The Layers of Player Understaning by Jainan Sankalia (about the way players perceive a game on different levels)

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The Layers of Player Understaning by Jainan Sankalia (about the way players perceive a game on different levels)

Post by Admin on Fri Aug 30, 2013 8:44 pm

Layers of Player Understanding

by Jainan Sankalia, July 5, 2013

This model explains, from a ludic perspective, the layers of understanding a player can obtain experiencing a heavily designer-authored game. Each layer of this model is based on interaction and how interaction is presented to the player and utilized by the player as they engage with the experience.

This model aims to be a tool for developers to use in crafting their experiences. By looking through the lens of interaction and breaking down how that changes the knowledge a game communicates, a clearer picture emerges about how interaction at its different layers guides the player's learning and understanding of the game.

Presentation Aesthetic

Presentation Aesthetic represents the sensory information revealed to the player usually expressed through the audiovisuals. This is the core layer for this model, as it is the first exposure the player has to the experience.

This layer also represents how interaction is presented to the player. Often the feedback from an input by the player is outputted by the system via audiovisual information. This is not limited to, but includes the shapes and styles of the visuals, the ambient sounds and musical score, and the written and spoken text -- these all communicate elements of the experience.

Even abstracted board games such as chess communicate elements of medieval warfare based on the shape and names of the pieces. The shape of a knight compared to a bishop may communicate aspects of their behavior. The black and white pieces denote a clear distinction between the two players. Even the physical texture of the pieces could reveal historical information. The information presented through the aesthetic can communicate elements of the ludic nature of the game that can be utilized to teach the player.

As an example, this is the layer that most trivia games operate on to educate the player. To successfully learn what the trivia game is trying to teach only requires the player to have knowledge of the questions and their answers usually presented as text. Trivial Pursuit is a test of knowledge; moving around the board using the pieces does not teach the player about the categories of geography, science, or nature. The board and the pieces are there, at least in part, to break the monotony of reading all the question and answer cards.

By observing all the methods by which sensory input is presented to the player, developers can utilize each method for a specific lesson to be taught. The board game Twilight Struggle uses the historical time period between 1945 and 1989 as a backdrop for two players, representing the U.S.A. and the USSR, to compete for influence and control over the various countries and regions of the world.

A historical photo accompanies each card in the game. This photo is not related to the mechanics, nor is it required in order to play the game, but it does provide another avenue of communication about the historical Cold War setting the game takes place during. The turn counter equates to the years between 1945 and 1989 represented by a picture of the leader that was in office during that year. Again, this knowledge does not aid the player towards completing the game, but it does afford an educational knowledge about the time period. The historically accurate map of the world including country borders used by the game's board conveys a geographic knowledge the players may learn from.

From a more ludic perspective, the values of each country's stability number reveal each country's relative ideological government stability, independence, and power. Twilight Struggle does a great job of conveying a variety of historical information by exposing the players to a variety of visual information as they play the game.

However, the shape of the cards and board are a standard rectangle. This shape could have been another opportunity to impart additional information at the potential detriment to the overall experience. Also, the physical texture and feel of the smooth cards don't contribute to the historical setting. Of course, it is up to the developers of the game to determine which of the many methods they wish to utilize for communication. The key is evaluating all the potential options the game's presentation aesthetic affords information at this layer of player understanding.


Moving beyond the presentation aesthetic, Mechanic adds interaction. A mechanic is a single instance of an input that causes an output feedback either between the player and the system or entirely within the system. Understanding what and why that input has that specific feedback yields knowledge for the player. This ability to affect the game in a fundamental way is the first layer that incorporates interaction and feedback into a player's understanding of the ludic experience. At its base, the player learns what the rule for the input and output are. Once learned, the player may begin to question why a particular input has that particular output. Answering that question suggests a certain logic for the player to grasp.

A simple example of a mechanic is a headshot in a shooter. In many shooters, a headshot deals more damage to the target than a body shot. The player learns that being shot in the head is worse than being shot in the body. Of course, that is not the most accurate interpretation compared to a real life scenario, but every mechanic informs the player about the rules of the game space. These rules taught in the game space can be used to teach certain rules the developer may want to educate the player about whether about real life logic or game logic.

