How Game Themes Create Engagement and Expectations

I love going to Disneyland. It’s not for the rides per se; there are more thrilling rides at other amusement parks. It’s for the theming. The architecture, the rides, even the trash cans are so well themed to each of the lands — Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, New Orleans Square, Toontown, and Main Street — that going to the world’s first theme park is a truly immersive experience. I can only hope to create experiences that are a fraction as well-themed as the Disneyland experience.

A game’s theme is the setting, character or story used by a game to provide extra meaning to the player’s decisions and actions. A game’s setting (e.g., the old west, a fantasy world, or World War II) is perhaps the most common method for theming a game. However, some games are themed primarily through use of a well-known character (particularly if the game has many settings or an ill-defined setting) or through the use of the story from a licensed novel or movie (particularly if it uses characters or story lines from the licensed work and not just the setting).

For example, here are three games and the themes they use:

Game Theme Type
Battleship Naval Warfare Setting
Mario Party Mario Character
Knights of the Old Republic Star Wars Story

It is not necessary for every game to have a theme. Some games, like Checkers, don’t have themes. Such games are called abstract games.

However, adding a theme to your game can have several advantages:

    • It can help engage a player. For example, I like Sherlock Holmes stories, so game with a Victorian England theme will be more likely to capture my interest than, say, a game set in Tsarist Russia.
    • It can make the game easier to learn. For example, I already understand what a soldier does and the importance of the objectives when I play Call of Duty.
    • It can help to add fantasy (or alternatively, reality) and narrative to a game for players who enjoy that kind of play value.

Themes can also create expectations. Such expectations can create unwritten rules for how a player or designer thinks a game “should” be played based on the experiences the player has had with the theme in other games, movies or novels. So, theming can be a double-edged sword.

Curiously, as much exposure as we have to theming in our culture, themes seem to be the hardest game concept for my game students to grasp, whether they are young scouts in my Game Design Merit Badge workshops or they are the college students I teach at The Los Angeles Film School. Even after I explain the meaning of the word theme and give examples of themes in games well-known games, students typically confuse theme with genre (e.g., first-person shooter or real-time strategy) or with literary themes (e.g., good vs. evil, man against nature, will to survive, power and corruption and so on).

I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it is because gamers are so used to being immersed in their games, they cannot separate the theming from the other elements — which is good for players, but not so much for game designers, who need to be able to break a game down to understand what makes it fun to play.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on August 10, 2015, in Game Design. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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