Game design Toolbox – The Mental Model

The User’s Mental Model

Since the goal of the design is to provide a specific experience for the user, it is often important to describe what we expect the user to know or understand at different times in the game. I will refer to that as the “mental model” of the user. Since the user will probably not have a perfect understanding of the game at the beginning but will probably have a mental model close to what the whole design is towards the end of the game, this mental model is evolving during the game play. By understanding better what we expect the mental model of the user to be at different times, we can build a better experience for the user.

As an example I will explain how we developed the demonstration of “The Sims” for E3 (June 2000). I have done this demo over 120 times at this point and have learned to watch the switch in model in the users reactions.
– I start at the neighborhood level, and they think it is a close up view of SimCity. This does not tell much about how the game works, but it puts most of the users in a comfortable frame of reference. I describe there that I built each house. This makes the neighborhood feel a little bit like a railroad model. I then zoom in on one house, “Michael the bachelor”
– In the first house “Michael the bachelor”, I show how the game is played using object interactions. Michael can do things by himself, and I can direct him. Michael can be happy or not, and when not, sometimes refuses to do what I tell him. At that time the mental model of the user switches to “Tamagotchi”. That’s good because we are positioning the game as “SimCity meets Tamagotchi”. This works so well that I am careful now to not say “Tamagotchi” but to let the user bring it up at that stage. I then switch to the next house, “Michael after a few hours of game play”
– In the second house, there are 9 friends of Michael that came over for a party. There the mental model of the users goes blank, and I quickly make two strong statements about the people in the house. First that I only control Michael, the others are running their autonomous behavior. Second, that all the people we see have coming from the other houses in the neighborhood, and therefore have been created by me. Those two things help the user build a new, more complex, mental model.
A-You can identify with the character you control, because you only control one person,
B- You are very much in control because you created all the characters,
C- the neighborhood is a meta game above the simplistic “Tamagotchi” model,
D- this game is about relationships.
In this part of the demo we then demonstrate how the people to people interaction work and we get our character Michael to marry Emma who then moves into this house.

This goes on and on and we build a more and more complex model for the game overwhelming the user at the end, but predicting an incredible simulation environment.

The point of this example is that we did not focused on the features in building the demo, but on what the user would think while seeing the demo, and how he would reach an understanding of how the game works.

This concept of the mental model will be explored further in a slightly different way in the discussion about the metaphors the game uses.