Many puzzle games, such as Portal, slowly introduce new ideas and concepts to the player. Test Chamber 10 of the game teaches the player about the game's mechanic for conservation of momentum. By exploring and discovering this concept, the player is afforded additional information about the game's internal logic.

That same notion of exploring and discovering the game's internal logic may be utilized by a developer intending a certain knowledge, such as Newtonian physics, be taught to the player that may be tested later by another mechanic. In later test chambers, the player must use a weighted cube's momentum just as the player observed his or her own momentum being conserved between portals.


A System represents all possible inputs and outputs within a given construct as well as all the internal feedbacks between various rules within the game. Made up of various Mechanics, a System provides a sense of logic to the game's simulation. Understanding all the possible interactions within the system communicates the fundaments of how that system operates. If the system of rules is an accurate representation, or simulation, of the reality being addressed by the game, then the knowledge of the system conveys the logic of that reality. As a player learns more mechanics within a given system, the player develops a framework for how all the mechanics interrelate.

This interrelation between mechanics is a central component of the system's thinking approach to problem solving. Observing the multiple and long-term feedbacks from a given input create awareness towards complex problems the game may present. System here refers to any group of Mechanics. A distinction is not made between a game's overall system and its various sub-systems. This layer focuses on the inter-relationship between different inputs and outputs internally within the game. These may be affected by the player's inputs on the system, but are also feedbacks within the game itself based on its internal set of rules.

In the game Lunar Lander, the relationship between thrust and gravity changes depending on if the player chooses Earth, the Moon, or Jupiter. Understanding how the thrust input by the player changes the output of the Lander based on the choice input of interstellar object, the player grasps the idea that gravity on the Moon is weaker than on Earth which is weaker than on Jupiter.

Through understanding the connection between interactions, the player may draw associative conclusions enriching their understanding of the experience.

Heavily simulation-based games such as SimCity or Microsoft Flight Simulator focus on this to create complex situations for the player. Games with an internal ecosystem that governs the state of the game have internal mechanics that yield a number of possible internal results based off their relation with other mechanics.

Many developers that fall under Tadhg Kelly's simulationism lens of game making create complex sets of interactions that lead to near infinite possibilities. As the player discovers these possibilities and determines why a possibility occurred in the system, the player starts operating on the System layer.

In terms of system thinking, the importance is outlined in Daniel Aronson's example of crop damage by insects. He explains how the immediate feedback of using a pesticide on a particular Insect A in the short-term decreased crop damage, but in the long-term the crop damage increased. This was the result of an unforeseen input of that particular insect keeping another insect's population down.

In this example system, there are many mechanics at work including Insect A's feedback on the crops, Insect B's feedback on the crops, and Insect A's feedback on Insect B. In this example applied to this model, learning all these mechanics help the player understand the problem at large and potential long-term consequences of adjusting each population at the System layer as each mechanic alters the state of the game.


Tactic is the player acting on the system by choosing a specific input after understanding other possible inputs in order to achieve a desired output. By understanding the current state of the game and understanding the system and how each different input will alter the current state of the game, the player can plan and take an immediate action to alter that state based on which input they choose.

Knowledge of the entire system is not needed, but knowledge of at least two possible inputs is needed to provide a sense of choice. Acting on this choice is a Tactic. For a player, understanding the tactical options are the point at which players begin to feel a sense of agency because they are presented with meaningful choices they have become aware of by understanding the interrelations within the system. Player agency here "is the provision of capability for a player to act meaningfully and with visible effect in a game," as described in this place.

The board game Pandemic is a good example of the player making tactical decisions. On a player's turn they are able to perform only four actions. Usually the state of the game is so volatile that the player must deal with the short term problems presented at the start of their turn. Because of the way the outbreak deck places previously drawn locations back on top of the deck, the player is aware of what problem cities have a high potential of being drawn at the end of their turn. As a result the player makes immediate choices to deal with the specific problem cities in the current state of the game, changing the game state in an immediately apparent way.

Because of the engagement that comes from a sense of agency, this layer of interaction is an important layer for the player to understand. Analyzing what this layer teaches in a developer's own game provides an opportunity for the developer to capitalize on this engagement by determining what the tactical choices the player can make are at any given moment. On a moment-to-moment basis, a developer could determine what meaningful choices are presented to the player and how best to communicate the feedback of those decisions on the game state back to the player in the short-term.


