Thoughts on Play Motifs

A few posts ago I defined what Play Motifs are and said at that time that they are high concept patterns of play that are combined with other Game Elements to create video game genres.

A genre is essentially a marketing short-hand or signpost that signals to the marketplace what kind of experience they can expect if they play a video game. When a developer says their game is a First Person Shooter they better deliver most of that genre’s Game Elements. While FPSs will differ from each other in their art, plot/story, level design and refinement of mechanics they all share core Game Elements that helps define that genre. The one set of Game Elements that is the focus of this post are Play Motifs.

Play Motifs are an abstract way to think about a vast technical aspect of video game development but also the way in which the fun of the play is captured. They are intended to be a high-level way of capturing APIs, libraries, graphics, animation, sound, music, narrative, logic, and game loops. Like any high-concept model, Video Game Elements has to sacrifice detail for ease of navigation and Play Motifs are a simplified way to understand the broadest and deepest aspect of video game development.


The five Play Motifs are:

  • Toys & Playgrounds
  • Show & Tell
  • Puzzles
  • Games
  • Sports
Video Game Elements: Motifs

Below I define in more detail each of the Play Motifs.

The Show & Tell Motif encompasses a video game’s visual, audial, narrative aspects so is very broad and diverse. This diversity is why S&T can also be called the play/fun of expression and recognition. While every video game will possess some form of Show & Tell they will differ markedly in application, emphasis, and fidelity. While the Show & Tell of an arcade experience will not look at all alike an elaborate RPG world, this Motif is ever present.

The second Motif is called Toy & Playground. T&P is the play/fun of exploration and is recognized by the player finding out the video game’s tools or settings. Examples of T&P are very common with the immense popularity of open-world games which are like a virtual playground while simulations provide the opportunity for player’s to toy around with complex systems (planes, businesses, etc).

The third Play Motif is the Puzzle. This is the play/fun of matching which challenges the player to solve the puzzles that are set against them. This puzzles may be matching shapes, symbols, sounds, colours, patterns, logic, and mazes. All regardless of their form are meant to challenge the player and need to be solved in order to proceed further. A Puzzle can be a stand alone video game or can be its own challenge that is integrated into a genres like RPGs and Adventure.

The fourth Motif is that of Game which is defined as the play/fun of measurement. It may seem redundant to say that video games have Game Motifs but I believe I am being accurate. Measurement in video games can be applied to things you count, things you move, and timing you track. A video game’s measurements can be through in-game physics and logic, numerical character stats, or the number of lives that are left. Video games do not have to the play of measurement to be video games as demonstrated by the Visual Novel and IF genres, but this is what is meant when some players say those video games have no real ‘gameplay’.

The fifth and final Motif is that of Sport, also known as the play/fun of competition. This Motif is popular and growing as we see the massive rise of eSports. A video game with a Sports Motif will be about competing over measurables such as scores, wins, or fastest times. Anything that can be measured has the potential to be made into a Sport. Even video games that are non-competitive can be made competitive when meta-level measurables like Steam Achievements are used by players to compare and thus compete with each other.

Video games are a complex mix of Video Game Elements and Play Motifs are unique in that they are akin to ingredients that are added and combined together. Play Motifs are not exclusive like genres are and when mixed together create distinct recipes for a game development project.

Next month I’ll talk about the other Game Elements known as the Fundamentals.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Play Motifs”

Comments are closed.