IntroductionCan you remember when you discovered video games? I can, and I don't think that my experience was much different from others who discovered games at around the same age. At nine years old I was not a logical child; technical matters were beyond me and by the standards of today I was probably the least likely person to be interested in computers but I was completely entranced by the idea of video games. Years before I got my first computer, I would make my father take me round computer shops to look at the games on offer. You probably remember the outlandish descriptions of the games on the back of the boxes, "You are Earth's last hope! Destroy the evil Zarg Empire before it wipes out humanity!" Or, "Brave the terrors of the Forest of Auria and rescue the beautiful princess!" Of course, to the trained eye, the Zarg empire was a number of small blocky shapes that stuttered across the screen, and the Forest of Auria was either a collection of ASCII characters or a short text description, but to the young mind that read these descriptions, video games were a gateway to the kinds of experiences previously only offered by dreams, books and cinema, the closest you could get to living in a fantasy world.
This article was originally published to GameDev.net back in 2004 as a 4-part series. It was revised and combined by the original author into a single article in 2008 and published in the book Design and Content Creation: A GameDev.net Collection, which is one of 4 books collecting both popular GameDev.net articles and new original content in print format.For me, the attraction was the promise that these games held, through their themes, characters and perspectives; the promise that a young child could explore in safety and daylight the shadowy and indistinct mental world that imposed itself on him at night. They removed the clumsy limitations of toys, the dissatisfaction that came with increasing age of realising that the dark alleyway on the corner of his housing estate was not the entrance to the world of ghosts. They satisfied his desire to return there even after he was told it did not exist. Three years ago I was working on a design that I hoped would speed my journey into the games industry. I was thinking deeply about games and was frustrated with the tendency of the industry and the games press to talk about games only in what I call constructional terms; that is, in terms of the technical elements that make up a game such as 3D engine, AI etc. What I wanted were words that I could use to describe the experience. Despite spending hours poring through games magazines, websites and interviews I could find little referring to the experience of playing, except perhaps for playability, a term which by its vagueness proves that there has been little insight into the subjective experience of playing games. I kept being drawn to a particular memory and had an urge to explore it, so I sat at my computer and wrote the two paragraphs that begin this article. I wanted to continue, to elaborate on this memory only to realise that I knew nothing more. But somewhere in this memory, I thought, there might be a key to a deeper understanding of games and a widening of the language we use to discuss them. So I began a personal quest to find out everything I could about subjective experience, fantasy and imagination, a quest culminating in the writing of this article, which I hope is of use and interest to gamers and developers alike. The first step I took was to explore the games media and talk to as wide a cross section of gamers as I could, in order to see if there were any commonalties between my personal reflections and the experience of others. This research could not be called scientific by any means, but the questions and experiences I tried to explore are essential to any understanding of video games. Little is achieved by merely asking the simplistic question of whether games are good or bad for us, and the contradictory results of several studies bears this out. What is far more important is to ask, without judgement, how an individual relates to a game, to explore questions of personal meaning and imaginative response. Whatever the value of my investigations, I became convinced that an exploration of fantasy and personal meaning could lead to an opening up of the way that we think about and design games.