Once the player has a feeling of agency and is making tactical short-term decisions, the player begins to plan a series of tactics, or inputs, affecting the long-term state of the game, which is Strategy. Abstracting away from the acting aspect of interaction, Strategy is the point at which the player begins to theorize how to change future states of the game based on a series of interactions. The player makes predictions about how their sequence of tactics will alter the state of the game beyond the immediate feedback from each input as other factors, such as inputs from other players, interfere with the immediate and direct feedback from an input.

Using Twilight Struggle again as an example, the game uses strategy to communicate the intentions and tensions surrounding the Cold War. For example, knowing that in the future the game will score the balance of power in African countries, both players will plan on how to alter the influence in that area. When the game begins, neither player has any influence in those countries. An example strategy is using the immediate tactic of performing a coup in a southern country with a low stability number that is geopolitically connected to other easy-to-influence countries on the game board. By doing so, in the future the player may slowly spread their influence north.

Of course, by performing a coup the immediate feedback of the DEFCON level lowers putting the game close to the Nuclear War end state. Alternatively, the player may also choose instead to claim enough control over the Middle East to have the flexibility to spread influence south.

In either scenario the player is planning which course of actions to take in order to control the key battleground states in the area such as Nigeria, Zaire, and Angola that greatly affect the game's scoring. These strategies are altered as opponents also attempt to control these areas.

These alterations force the player to take new immediate tactical actions in order to achieve a long-term strategic goal that via the aesthetic metaphor for the action informs about the potential thought process and intentions of the behaviors taken by the U.S.A. and USSR during this time period.

The immediacy of the feedback provided by a system is a central component that separates Strategy from the previous layer, Tactic. Realizing what the player discovers by acting on short-term goals compared to planning long-term goals provides distinctly different sets of information a developer could teach.

Just as a System of inputs comprises multiple Mechanics, a Strategy of decisions comprises multiple Tactics. Although similar in terms of meaningful decision making, this distinction between Strategy and Tactic is important because of the difference in thought process a player engages in while operating at these two layers. Both the immediate impact and eventual impact a player theorizes are opportunities for a developer to provide distinct experiences and knowledge.


Information outside of the game space may also influence a player's understanding of how the state of the game will change. This external knowledge is the Context surrounding the game. This context could be knowledge assumed by the player based on layers of understanding from a previous game in the same franchise or from understanding a similar game.

This contextual knowledge may also apply to the player's understanding of other players' behavior in other games or other instances of the same game. Even understanding human psychology can inform the player on how to strategize within a certain game. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman describe the game space as "the magic circle." Information outside of the boundaries of this magic circle creates a cognitive frame. "Cognitive frames create contexts for interpretation and affect how we make sense of things," such as the state of the game.

Using the prior example of headshots in a shooter, being familiar with this mechanic in other shooters will influence the player in assuming that mechanic applies to the current game as well. Here the context affects the Mechanic layer of interaction as it is communicated via the Presentation Aesthetics. The entire game space and all prior layers of player understanding may be impacted by the external information the player brings. A tactic that was useful in a previous game encourages the player to assume that same tactic will yield a similar result in the sequel unless the player is taught otherwise.

An example of using external knowledge to influence a player's choices comes from the psychological elements surrounding the simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Explained in a passage from the World Rock Paper Scissors Society page, "knowing that there is always something motivating your opponent's actions; there are a couple of tricks and techniques that you can use to tip the balance in your favour." These tips and tricks such as suggesting a throw before the game begins, outside of the magic circle, are components of contextual information outside of the game space that can affect strategic choices.

The web series Extra Credits discusses the idea of cyclical imbalance in the game League of Legends. They explain how players may choose a certain champion because of how powerful they are against the average champion, leading many players to choose that particular champion. That same champion has a weakness that can be exploited by players who choose another specific champion. This understanding of the current evolving state of the meta-game provides contextual knowledge an informed player uses to adjust their Strategy.

