Fight or Flight
Nielsen's GamePlay Metrics

Verbs Revisited

Back at the start of the summer, I hosted a week long symposium on play specifications, exploring different people's perspectives on nouns and verbs in the context of games. (I'm thinking of hosting another symposium in the Autumn, but still haven't chosen a suitable topic).

I've been internally digesting some of the discussions we had during the symposium since then, and one particular point has stuck with me. Jose Zagal raised this point in connection with first person shooter games:

[This] is a bit of rant I've had brewing since hearing Chris Crawford talk a few years ago, there is usually a lot of talk about how "weak" games are in terms of "verbs". I tend to agree on one level, and disagree on another. Chris Crawford describes first-person shooter games as games where you move, aim and fire. If he's feeling generous...add jump. It's a valid critique, but I think that he misses the point...

Jose goes on to suggest that these games should be understood in terms of the verbs that emerge from the gameplay, and this is certainly one approach. But the reason this point has stuck with me is precisely the opposite:

Why should a lack of verbs be a criticism of a game?

If one is working in a narrative context, then a lack of verbs may reflect a lack of agency, but for play in general one needs only move and an action verb to constitute play. Consider Tetris (move and rotate), Res (move and shoot) or even Katamari Damacy (just roll, essentially!) The number of verbs is not an adequate measure of the play of a game. Play with Fire was intentionally built on a design with minimal verbs - move, jump and burn - but the play of the game does not suffer from it.

We can even scale back to single verbs. Building a sandcastle is engaging despite only being based upon one action - building with sand - and a hedge maze is entertaining even though it is solved solely by movement (and thinking, but internal thought processes are an entirely seperate issue to the actions taken). The idea that a multitude of verbs are a requirement for engaging play appears to be entirely erroneous.

I have not yet heard Chris Crawford talk, so I don't know if this second hand account accurately captures his position, but as far as I can ascertain there is no reason that one should judge a game deficit on the basis of a small number of verbs.


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Yes, and the thing I had to de-program after being raised up on Crawford Kool-Aid is that tight verb sets are actually better game design, and the sprawling encyclopedia that Storytron is offering (the logical bi-product of the "verbs, gimme verbs!" mentality) won't nessecarily offer good gameplay at all, though it may offer good story play.

Personally I've taken the "extremely stylized, tightly constrained attempt at dramatic interaction" to heart, and will pursue such a product (probably a casual game) as soon as possible, which may mean early next year.

A neat summary of the situation - the play grail that Storytron is chasing is the area where a multitude of verbs are needed (story play). In the rest of the sphere of play, tight verb sets win out.

I'm still very interested to see how Storytron pans out - because we have few people willing to chase these elusive grails, and those that do deserve some praise for the attempt whatever the outcome.

i suggest to go back to the very short flare of discussion we had surrounding Chris' "colours as truth values" proposal (where you, Patrick, went off to add an interesting application in terms of adjectives/adverbs)

does "aim" mean aim in a FPS as "green" means green in Chris' colour coding?

how do words get charged with *meaning* (arguably *the* word out there that's hardest to explain) in the (among other things) *aesthetic* process that is called game play?

And how does that idea relate to "extremely stylized"? And how do constraints relate to style and aesthetic experience (*poems* anyone?)


I guess what might be missing from the discussion here is the notion of depth. It's not really about how many verbs, but more about the depth of interesting choices, options, uses, etc. that may or may not arise from them.

Will Wright has mentioned on more than one occasion how he really loves the boardgame Go. In particular, because it reminds him of how few rules (and verbs!) can still have deep and engaging gameplay. There is great sublety to playing Go, although the subtlety is not necesarrily expressed in a single particular move.

One of the things I tend to like about Mario games is how there are relatively few verbs, but as new areas are introduced and as you learn how to play the game, you begin to use the same verbs in multiple ways. Layering them, so to speak, in the same way that a dancer might create a dance from the same basic steps that a novice is learning.

I guess Chris Crawford's rant can also be understood as saying, games have very few verbs and they are all using these verbs to express the same thing. Kind of like playing the same songs from a handful of notes..

