Simulation vs Abstraction: Narrative Wins

I’m a big time nerd. Big time. Anyone that knows me will agree. I have a fascination with math, science and computers that goes to a level beyond the general populace. It’s one of the reasons I love game design so much, since it involves so many different aspects of so many different areas of study (psychology, art, etc).

Right now I’m enrolled in the end all, be all class of nerdiness in game design: Abstract Systems Simulation. The class is basically “How to make a gaming using Microsoft Excel”. And no, not like this. It’s about using Excel to balance and create a desktop RPG system. Basically, number crunching at an extreme rate. Most of the art kids in our major shudder at the idea of the class, but a select few of us uber nerds have been drooling over the possibility of it.

One of the interesting topics that was brought up on the first day of class was simulation versus abstraction. Why are we abstracting these systems? If I wanted to create a life like RTS that calculates all manner of things from troop skill, troop morale, weather conditions, vehicles maintenance, ammunition types, new weapons bilt by government contracters, etc., there are system designers out there that can do it. Why don’t they then?

Because it isn’t fun for the player.

Well, for people like me it is. But, I know I’m not normal. The people that take the class, if they had a chance to, would make a game with systems so complex that it would take a calculator, slide rule and abacus COMBINED to play a single turn. Most people, however, want board games and desktop games that don’t involve lots of mathematical computations in order to do a simple action. That’s why game designers have to abstract the systems in order to get them to be less complex.

But wait. There are many who believe that “learning is fun”. So, wouldn’t more complex systems create a higher level of learning and create more fun games?

No. The problem is the curve involved in the learning process. Imagine if Chutes and Ladders involved complex equations to determine sliding speed based off of wind resistance and the coefficient of friction. Most 6 year olds wouldn’t want to play the game. But since the “slide” is mearly an abstraction of a normal slide, indicating “go here from here”, the system is understandable.

That’s what it boils down to. Most people want to get at least some sort of comprehension of what is going on in the world. Even if there is a small nugget of information for them to grasp onto and use. As long as you can start off the game with some level of information that is understandable, you can always add larger amounts of information for them to keep track of.

Of course, you don’t want to go overboard.

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