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Video (screencast): Confusions of Game Design: Game Design is NOT "Mind Control"

Confusions Game Design is not mind control part 1
Confusions Game Design is not mind control part 2

Here is the text of the slides. The presentation includes more, of course.

Confusions of Game Design Series: Game Design is NOT “Mind Control”
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Why this topic?
Title occasioned by a recording of a GenCon presentation, “Game Design is Mind Control”
Though I never got around to listening to much of it!
Perhaps because the title is absolutely antithetical to my views about tabletop games
In single-player video games, the “mind control” idea makes somewhat more sense
Though there’s lots of disagreement there, too

A Live Presentation
The idea came up again as a result of presentation I attended at a recent convention
Essentially, the speaker wanted to tell beginning designers to get rid of anything that didn’t contribute to the core loop of a game
Good advice, usually
But English isn’t his first language (though you’d never know it)

So he used the word “manipulate”
This sounds too much like “control” or even “mind control” and got a negative reaction from some listeners
The speaker, when he later found out exactly what “manipulate” means, decided to use a different word such as influence
Manipulate: “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”
Not the only meaning, but the negative one for sure

The speaker is an engineer, so he may naturally tend to focus on elements he might control
Many engineers tend to neglect the “human component”
Engineers tend to think in scientific/highly logical ways, where most people think of game design as an art
To me, it’s 90% science and 10% art, but that 10% is very important
Especially in days of soul-less “design by metric” in the video game world

Manipulation or Mind Control Implies Passivity
Are you making a movie rather than a game?
Then your audience is passive, not active
Games are active, they’re about doing and thinking
“Horns of a dilemma” (assume player wants that, that it’s a desirable tension)
I want to give players significant choices in a game, not lead them by the hand to where I want them to go.

Addictive? No!
Another way to express the “control” idea is to say you want to make the game “addictive”
No, no, no! Addiction is BAD. People don’t want to be addicted. It indicates a loss of control by the person who is addicted. Why would a decent person want to get anyone addicted?
Is that something you want to do to other people? Do you want to treat people that way? I sure don’t
Would you like to be treated that way, as someone to become “addicted” to a game?
Perhaps if you have an addictive personality you wouldn’t mind; I’m the opposite

There’s a general principle . . .
The “Golden Rule,” in some form, should apply
E. Kant’s non-religious version is: Treat no man as a means to an end, but as an end only
I think game designers have to treat players as ends, not means
Good customer service, too treats people as ends, not means
“Mind control” is the opposite of this, it treats people as mere means to your end (“addiction”?)

End of Part 1
Part 2 of Confusions: Game Design is NOT Mind Control: - this is the other side of the arguement

Where a single-player game is conceived and created as an “experience”, what is the designer doing?
Not “controlling” a player’s mind, but certainly influencing the player’s feelings and perceptions
It can be more like a novel, where the author clearly controls all that happens
Once you get to two independent players in the same game, “mind control” doesn’t make much sense for the designer

Traditional story forms are linear and passive
Stories work better with puzzles (where there’s an always-correct solution, a route or line to follow) than with games that provide lots of choices and alternative ways to succeed
Are you a game designer or a story-teller?
For many they are opposites
Though some game designers are frustrated story-tellers

“Create a feeling”
The idea that games always start with what feeling you want to engender in the player . . .
The implication is the designer wants to control the player, more or less
I'm of the "what happens next" school, I set up a situation and let the players make of it what they will (notice, players, plural - the “create feelings" folks are often about one player, singular).
They start MDA at A. Others are more interested in interplay of mechanics and players, the Dynamics

Players want Control
Many serious game players want to feel “in control”
And many do not like obvious manipulation
OTOH, some of those who like stories are happy to be “led around by the nose” (as I put it)
But others want to make things happen themselves
If your target market is people who want to be in a story (but not really affect the story), then you’re closer to “mind control”

But playing Within the game...
Negotiation inside a game does have an element of “mind control”
You want the other players to do exactly what you intend for them to do
Though you’d never expect them to do exactly the best thing for you

Think of game design as providing opportunities for players to enjoy and express themselves
Not as opportunities to control players
Though strict control is easier to arrange – as in many puzzles
The more your “game” is like a novel or movie, the more you’re likely to want to “mind control” the players.


Online game design courses at Udemy:
Discounts available at
"Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish", August 2012; electronic versions also available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Books-a-Million



Never thought about "mind control"...

I usually am "stuck" with figuring out the right "mechanics"! lol

Then I usually say something like this (to myself): "Well these mechanics seem interesting - maybe it will make for a good game."

And then comes the crafting of the prototype and the big "reveal" to see if the game is interesting.

I'm never intending to "control" people. One blind playtester told me that my game ("Tradewars - Homeworld") was totally "engulfing" to him. He said the game was only made of cards - but that the experience reminded him of "Faster Than Light" (FTL). And he was surprise at the how the game captivated him.

So I guess IF people LIKE something in which they really "invest" themselves into - could be "sort of mind control". But that's I guess an unintentional effect of anything that captivates a person... Something that is fully "immersive" (so to speak).

Never thought of it that way!

But very good points...

Just another comment

In Part #2, would you say Video Games that follow a "script" or "storyline", I am thinking about things like the RTS "StarCraft" or First Person Shooters (FPS) like "Duke Nukem" which also lead a player from level to level, to the ultimate end-game scenario.

