Data visualizations abound in our daily lives, especially in the media landscape of today. The dissemination of personal computing devices has brought a new dimension to the discussion surrounding the rhetoric of data, and perhaps the most eclectic of the forms new media has taken is that of the video game. Games, whether sports or cards, have existed for millennia, and many have displayed data in their own ways – scoreboards, chips, drawings, and more. However, digital games have opened brand new avenues of interactive play, in which complex systems and scenarios can be simulated for entertainment. This has brought along with it new challenges for those known as game designers, a profession just now coming into its own. Game designers must take the abstract data their games generate, held together by arbitrary rules they have devised, and visually communicate it to players to facilitate the entertainment experience. By understanding how this data is generated and the rhetorical ends it is meant to serve, we can deconstruct the intent of the designers behind a particular game and how they have constructed an experience for their players.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is a fitting example to study. It is a turn-based strategy game about growing a civilization to world domination. Players build and manage cities, tend to citizens, construct standing armies, engage in trade and diplomacy with other players, wage war, and engage in hundreds of other emergent interactions. This play takes place across a digital “board,” similar to a physical board game, but adapted to its virtual medium. The goal of the game is to make progress towards five distinct victory types, each appraising a different aspect of the player’s civilization – its prowess in military, diplomacy, religion, science, and culture. As can be inferred from this brief description, there is a litany of metrics and resources the game tracks, all of which must be conveyed to the player in such a way as to facilitate an engaging entertainment experience. At all times, each player must be aware of the resources in their possession, the current status of everything belonging to their civilization, and their progress towards each of the five victory types. By understanding this, we can begin to unpack the methods by which the game conveys this information.
To start, we must first examine who the audience for this game is. Different audiences look for different qualities in their entertainment, especially games. For example, some players may participate in physical games, such as football, while others participate in mental games, such as chess. The design of the game, and thus the visualization of its data, will drastically differ based on what audience the game targets. Civilization VI targets players of strategy games, those who may enjoy a mental challenge. But even among this genre, there is a wide variety of players that make up different strata of experience and skill. Game designer Tynan Sylvester, in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences, explains: “A game that is balanced for players at one skill level may be imbalanced for players at another because players at different skill levels have access to different strategies” (Sylvester). Civilization is an established franchise and retains a strong player base that it has accumulated over the years. Given the high learning curve for beginners and the relative complexity of Civilization’s mechanics compared to other games in its genre, we can infer that the game is targeted at experienced strategy game players.
For the purposes of analyzing the audience of a game in the context of rhetoric, it is important to also discuss what the designers demand from the player. Games are an interactive activity that involves the act of “play.” Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in their book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, describe the nature of “play” as such: “play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure” (Salen). In other words, play requires a constrained environment, referred to by some designers as a “possibility space.” Designers create these constraints, and while gamers have agency over their actions, their range of action is limited, often without their explicit awareness, by the decisions the designers have made. As Cole Knaflic points out in his book, Storytelling with Data, “You should always want your audience to know or do something… if you ask for action, your audience has to make a decision whether to comply or not” (Knaflic). Eliciting decision-making is vital for an entertaining game, as the entertainment value of a game comes from the players’ active interactions with the product. Decision-making is a topic I will return to momentarily, but for now, understand that games demand something of the audience, and do so within a possibility space created by game designers. The conveyance of data within games serves these ends.
Before understanding what is important in a user interface to craft a well-designed game, it must first be understood that the data the interface conveys cannot be separated from the context from which it was created. In other words, ‘data’ in this sense does not refer to a detached, self-contained piece of knowledge. In the words of data scholar Yanni Loukissas, “data are cultural artifacts created by people, and their dutiful machines, at a time, in a place, and with the instruments at hand for audiences that are conditioned to receive them” (Loukissas). The data present within Civilization VI, such as how many horses a certain civilization possess, refers to an abstract symbol only relevant in the context of the game. All data, as Loukissas argues, is collected and created for a reason, and therefore inherently rhetorical as opposed to being objective units of knowledge. However, the numbers presented to players need not even be accurate. From personal design experience, a common technique employed by designers is to fib calculations behind the scenes that differ from what the player is shown, for the purposes of good entertainment. For example, if the player chooses an attack that has a 99% success rate, a designer might set the internal algorithm to always allow that attack to hit, because while there is a 1% chance that attack misses, the player is primed to expect a “near”-guaranteed hit, and will therefore be irritated if it does miss. As another example, platforming games such as Super Mario Bros. will implement what is known among designers as “Coyote-Time,” a reference to Wile. E. Coyote from the Looney Toons cartoons. When a player wanders off a ledge, while their feet are no longer on solid ground, the designers add a buffer of time in which the player can still jump and avert death. This bluff is rarely noticed by players, but immensely benefits the feel of a game. Exemplified in these and many other examples,data in games can have an even looser bearing to reality, serving a purely rhetorical purpose for the designer to entertain players.
