The Four Lenses of Game Making by Tadhg Kelly

Monday, January 28, 2019

For years, both games and their makers have been viewed through the lens of either gameplay or story. This has knowingly been an inadequate view until 2011 when Tadhg Kelly a gaming designer, writer and producer, created a quadrant graph that helps clarify a more defined digest of each categorised game maker, their game structures and their objectives.

Each quadrant represents a common set of assumptions and predispositions that is often seen in makers. The graph system categorises games and game makers according to a Frame Axis (Emergence to Experience) and a Fantasy Axis (Role to Rule). These dual axes lead to a 2x2 grid, each of which represent an interest, and so each quadrant (lens) represents a combination of two interests. This is similar to The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology, and the resulting graph reveals four clear quadrants (lenses).

The system asks whether the game is designed for emergent or experience play, and whether the intent is to deliver a rich sense of role or a more formally apparent set of rules. The resulting quadrants are:

  • Tetrism

  • Narrativism

  • Simulationism

  • Behaviourism


A lens is a cognitive, emotional or perceptual bias which affects how information is received, understood and contextualised. Within this particular diagram each lens has a differing idea towards the role of the player in the game, or the role of rewards. Some believe that structured goals matter, others believe that the player’s ability for self-expression is the priority.

The lens through which a game maker sees games tends to affect the kind of finished product they produce. Lenses therefore describe categories of games (or modes within games) as well as their makers.

The Frame Axis

The Frame Axis is about the importance of uncertain or certain outcomes, and therefore whether the game is designed toward emergent or experience play.

The frame of a game is its mechanical layer. It is the levers and environment of the game stripped of all context and aesthetic concerns. Everything in the frame of the game boils down to binary information.

A frame is more inclined toward emergence if it permits a high degree of discovery, especially of the kind that the game’s designers never foresaw. Unusual strategies, innovation and creativity are enabled, and in some ways the game maker feels as much a participant in the discovery of the game as the creator of it. The objective of developing an emergent frame is a system in which a limited set of actions and rules produces a near infinite set of outcomes.

Robust rules are most likely in place to produce emergent play, and so makers who like emergence tend to design frames with elegant engines that encompass all possibilities. Experience design is less concerned with overall robustness and more on moments. They often have frail frames, meaning that they have limited ranges of available interaction, but smooth over this by pushing the player toward key decisions, playing on their sense of anticipation and using theatrics to draw their attention. 

Most games are neither wholly emergent or experience. The majority use a bit of both, favouring one overall.

The Fantasy Axis

Games draw players into other worlds and empower them to take decisive action within their confines. However worlds vary wildly in how they are presented. The Fantasy Axis is about abstraction versus fidelity, and whether the game gives the player a strong contextual role, or regards role as secondary to the formal rules of play.

If the frame of the game is its mechanical layer then the fantasy is the creative layer of art, sound, text, animation, fiction and so forth that sits on top of the frame. Fantasy gives the game world an identity, from the simple and iconographic through to lush realism. It encourages empathy, and communicates to the player culturally as well as intellectually. It might be realistic or stylised, hand-crafted or generated procedurally, narrative or open-ended.

Strongly fantastical games therefore tend to spend a lot of time on characterisation, visual elements, music, voice-overs, special effects and language. They de-emphasise the frame as much as possible (sometimes too much) in order to induce the art brain to believe.

Simulationism (Emergence, Role)

Simulationism is about creating an endless and authentic world in which a player can explore, experiment and discover. It is inspired by artificial intelligence and reality technology, along with the infinite possibilities of software itself.

Simulationist games have complex rules and robust systems underpinning them, but their makers do not like those systems to be visible or bounded. Wins, tasks and formal goals sit uncomfortably within a game that tries to create (or recreate) a plausible world, as does direction of emotion. A simulationist wants the player to be as self-directed as possible, to feel the delight of surprise or meaning on their own terms.

Simulations cast the player in a strong, but easily described, role and then build the entire world around making that role feel real. They focus on making complex effects tangible to the player and conveying a sense of consequences for all actions. Simulationist games also tend to encourage creative play, with players using the game itself as a canvas.

