Game Development Reference
At one point in the first Austin Powers movie, Dr. Evil creates a troupe
of sexy fembots. The fembots looked exactly like tall, blonde women in
silver catsuits. But under the skin, they were actually robots (with guns
in their nipples). We all know that the fembots are no more than clev-
erly arranged hunks of moving matter, like a car engine or a toaster. But
wrapping them in a human-looking skin triggers a different psychological
viewpoint. They become more than robots dressed up to look like women.
They become women who also happen to be robots.
This may seem to be a meaningless distinction. But in the mind, and
in our emotional responses, it makes a huge difference. Given a human ap-
pearance, the fembots become characters with minds, desires, and plans.
Now, when the fembots attack it isn't because of a programming switch,
it's because they're angry . When they retreat it's not due to a coded stimu-
lus response, it's because they're afraid . When they pursue something
we don't say they're executing a pursuit algorithm, we say it's because
they want that thing. Everything they do takes on a human emotional
resonance because of the skin wrapped around their robotic skeletons.
The fact that we know that this skin is just a few millimeters of rubber
At their core, all games are no more than mechanics, just as Dr. Evil's
fembots are no more than metal and rubber. Mario isn't a cartoon Italian
plumber—he's a collision cylinder that slides around and bumps into
things. That teenager falling in love in The Sims really didn't—the game
software just flipped a few bits in a data structure somewhere.
By wrapping the mechanics in a fictional dressing, we imbue them
with a second layer of emotional meaning. That's why when a game char-
acter is running out of food, we don't just say that our resources are low
and the game will end soon. We say we're starving . When an ally is de-
feated, we don't just quietly remove his token from the board. We grieve for
our murdered friend. We know it's fake, but the make-believe still creates
some emotional echo of real hunger, grief, or love.
Naïve observers often assume that all the meaning of a game comes
from the fiction. In this view, games make emotion by drawing the player
into a simulated experience until the mental distinction between the
game world and the real world disappears. The designer Eric Zimmerman
named this view the immersive fallacy . It's a fallacy because no game player
ever forgets they're playing a game. The fictional wrapping doesn't replace
or conceal the game mechanics; it adds a second layer of meaning to the
emotions generated by mechanics alone.
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