designs and it’s often painfully obvious they haven’t really thought about why they’re making their game. They’re fixated on structure, not on objective.

      It’s these folks and even people not into design, or videogame culture at all, that conveying this to is important. The idea that a game can be consumed, analysed and criticized based on its clarity or depth of purpose is not one that I think has permeated much beyond the academic and indie design community.


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