Origins 2010: “Game Design is Mind Control” Seminar

During Origins 2010, I dropped by a packed seminar run by Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen. Luke Crane is the designer of Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard RPGs, of which we (mainly ChattyDM) have spoken of on many occasions. Jared Sorensen is the game designer behind a number of games including Action Castle and the Parsley system, as well as a variety of electronic game projects. These are just some of my notes from the seminar, so nothing here is verbatim what they said, just how it was interpreted by me.

What does it mean that game design is mind control? As they explained it, games encourage you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. They encourage you to put yourself in situations you wouldn’t otherwise be in and have your feelings manipulated, which is a form of mind control. Well-designed games evoke certain feelings in players and put those players in the middle of a scenario. As they emphasized, the goal is not to make your players have fun, since fun is a very subjective thing. (Just like Yehuda said.) But if you can succeed in designing a game that causes the players to have the reaction you intended, you’ve succeeded as a game designer. They said everyone in the seminar is a game designer… which as they joked, meant arguing and starving.

They described games as a series of cog-like pieces that fit together. Games are about actions and interactions. When you interact with something in a game, you receive feedback for that action. In turn, games provide rewards for that interaction. Those rewards shape how people play, and promote competition between players. Even in a simple game like Checkers, there is a feedback reward for taking certain actions (getting your pieces kinged), which then shapes play (by opening up the board and providing incentive to push forward.)

Rewards have to be commiserate with the effort involved, or else it doesn’t serve to motivate enough. Luke offered a penny to anyone willing to walk up and shake his hand, and nobody stirred initially. Then when the reward for shaking Jared’s hand was $1, it caused a bit more competition.

Offering the same kind of reward for the same mechanic over and over again reduces the feeling of reward. The human brain is wired to release positive chemicals when experiencing a feeling of reward, but we get used to that reaction quickly when given the same reward for the same action. Thus, it’s important to offer different rewards for different actions.

Luke demonstrated part of this by running a dollar auction, which ended up netting $2.34 for them, and taught several audience members a lesson in competition. (Except for the kid who bid and then couldn’t pay.) Further discussion went into the prisoner’s dilemma, when continuing to talk about competition, which then transitioned into talking about games of perfect information (like Chess) vs. games of imperfect information (like Pandemic.)

In an RPG, the primary source of imperfect information is the dice or other random element. However, the other players (including the GM, if there is one) also are a big source of imperfect information. As an example, the GM might not provide the difficulty of a task, and thus there is imperfect information. However, they argued against this, since not providing the difficulty of an action in an RPG removes an element of decision-making from the player’s hands, and making decisions is a key part of a game. That lack of transparency usually collapses after a few rolls anyway as the players figure it out.

Back to rewards, not all rewards have to be points, levels, or power-ups either: sometimes story advancement and exploration are enough to motivate players. Different players have different motivations. For example, in MMOs, the types of players were listed as The Griefer, The Achiever, The Explorer, and the Socializer. Games that try to appeal to everyone and every motivation tend to suffer as a result. Games that appeal to one kind of audience usually only sell to that audience, which is a smaller player base. Jared gave an example of quests he worked on for D&D Online, where they wanted to do race-specific quests (like a Halfling dungeon.) That would appeal to Halfling players, but the amount of work required to develop it versus how many players would actually play through it wasn’t worth it. This also lead to a discussion about Male vs. Female characters (especially in games like Mass Effect.) Either you develop generic content so the choice doesn’t matter, or you develop unique content that at least half the players won’t ever see. Then there was a discussion on the different ways you motivate players to want to play through a game a second time, despite the fact that on average only 20% of players do that.

Ultimately, the best game designers use restrictions and challenges to shape the design and circumvent those issues in a new way.

At this point, as a demonstration of their mind control abilities, they started up a game of Action Castle using the majority of the seminar audience. Since I’ve played through Action Castle before and own it, I ducked out, but not before talking with Luke briefly about the seminar. I have to say, I expected the seminar to be much more focused on “indie” RPGs, and things like narrative control and other RPG-specific concepts. Instead, it was a solid seminar about the kind of game design that cuts across RPG, tabletop, and video games, and even dipped heavily into game theory, a field that is always good for game designers to have some experience with. If you get the chance to catch these guys in a seminar, or just a chance to talk to them directly, I highly recommend it.

For additional reading, check out (and compare) some of the game design seminars from previous years: Reiner Knizia’s “Creation of a Successful Game” and Monte Cook’s “Designing a Better Dungeon”

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. That sounds interesting. I would have liked to have been to that seminar. I’ll definitely check out those seminars from previous years.


  2. Interesting. As much as I like what Luke has done, though, I think he’s giving secrecy his due. He’s got some very specific ideas on how RPGs ought to be run, essentially like a collaborative drama. That’s great, and it really works, but I think it’s a mistake to assert that “this is the only way it can work”, which is a vibe I’ve gotten from a lot of Burning Wheel fans, who are of the “You’ll never go back again” camp.

    Having had some gameplay experience in World of Darkness, I can assert that secrecy can be a very important part of the game, and of the game experience. It doesn’t remove player decisions. It just makes players more carefully consider their decisions, and it lends to the dramatic feel that you’re in a story being told.

  3. @Andy, I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure Luke was referring to the various kinds of “secret rolls” in many games, not “secret information.”

  4. Yes, the way I took it, they weren’t saying “don’t hide stuff from your players” as far as story and whatnot goes, but don’t hide Difficulty numbers from your players when they roll. It removes an eliminate of decision making if they don’t know how hard something is, and they’ll eventually get there to figuring it out by trial an error anyway.

  5. @Andy: Knowing Luke myself, I can attest that he designed his games based on what he likes playing the most (in that, Burning Wheel is his freakishly successful Fantasy Heartbreaker about fighting and conflicts) and rarely dishes out on other games when in polite company (he’s a different guy online, I’ll grant you that, he loves fighting trolls on forums). Hell, he even likes playing dwarves in D&D once in a while…

    He has, however, no control over his more vocal and dicky fans though, much like White Wolf has no control over the WoDheads 🙂

    Luke is a nice guy… with very strong opinions about gaming. It’s fun to get him into full ranting mode when you suggest merging BW’s failure mechanics with D&D… It makes for a great debate when you can keep up with him.


  1. […] Hits blogger Dave Chalker did a write up of the event which you can read here. This was written by admin. Posted on Wednesday, June 30, 2010, at 11:07 am. Filed under News […]