John Romero recently posted an article in which he discussed the strength of Tidiness Theory in game design, the human desire to build, and the potential ramifications these behaviors in games have for evolution. While I think his closing paragraph is rather misinformed (evolution just don’t work that way), the rest of his article paints a good outline of how Tidiness Theory rears its head across multiple genres. I find I both agree and disagree with Romero’s assessment that Tidiness Theory is why players continue to play certain games.
On one hand I agree because there is joy to be found in creating/discovering a well-ordered system. There is a nice calm to be found once you have defeated every enemy. It can be wonderful to revel in a solved puzzle. But is our desire for order honestly why we keep coming back? Do I constantly play Diablo 2 because I can’t stand having Diablo’s minions obstructing the countryside?
This is where my other hand comes in. Yes, creating order is pleasant and fun, but I don’t solve the same puzzle over and over again because it needs to be put in order (especially since I’m likely the one who put it back into disorder). The key is the process. If Diablo 2 just had me click on each enemy once, then I wouldn’t have nearly as much fun as I do currently where I have to throw out fireballs and poison novas. Space Invaders wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I didn’t have to gauge a mix of missile speed and enemy movement speed in order to hit anything.
For this reason I think Tidiness Theory is actually best utilized as a guide for making easily read games. By this I mean games which are easy to pick up and understand exactly what you need to do. If the core mechanic is to clean up, then all you need to learn as a player is, “How do I clean this up?” As a designer, the more you stray from this basic premise, the more you will have to actively engage with the players to let them know what they need to do in addition to how they need to do it.
The urge to clean has also been used in the realm of tactical games as a form of temptation which must be ignored. In many (all?) strategy games you can try and rush into your opposition early on, but to do so is either suicidal or just extremely risky. Instead you are encouraged to build up until you are capable of safely cleaning the map of your opponent.
Going back to Romero’s query on “failing our evolution,” there are plenty of cases in games in which players see messes and just keep moving on. Again using Diablo 2 as my example, there are plenty of instances where I choose not to wipe the map clean. I just don’t find it to be worth my time to do so and instead move on to another area. Does this mean I have failed my biological parameters? No. It means I’m following them, and in this case it likely comes down to an assessment on the worth of foraging (do I gain enough resource to make my time spent “cleaning” worth it?). Designers shouldn’t expect players to clean up every mess unless there is a purpose to it. Though it is also true that plenty of my friends struggle to abandon a section of Diablo 2 map without fully cleansing it…
Anyway, I agree that the urge to create order is a part of why we return to games, but the methods used to create that order are the real draw. How a game interacts with this drive then needs to be assessed in order to truly understand how it interacts with the audience, and whether or not there is synergy between goal, narrative, and player desire.