It becomes a challenge for developers as players develop this understanding, because a player may or may not have that contextual knowledge. Everything from how complex to make a tutorial, how walkthroughs have changed classic adventure games, and issues with accessibility for new players are all affected by how much contextual knowledge a potential player might have. In relation to the rest of the model, the challenge is compounded as every layer is impacted by this contextual knowledge that will alter how and when the player will understand the intended learning.


By acknowledging all these layers a player may learn from, a developer can craft specific experiences to communicate specific information at different times. These layers could be used to craft a more engaging or informative experience by incorporating how each of these layers uniquely affords knowledge to the player.

Based on interaction as an input with an output feedback, each layer provides unique learning opportunities for the player. The core layer, Presentation Aesthetic describes how interaction is communicated to the player. The next layer, Mechanic is a single instance of interaction. System is all possible interactions. Tactic is a choice of making a single interaction. Strategy is planning for multiple choices of interaction. The final layer, Context is using outside information to influence the players understanding and usage of these interactions.

In the comments section below:

Christian Philippe Guay wrote:Thank you for the article and I'm glad that more people are looking into these aspects.

I think you are heading in a good direction, but maybe you got a few things wrong and I'll try to explain why the best I can. And I edited some parts just recently, because I just didn't have the time yesterday to do it, sorry.

The most fundamental thing that we have to understand is what the whole purpose of the game is: to overcome the experience.

1. Aesthetics
2. Mechanics
3. Environments
4. Rules
5. Mindgames
6. Yourself

As Jainan Sankalia said, everything that is perceptible and that we have to make sense of.

Players have to learn the controls, the gameplay mechanics and how everything works, can be combined, etc. When you talked about the consequences of a mechanic in your layer named ''system'', that's also part of the mechanics.

Learn how the environment influences the mechanics. Learn the maps, the respawn points, etc.

Learn how the rules of the game (or gametype) affects the environments, mechanics, players, etc.

Players must learn how to read the minds of others, put themselves in their shoes in order to understand what action can be performed to trigger the necessary reaction that will help the player achieve his goal. A high level player doesn't dodge bullets, he makes his enemy fire when and where he wants.

A lot of players fail to understand that the purpose of the game isn't to react to what is going on. In order to overcome the experience, the player must learn how to use the higher laws against the lower.

And one of the biggest problem in the industry is that gameplay aren't designed with this layer in mind and that makes action games far less entertainment than they should be. The more skill-based a game is, the more intellectual it becomes. The problem, is that most games are either contextual (the right weapon for the right situation) or gameplays are too quick and easy to execute, so it cannot offer much depth (Call of Duty) and the mechanics aren't challenging either.

Mindgames include tactics and strategies that are simply the same things: multiple steps of a mindgame. It has nothing to do with predictions or to think 5 moves ahead. You have a higher goal, yes, but then you have multiple actions to perform to successfully manipulate an opponent to get to that point. If your opponent is smarter, you'll fail and it's going to block you. Then, you restart from scratch and must find another goal and the complexity of it really doesn't matter much.

The mindgames layer is especially important, because that's also how a player can observe, correct and improve his thought patterns. If you play fighting games, then you might recognize what I'm talking about. You get stuck in a loop of a bad pattern and keep losing until you wake up, correct the pattern and then win surprisingly easily.

And mindgames also involve teamplay. How well players can learn to work as one mind.

Most world athlete generally reaches a plateau one day or another, because not only they are physically limited, but most people aren't aware that their limited control over their own brain is what limits them the most.

The brain works on its own everyday. It wastes a tremendous amount of energy in analyzing everything you perceive, etc. The you at the being level wants to do or say something, then once filtered by the brain it gets distorted and something else comes out that you might not necessarily like or agree with. You can find claims about this made by Thomas Campbell in his Big TOE.

If you learn to calm the brain, then at some point you'll be able to take back control over it and do whatever you want with it. Some people like to call that repgrogramming the brain, but what this is really all about is starting to use the subconscious functions of the brain that are at least 1 million times more powerful than the conscious functions. Scientists confirmed that yogis and people involved in meditation can access those subconscious functions of the brain.

A normal player has trouble to manipulate one, two or three opponents. If you are able to overcome the brain, you can multi-thread a whole team effortlessly all at once. I've experienced that myself for 2 months and I couldn't tell at that point if the brain was making extrmely complex calculations or if it was taking its information instantaneously from somewhere else.