Finally, in a reply to the last comment by translucy. By "extremely stylized" do you mean, elegance? As in, what is elegance in game design? (is it few verbs/rules with deep gameplay?)

Sorry.. one last comment.

You can watch Chris Crawford's talk at the Living Game Worlds Symposium held at Georgia Tech in 2005 at the following:

I'm pretty sure he went on the lack of verbs rant here.. :-)

translucy: Unsurprisingly, in answer to the question 'how do words become charged with meaning', I turn to Wittgenstein and say 'the meaning of a word is how it is used', that is, words become charged by meaning through usage.

Is gameplay an aesthetic experience? I tend to associate this word with beauty, but I acknowledge there is a sense of it meaning a focus on sensation or emotion, rather than a purely intellectual endeavour.

I would suggest that when we are talking of the verbs of play, we are not in the aesthetic experience of gameplay at all, but in the intellectual space of analysing that experience, and the words become charged with meaning through the usage we make of them in that context.

I do appreciate, however, that this sidesteps rather than addresses the core of your question. :)

I am fascinated by this suggested relationship between structured play and poetry, however - that really pushes my buttons. It will take a while to digest that further... I *really* need to study aesthetics in more depth. :)



"I guess Chris Crawford's rant can also be understood as saying, games have very few verbs and they are all using these verbs to express the same thing. Kind of like playing the same songs from a handful of notes."

I completely identify with this point of view! But in just the same way that pop songs may be obvious, they are still entertaining, and thus it is with mass market games. The Spice Girls were not Mozart, but neither were they trying to be. :) The point of criticism should not be the apparent vacuity of mass market games, but the absence of more substantive achievements, perhaps.

Where you say 'depth of interesting choices', I might say 'expressibility' - that is, the capacity for the player to express themselves in play. But I'm not certain that choice is vital to all players and all games.

Consider the humble (yet popular) crossword puzzle. There is but one answer to a crossword - there are no discernable choices in its solution. This position can be extended to adventure games, to some degree, especially the early ones which were founded solely on 'lock and key puzzles'.

I suppose my position is that choice is not an essential play need, but rather a play need for specific play styles.

Thanks, Jose, for (unintentionally?) making my point!

" begin to use the same verbs in multiple ways. Layering them, so to speak, in the same way that a dancer might create a dance from the same basic steps that a novice is learning."


we *use* the word "jump" in *analysing* Mario and in actually *playing* the thing. (More sides to any of these coins than we two may hope to ever cover completely ;)

on aesthetics:
R. Shusterman, Performing live
(studies performing arts, pop culture, famous for his study of hip hop culture, modern take on Dewey's aesthetic theory)

Go get it!

Thanks for the tip! Added that to my reading list - I'll get there eventually. :)

I've seen Crawford speak and, well, how to put it generously... Sometimes taking an extreme viewpoint - and deliberately ignoring the subtleties of reality - makes for a better speech. However, it can also be taken so far as to make the listener question credibility. I think Crawford plays with this line a lot (deliberately?) and is at risk of plummeting over it completely. For me he has.

To take his FPS example (and yes, I've heard him refer to them in that way), to say all you do is "run, aim, and shoot" is as short-sighted as saying that all you do in an arguement is "Listen, Talk or yell".

In both cases, higher level verbs are at play, and one action can be taken in the course of another. "I am running to execute the next stage of my plan (to bait you into running into a trap)" in this case is the analog of "I leading you down a line of questioning as part of my plan to get you to contradict your earlier assertion".

To take your Katamari example, sure, Roll is the verb. But WHY do you roll? "I roll to [verb]". I roll to CLEAR the level, or I roll to SEARCH for the exit, or I roll to GROW big enough to beat godzilla. At that point, it's arguable that what your are doing, verb-wise, is clearing, growing, or searching, since for this game the mechanic can be implied. Of course you roll. what else would you do?

Phrased more cleverly; I think, therefore I roll.

Kim, you point to the inescapably "recursive", "self-referential" process some people agreed to call "human conciousness".

