Keynoting at this year’s GDC, Soren Johnson remarked, “Just because you give a game a theme, doesn’t make a game about that thing…” The Civilization and Spore designer drew attention to the separation, and at times the dissonance, between the rules of a game and its theme. At the end of the day, he believes meaning emerges from a game’s mechanics and strategies in general – the set of decisions and consequences the game asks of players – and, especially in the serious games space, when in conflict can lead to significant failures. “Often when you choose real-world themes, you hit some limitations because people come to the game with expectations about how something works… This is why a lot of game developers decide to go sci-fi, because they can twist the game thematically all they want to support the mechanics.” Reflecting on Spore’s lukewarm reception, Soren notes while Spore was billed as a game about evolution, its creature creator had nothing to do with the laws of evolution. Other games like World or Warcraft, where players optimize characters for survival needs, model the theory of evolution more effectively.
He points to the importance of producing meaningful experiences that are uniquely tied to gameplay rather than to the content wrapped around the play. He praised “The Redistricting Game” as an example where the theme and the mechanics were in sync. The game encourages players to gerrymander political districts leading to results similar to the real-world. Perhaps worth debating, overall Johnson encouraged social change game designers to consider avoiding the constraints of real-life. In addition, he recommended focusing on the struggles of an individual instead of modeling societies.