In strong simulations everything is emergent, procedurally generated and aims for infinite possibility. Simulationism’s biggest pitfall is therefore opacity. Worlds can become too complex, roles too indistinct and complex effects too subtle for players to perceive, and far from appreciating the genius of the engine powering this world the player often has adverse reactions: the game becomes random, unfair or frustrating.

Narrativism (Experience, Role)

Narrativism prefers experience, role-driven designs. It is about using a game to impart a storied experience in which the player takes an active role and develops sympathy toward its outcomes. Narrativism is inspired by literature, cinema, theatre and other narrative arts, and places video games as an inheritor of those forms.

The narrativist wants the player to feel more than just the joy of winning. They want people to care, on a personal level, about what happens to the characters in the game, and to experience sensations of loss, hope, and sadness as well as thrills. Narrativist games aim to be aesthetically coherent. Their makers spend a lot of time creating the places, people, sights and sounds of their world. Richness, authenticity and production values matter. Back story, characterisation and theme likewise.

At their most extreme, narrativist projects abandon the idea of ‘game’ altogether and becomes a non-game, like a virtual amusement ride.

Tetrism (Emergence, Rule)

Tetrism is about creating neat game dynamics that are consistently fun and inviting the player to master them over a long term. It is inspired by the elegance of many classic games, like chess, bridge, crosswords or soccer.

Tetrist games are formal, based around a few defining and highly extensible actions, while being bound by rules which bring the game toward an inevitable conclusion (such as time, points, speed or increasing difficulty). Tetrist games are tests of skill and strategy. Their game dynamics are often easily described, such as sorting blocks, making words, kicking a ball or moving pieces on a board. Story is perfunctory or non-existent. Optimal tactics and strategy are high.

The value of Tetrism is its focus on the kind of engagement that the play brain thrives on. Tetrist games are usually the ones that break out on new platforms to stun the world with simple genius, Tetrists are usually always keen to see what new devices bring opportunities to create novel dynamics. However they are not just motivated by new interfaces: Even on older platforms like the PC there are many new Tetrist games every year.

Tetrists often think of themselves as the most pure kind of game maker. They aspire to find that unique innovation or invention that will spawn a generation of games, and so they are often keenly aware of (and overshadowed by) past games and their successes. This leaves them feeling left behind by a game development culture that spends a great deal of time on complicating what tetrists feel should be elegant and universal.

Behaviourism (Experience, Rule)

Behaviourism is the school of thought that prefers experience, rule-driven designs. Behaviourism is about considering the player as a collection of desires and creating systems that satisfy those desires. It is inspired by behavioural and motivational psychology, and considers all games as challenge, anticipation and reward engines.

Behaviourists model their games on psychological hooks that open loops, draw engagement and encourage emotional attachment to outcomes. They use repetitive actions to complete those loops and deliver rewards. The anticipation of a loop’s end, and the reward, has a powerful effect on the human mind and can engender feelings of optimism.

The big revolution of behaviourism is metrics. Behaviourists measure everything that they possibly can about their players, test small changes and then measure their outcome. However this means that behaviourists tend to be wary of emergence. Emergence is generally hard to directly measure, and to the behaviourist anything that cannot be measured cannot be reliably improved.

So behaviourists tend to be the most creatively conservative of all lenses. They consider it better to copy a successful game and improve upon it, or adapt another game (perhaps with a different theme) rather than create from scratch. This sort of lean and predictable approach is why behaviourists are the darlings of the investment scene, but also why their games tend to be lower value on a per-user basis than all other kinds. They are far less likely to engender true loyalty or a fan culture, creating more snack-sized games.

Many behaviourist game makers believe that games can be agents of social change and self improvement.


Within the world of Gamification Marketing, it would seem that striking a healthy balance between Behaviourism and Tetrism is the key to having a game that produces an optimum campaign outcome across all related numbers. Whether that be game emergence, experience, structured pathway, replay value, data capture and user metrics.

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