The game is ACTIVE in that you need to resolve the challenges on a per level basis - but still you follow the route determined by the programmers of the game.

I can't say the same for *newer* Video Games - although I doubt that "story-telling" has changed that much. Even if there are different end-goal scenarios, the players are still following a route to one of several pre-defined goals...

So is this a form of "Mind Control" (in such Single-Player games)???

Update: I can think of more "Modern" Single Player games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA). You follow the storyline until the game's end-goal. Is this considered a form of "Mind Control" also? I can see ADDICTION as being part of the game - you want to know WHERE the storyline is going to LEAD the player...

And it makes you PLAY the game - until the end... Or unless until you stop if you get "frustrated" because you cannot solve one of the "puzzles" or challenges (if you prefer).

Context will play a part in how you define it

Hi all,
I may be missing something here but conceding that there can be negative contexts involved with manipulate/influence etc, the game can be doing both of those to the player within the games context. It was touched on in the slide, & I haven't listened to the links as my internet is so bad I can't actually get it to work, but depending on what the game is doing the player can be restricted in their options.

Any good game will try to immerse the player into the game world & guide their choices to make the game interesting, & for games where players take on a role that is guided by the character bio & the game world they can be manipulated & even forced into making choices that they themselves wouldn't make by choice. This to me is still manipulation. If the player is fully invested in both their character & the game world when making their in-game decisions then an argument can be made for it being a (minor) form of mind control.

Anyway, that's my 2c. Thanks for reading.


I'd like the Dr. opinion... Are you saying the "Single-Player" Video Games are a form of "Mind Control"? Because they follow some form of storyline that is pre-programmed by the creators of the game.

I get the "addiction" part is bad - but it's like reading a good book: you want to read it as quickly as possible so that you know what happens at the end.

Are you saying that "story-telling" in general is a form of "Mind Control"?

Because I got the impression that anything with writing and "leading" the person on the other end (through a story or journey), to you is a form of "Mind Control".

It varies partly with auteur intent

No, single-player games are not *necessarily* mind control, but it's easier to perform "mind control" in a game if it's single player. You only have to consider one player's reactions and thoughts.

Those who write traditional fiction/tell stories are most successful when they point the reader/listener in certain directions and lead them through certain experiences. Some may want to control what the consumer things and feels, others may wish to present a situation that will elicit a variety of reactions from consumers.

In a sense, it's a question for any creative person, whether to aim at a specific response only, or to more-or-less partner with the consumer and let the consumer react iaw his or her life experiences.

Getting kinda keep here. . .

What about unwanted mind control?

Once again a good read/good video's. You always get me thinking in ways that are new to me.


The one thing that I am missing here is the unwanted mind control.

Sure you give your players plenty of options. And each option has a certain story to it. But there are 2 unwanted "mind controls". Something a designer certainly doesn't want to have.

1-The best choice!
This falls in the "unbalanced" category. Often a player chooses the best choice. Also if it is not a choice that is good at first but later on. Never ever reverting back to other choices. Not even for a change in fun. Players often want the easy route. In a lot of games, this occurs after playing the game a couple of times. After that, the game is broken.

2-The choice is now!
An example is in Starcraft II, where you have to choose between the Ghost and the Spectre. The player has a choice?
Knowing that in multiplayer, you will be having plenty of Ghosts. A player now simply chooses the Spectre in 99% of the times. Just because they want to know.

lewpuls wrote:

You only have to consider one player's reactions and thoughts.

True. But I think that you need to keep track of every choice in your game. And keep testing each choice if you add more to the game. Or else mistakes like the Spectre/Ghost creep into a game.


I may not have understood this, but aren't you talking now about players falling into habits or ruts, becoming predictable? There's very little the game design can do to prevent that, surely?

Well, you understood what I

Well, you understood what I was saying.

But should a game designer not at least try their best to prevent it as much as possible?
I certainly try to tackle it, every time I discover one.

Playing a game, and doing the same thing over and over again looks boring to me though. I notice it everywhere, board games, video games, even card games.

I dislike it when all players in the same game do the exact same thing.

In a rut?

Everyone doing the same thing is a characteristic of "closed games," where people are pursuing one (or a few: "multiple paths to victory") always-correct solutions to the puzzle presented by the game. Most Euros, for example.

Solution: design open games. But this involves relying on the other players to provide variety and require a somewhat different winning line of play each time. And that requires direct opposition, which you don't get in puzzle-like games.

See my next blog post.

What games do you mean?

X3M wrote:
Playing a game, and doing the same thing over and over again looks boring to me though. I notice it everywhere, board games, video games, even card games.

Well unless your game is a 4X game, the game is going to be pretty much similar (in terms of what you can do). With the 4X it is possible to have different "stages" in a game like figuring out the board, building your empire, building your army and battling your opponents. Those are very different tasks.

But in let's say a CARD GAME like UNO, the game is fundamentally the SAME. It is a simpler game experience - but it's still fun to play even if it can be repetitive... I know people play that game for hours. And it's fundamentally simple.

What about POKER? It's a CARD GAME and the game is more or less the same. It's not like you have a bunch of different option. People play that game for hours too!

The way you are saying "You don't like games that are repetitive" sounds like you would only be happy playing "4X" games which are designed to be played in "stages"...

No?! Am I correct in assuming that the games you are talking about are "4X" games? Maybe you could cite other examples of the games that are different (during the game)?

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