Acknowledging that games, and their representations of data, are created for the purposes of entertainment, we look now to the most important aspect of the game that data is engineered to service: decision-making. The Civilization series is well-known for its addictive qualities. Popular memes describe the feeling of marathon sessions of the game, where time itself seemingly ceases to exist as the player feels total, fulfilling involvement in the experience. While these may be the subjective opinions of some gamers, the experience they identify has in fact been codified into a psychological concept well-known among game designers known as “flow”. The concept of “flow” originated from the work of Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who conducted studies into the qualities of activities that made them fulfilling. His work applies broadly to all activities, but game designers in particular have found it useful for appraising the design of their games. “Flow theory” posits that people achieve total, fulfilling involvement in activities that present a seamless sequence of challenges just right for their skill level, not too easy, nor hard (Csíkszentmihályi). In games, the seamless sequence of “challenges” are each moment where the user must make a meaningful gameplay choice. If at all a choice is unclear, or the player is unequipped to make it, the experience of flow is broken, and the player’s experience is diminished. As such, it is crucial for the user interface to facilitate decision-making, and for the game’s data to be communicated clearly.
At this stage, we can acknowledge three important points – that the “flow” state is regularly accomplished by Civilization VI, exemplified by the experiences described by numerous Civilization players, that decision-making is vital in maintaining this state, and that data visualizations are crucial in informing player decisions. Granted this, we can assume that the design of the game’s user interface was a deliberate act that can be broken down and analyzed for its preattentive attributes, the qualities of size, color, position, and shape that guide the audiences’ eyes through visual displays.
Above is a screenshot from a game of Civilization VI. Distinct is the layout of elements – all the information is relegated to the four corners of the screen, the user interface elements taking up a proportionally small area of screen space. As such, the game board, shown in purple, is the most prominent aspect on the screen. We can gather from this layout that the designers would like the player’s attention to be primarily directed at the tiles, cities, and units that make up the game board. From here, the player’s attention is evenly split among four corners that track a different aspect of the game. The blue region is a world map, allowing the player to navigate the play space. The green region tracks the development of the player’s civilization. The red region tracks the other players in the game. Finally, the yellow region tracks the currently selected unit or city. All the regions include icons of roughly equal size except for this yellow region, where a large icon sits prominently in the lower left of the player’s field of vision. This icon automatically updates itself with a new task the player can complete on their current turn. As we discussed earlier, the “flow” state depends on a constant stream of challenges, which occur at every decision point the player is given. The large icon in this yellow region attracts players to a mechanic that facilitates constant delivery of decisions, thereby encouraging the “flow” state.
The user interface, as a whole, follows the conventions of modern computer operating systems, with buttons opening windows that can be interacted with. This is especially true of the orange region, a horizontal bar at the top of the screen. Mimicking the top bar of a window-based operating system interface, this choice of layout presents a helpful heuristic for players as they interact with the game. By presenting the interface in a manner users are familiar with in other digital contexts, the designers eliminate a factor that could impede users from the flow-inducing stream of decisions they wish to establish.
We have already established that Civilization VI caters to a more experienced player base. To be sure, novice players are guided towards the most important elements of the game by the purple region’s large view of the game board, and the large notification icon in the yellow region indicating a pending task. However, many of the mechanics players interact with are nested in sub-menus, each of which are accessible by relatively small buttons in the corner regions of the display. After the purple and yellow regions, the visual hierarchy is relatively nondescript. There is equal “weight” among the other regions of the display. The lack of visual guidance may suggest a deference by the designers to the experience of the game’s player base. These additional mechanics facilitate play at higher levels, and experienced players may therefore be expected to be familiar with their usage without the need for further visual emphasis. An analogy is keyboard shortcuts in a computer program. Casual users of various programs may get by just fine by the features highlighted by the program’s user interface, professional users may save time or unlock additional functionality by using keyboard shortcuts. Many of these sub-menus also include detail statistics on the current game state, information that is only useful if players know meta-game strategies, an advanced gameplay tactic that involves knowledge of the game’s internal algorithms. Such information can easily overwhelm novice players, but is entirely appropriate if we conclude that the designers balanced for experienced players.
Through these interface elements, Civilization VI portrays the means by which video games exhibit rhetorical data visualizations. Game designers create visuals tailored for a target demographic, and organize them to facilitate and engaging entertainment experience. The ideal game experience is codified in the concept of the “flow” state, and requires careful design of interface elements to ensure the player is consistently kept in that ideal state. In the end, data, in contradiction with its contemporary conceptualization, is shown to serve purely rhetorical needs, as seen fit by game designers.
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
Knaflic, Cole Nussbaumer. Storytelling with data: a data visualization guide for business professionals. Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.
Loukissas, Yanni Alexander. All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2019.
Salen, Zimmerman: Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).
Sylvester, Tynan. Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences. Sebastopol, CA, O’Reilly Media, Inc., January 2013.