And that new horsepower is also necessary to push even further our physical capabilities. It will allow a player to slightly increase his speed, dexterity and muscle memory to what I would obviously think can be qualified as superhuman.

And the side effect is that in such state, the player will also start to see the world differently; inter-connected. He will start to realize how every mechanic is the same, but just looks, feels, smells or tastes different. What you learn from one profound experience can be applied to another completely different field. That's why good players intuitively adapt faster to other types of experiences in life in general.

- -

Video games just happen to be the most accessible way to reach a high level of mastery in something, because a gamer playing fighting games won't get injured or get tired, etc. The player can practice and progress non stop and the only thing that can get in his way is his own mental pattern that he needs to correct during the journey.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough scientific studies done on the subject, but I'm expecting to see a lot more in the future.

And one big thing... what you call context isn't a specific layer in this process. It's something that applies to each layer. What you named '''context'' is actually the realization process that you'll find in the following article:

Those are two different and valid processes, one describes the structure of an experience and the psychological process behind it and what we are talking about here is how to master them. And trust me... it doesn't only apply to video games. We can apply those 2 processes to everything in a universal manner.
And in response the Author wrote:

Jainan Sankalia wrote:Thanks for the information. I'll definitely have to explore that further. Your explanation of Mindgames is especially interesting.

Also, your Origins of Fun article was a very informative read.

Robert Crouch wrote:You say that they are "the layers of understanding a player can obtain experiencing a heavily designer-authored game" I would argue that these are layers to understanding any game-like system.

In that some are emphasized and others are de-emphasized like the Aesthetic of Trivial Pursuit, some of the less 'designer-authored' games and game-like systems will follow the same pattern.

Take an example like the game of tag. An observer unfamiliar with the game starts watching kids play tag.

The aesthetic is essentially the children running, laughing, shouting, touching eachother, and saying "you're it".
On observation, you recognize that the touching and statement that "you're it" is integral to get game, and you've learned the mechanics.
Some more watching, or maybe after a child comes up and touches you and says "you're it." you start to intuit the system. One player is designated, "it", and must touch another player who becomes "it".
You recognize that it's your task to tag another player, so you run toward the slowest player, and you've developed a tactic.
Once you're no longer it, you decide to stay along the periphery of the game an let the kids mostly tire themselves chasing eachother and save your energy for when you need to escape, and you've developed a strategy.
After playing a few times, you've learned which children are the fast ones, and which ones are the most competitive, you refine your strategy to deal with that based on that context you're now aware of.

I guess my point is that it's not just heavily designer-authored systems that these are meaningful distinctions for, it's any game-like system. You could probably make an example based on something less obviously game-y like competition for a promotion at work.
The author wrote:That's a great example! When I was first thinking about these layers I found myself stuck until I narrowed my focus which helped me define the layers clearer. You are right though, this could definitely apply to other game-like systems. I was, and still am, worried that the wider this model tries to apply to the less applicable and more problematic it would become especially with the vast and unique systems and experiences people are designing.

In fact, as Christian Philippe Guay pointed out, there are already problems he has seen with this approach.

Hopefully, as a guide this idea (correct or not) will aid other designers with whatever type of system they are trying to devise.

Jeremy Alessi wrote:That looks good, though it seems to me that context would actually fit between aesthetic and mechanics. Usually, the context of the situation gives the player some clues as to the mechanics in addition to being something that is formed by the aesthetics. So aesthetics build context and context gives rise to mechanics that the player perceives as possible or logical. In some ways though the context is constantly being built so I can see it being larger and not fully realized until all stages of "game actualization" have been achieved.
The author wrote:I think you are right. I think it's more a failure on my part of clearly incorporating Context. It definitely applies to all the layers and isn't quite a layer itself and may not even be a constructive part of this model. I knew I wanted to include the idea of 'meta-strategy' but I didn't know how to better define it other than 'using external information to influence the game' which seemed to encompass much more than just strategy and felt too much like Context so I changed the name. After changing the name, I should have spent more time talking about Context affecting the whole, and not just how it affects strategy.

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