Table top game designers often think of the question: what comes first, mechanics or theme? The same can be said about educators when it comes to developing curriculum: content or learning outcomes?
Both are often right and wrong at the same time. When done correctly, both mechanics and theme work interchangeably with one another in how they affect the player experience. The same is also applied to developing curriculum and learning materials. Content serves your learning outcomes. Your learning outcomes shape your content.
Game themes are often one of the most memorable moments for players. They don’t remember so much the individual actions they took but rather the castle they helped raid; the city they built; or the ship they sailed.
The same thing can be said for classes. Students may not remember every lecture, every question, or ever topic ever discussed. But they will remember their outcomes and how they were able to apply what they learned.
When done correctly: theme becomes an invisible and inseparable framework for how we define the player experience. When combined with games-based learning; theme and content can help define and shape a memorable and applicable user experience.
What is theme?
Broadly speaking, theme uses places, subjects, and scenarios to immerse players. For games this is can take players on a magical adventure to an imagined land. You can be a powerful race exploiting the galaxy in Eclipse; a European power vying for dominance in Endeavor: Age of Sail; or simply be an azulejo crafting a beautiful tile mosaic in Azul.
Theme is what binds the player to the experience. Theme is what makes the game relatable beyond just its components. Theme becomes the glue that holds the experience together for the player.
Theme doesn’t have to be imaginary though. Serious games and simulations can use very real world themes such as crisis management; stock market manipulation; and traffic patterns to replicate real world problems.
The themes in these serious games and simulations is especially salient since the player can identify with them more easily. These are things that have happened to them (or can happen to them) in the future. So the simulation serves to help them learn and prepare for such scenarios.
But simulations already include themes that players can already relate to. Creating a theme for an imaginary world is much more challenging and often more difficult.
Themes and conflict
Themes are best used when they incorporate and manage the conflict of a game. A theme is most useful when they help players define:
The open world and character creation of Fallout demonstrates to players that they have many options available for them to create their character. They can re-create themselves in the game world, or they can role-play as someone completely different.
Likewise, theme can help inform players of choices that they have in the game. Those can be as simple as dialogue box options in Mass Effect or in the player board from Scythe. Theme is great at helping players immerse themselves into this world through conveying different options available to them.
Lastly, theme can demonstrate and interpret different resources for players. In the game Museum players act as curators of a museum. The objective of the game is to end with the most number of victory points. But the game calls them “Prestige Points.” Prestige directly relates to the museum curators in developing the best museums in the world.
In games-based learning we can relate learning content to theme which helps students define their options, choices, and resources.
An excellent example of this is in the course “Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans: Exploring Humanity Through Literature” offered at Brown University. In this class, students must serve as liaisons for humanity by communicating with an alien. They must interpret some of history’s greatest fiction stories in order to relate to another being what it is like to be human through our literature.
What about “abstract” games?
Abstract games are those known mostly for their mechanics, components, and play. Theme is not a central element to the player experience. Abstract games includes classics like Checkers, Chess, Mancala, and Go.
The lack of significant theme in these games means that players need to forge their own connection and its mode of play. However, there can be additional challenges for their experience as the lack of theme doesn’t help inform players of what they can do or how the game progresses. Think about the knight piece in chess: how does the piece being a knight remind a player of how it can move? Same thing for a rook: how is a castle supposed to move?
Theme helps players connect to the rules that you’ve created in the game and logically connect them to the components that make up your design.
How-to learning content and vocational courses may not need theme since the outcome for the learner is clear. But what about courses that include a lot of abstraction? Courses like a survey of literature or introduction to psychology? How do students relate to the content of the course? What is the theme that helps guide their learning and development?
What can theme do?
Theme makes the connection between game play and the game’s core mechanics by putting players into a “game frame” of mind. If the game’s theme is industrial then that theme could convey elements of production, engine building, or price manipulation. Likewise war games convey conflict, battles, engagements, and contention.
A theme can also help players use their existing knowledge to play the game. Wingspan does this well by conveying the different habitats that birds can inhabit. It’s up to the player to place those birds in the best habitats possible to help them win the game.
Themes and rules
A theme can help players remember the rules of the game. If a rulebook is a structure and a collection for how players can play the game; then your theme is the mental model that players create in order to make sense of those rules. If the theme conveys to players that their expectations for the game match their options then that will positively affect their interaction with the game.
Likewise, a course outline or syllabus should reflect the learning outcomes of the course. Content, activities, or assignments that fall outside the scope of the course should not remain. They can only distract students from understanding the intended learning outcomes. Games-based learning incorporates these outcomes, themes, and content into a holistic package that reflects a unified experienced for the student.
Mechanics and theme; content and outcomes: they are two sides of the same coin when developing games or courses. Themes can convey a lot to the player and the student through what you’ve chosen to “dress” your material in.
A well constructed theme in a game conveys the central conflict well to the player. Conversely abstract games convey all that they can through their components and mechanics. The lack of a theme can make learning and excelling at the game more difficult.
Theme is the glue that connects player expectations, options, and choices to your rules and core loop. It should not be chosen lightly, but it should make sense from the player perspective.
This article covered player theme from a games-based learning perspective. If you’d like to learn more about theme from a gamification perspective then check out the free course on Gamification Explained.
Dave Eng, EdD
Mercury, K. (n.d.). Theme Development. Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://www.kathleenmercury.com/theme-development.html