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Qualitative Gaming


One of the discussions I have with the students in the Masters Program each year is about the nature of quantitative and qualitative research. These are two very different ways of interpreting our experiences. The quantitative method relies on data, numbers, predictability and outcome. The qualitative models rely not only on observation, but reflection, intuition and uncovering a narrative. And of course there is the middle ground of the mixed-method design which embraces some of each. Each of these methods is useful for getting certain results.

Games follow these same conventions. In looking at games across various genres (board games, role-playing games, and video games), it seems that both camps are present. Games like Checkers or Chess are also good examples in that they focus on mechanics and outcome, like quantitative research. One does not play Chess and wonder about the pawn’s feeling as it is taken by the rook. The game pieces each operate under a set of stable mechanics that allows for strategic play, but without narrative. The same could be said for other games like Tetris™ in the puzzle genre. The player looks to master the spatial relationships to achieve a goal (number of points, getting to the next level, etc.). Most card games also follow the same format. There is a set of parameters (game rules) and a way to determine victory or defeat.

On the qualitative side, there has been a rise in demand for more narrative elements in games. You can see this in the video game market, where new games like Destiny™ have been criticized for having a weak storyline. A pivotal moment occurred with Mass Effect 3™, where fans demanded a better ending to the saga.

Like video games, there has also been a movement in board games to include more narrative elements. Instead of just being a piece on the board, players often get a card that describes their hero’s/faction’s motives, such as in Shadows Over Camelot™. In other games, the rules are present to give way to the narrative. In The Resistance™, two players are spies, but their identities are secret except to each other. They have to work to deceive the other three members at the table into believing they are loyal. This happens through active dialogue and bluffing. The story occurs in how people shift the blame or how the spies make the loyal members suspicious of each other.

Perhaps the best example of a qualitative emphasis in gaming is the recent release of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition™. Where the 4th edition played more like a tactical board game, 5th edition strives to create a strong narrative. When you play a Fighter, you are not just a beefcake with a great sword. The process of creating the character asks you what you did before you were heroic, and to identify personality traits: the causes you are loyal to, what you believe in, as well as a character flaw. The character identities contribute toward the overarching stories that can be told around a table. In a purely qualitative game, there is not a ‘win condition’, but more interest in how the story unfolds and the twists and turns the plot takes.

Certainly there are rules to how the system works, but these only set the background for the narrative to emerge. Role-playing game systems like Fate Core™ or Numenera™ have even taken a rules-light approach so that players can focus on creating the story, and sales reflect that these have been very successful.

I’m much more of a qualitative gamer than quantitative gamer because I like the story that emerges. Even in the role of the Game Master (the person that helps the game move along and reflects the world the players live in), the great part is how the story can take unexpected turns based on the players actions and motivations. In that way, the game comes alive, and the group sitting around the table have created something new and unique. In my games, the rules take the back seat to a good story. I’m glad to see qualitative games on the rise, or at least a qualitative emphasis on gaming. If you have never experienced one, I hope you will give it a try.


Ryan Blackstock, PsyDBy Dr. Ryan Blackstock, PsyD

Dr. Blackstock is a Core Faculty Member in the Master’s Program.  He has been teaching at MSP since 2010.