I think, therefore I roll
(or maybe I am thinking, therefore I am rolling) - is excellent!

Kim: thanks for the comment. Your point is certainly apposite to the issue under discussion, and it's interesting to get another point of view on Chris Crawford.

I find the advantage of identifying verbs is in clarifying the underlying schema of the game; it can help clarify the tutorial aspects of the game, as well as offer ways to abstract and improve the core play. But I always hope and expect that the player will come up with more creative ways to use the verbs provided than the ones suggested by the paper design. :)

Best wishes!

I think what's coming out here, once again, is that actions (verbs) can be viewed at multiple levels of abstraction, and the verbs that are present in the game mechanic (and hence of most direct use to a game designer) are not necessarily those to which a player would refer. I still suspect without much evidence that a taxonomy / (CompSci-definition)ontology would assist in describing these areas.

Let the player herself bring her understanding of the (CompSci-definition)ontology into the playing game ...start by handing some sort of translation table like a dictionary....

There is definitely a distinction to be made between the verbs at the design level and the verbs at the play level (or at the level of designer and player respectively, if you will). The latter may proceed from the former, but the goal is surely to allow the player to create the verbs of play from the verbs of the design.

I'm not so convinced of the value of a formal ontology, though - but how much of this is my lack of interest in developing such a system I cannot say. ;)

"I'm not so convinced of the value of a formal ontology, though"

Fair enough. I'm also not convinced of the value of a generic ontology; I'm more convinced that something per-game that relates the player verbs to other player verbs and the game designer verbs might have value. Composition is quite a powerful operation, and *to me* it seems a shame to remove it from consideration in favour of a flat list of verbs.

Well it's quite possible that I don't really understand what you're proposing, of course. :)

My preference is to apply verbs on an ad hoc basis from game to game (hence the subjectiveness of the play specifications), according to what best captures the play. My feeling is that any formal verb structure will fail in some degree because from game to game one cannot use the same set of verbs with the same meaning.

For instance, if one uses Move as a verb in a fixed system, then one loses the distinction between movement in, say, Katamari Damacy versus the movement in, say, an FPS. The movement verb in the former must surely be Roll - any other word is inadequate! :)

Of course, one can argue that these distinctions can be identified and built into a fixed system, I suppose. Still, I can't find what it would be that a fixed system could provide that would be absent in an ad hoc approach.

But I am always open to the idea that I have missed something. ;)

Don't make a "fixed list" of one-to-one relation but a multi-dimensional "dictionary" like the Oxford Dictionary which a human being is able to interpret "her way"... open the game play to player driven interpretation, composition, etc. ... give the player the ability to "dance freestyle" rather than dance just one particular dance...

"My feeling is that any formal verb structure will fail in some degree because from game to game one cannot use the same set of verbs with the same meaning."

I suspect so - or, at least, that such a cross-game structure must grow out of examining successful structures for single games, rather than the other way round. But if you note, I was proposing "something per-game that relates the player verbs to other player verbs and the game designer verbs" (italics not in original).

translucy: but what of the players who would prefer not to dance freestyle? For believe it or not, there are players whose primary need is to be told what to do. :)

Peter: it sounds like a giant project... I don't doubt it would be interesting to pursue, though.

(Also: if you have tried to email me, I haven't recieved anything. I've tried to email you several times now - have you recieved anything from me? I don't know why this is so hard for us to contact each other over email!)

Chris, "freestyle" is of course at the extreme end of a continuous scale - but how about e.g. Tango, a "performing art" that allows improvistaion to a *certain degree* and that has a huge amateur base, probably rivaling that of a lot of games... the art of design obviously lies in giving the players *just the right* room to realize their potential, express themselves and so on... and really the point is to address this continuum in a more systematic way... and an onotology grounded in verbs is not the worst starting point for this.

translucy: yes, I take your point. I wonder if the game ontology project would consider trying to build a foundation set of verbs as part of their task?

I guess one could start by extracting verbs from some sort of "ontological model" maybe something that resembles a certain type of "temperament theory" ;-)

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