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Gameplay situations where players cannot themselves affect their situation.

Games may be about putting players in positions where they can make interesting choices but sometimes games takes this away from them. By doing so, they put them in a state of Helplessness where even if they can notice how the gameplay progresses they are unable to do anything about it.


Player in the Left 4 Dead series can become incapacitated by falling off ledges, being pinned by infected with special powers, or by simply receiving enough damage. When this occurs players cannot by themselves affect their fate, they have to be saved by other players.

A weak example of the pattern can be found in how players can try to get out of the brig in Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game - players may initiate actions to get themselves out but can only affect the success by adding one skill card while all other players can add more.

Using the pattern

The main concern with using Helplessness is to consider when it should be applied and what is required for it to end. The most common reason for applying it is as a form of Penalty. Helplessness might not be able to get out of by the players themselves, but can expire by itself after a certain Time Limit.

Although Resources do not in themselves create Helplessness, a lack of needed Resources can do this, including a lack of Budgeted Action Points or Neighbors.

Multiplayer Games open up another possibility in that it allows for other players to intervene on the behalf of helpless players, as for example done in the Left 4 Dead series. This can further be modulated by letting players have the possibility to request help - this is possible by default in games with Unmediated Social Interaction but may require Communication Channels in others. In theory help could also come from Helpers or Companions but this is not a common design solution - probably because it is also difficult to regulate but without the emotional aspects of having to rely on other players. The Mario Kart series is an exception since in some Levels players that have driven their vehicles into oceans are shown being towed out of them by Helpers.

Entering into Helplessness may be an active choice by players, e.g. Extended Actions may be balanced so that a powerful effect requires that one becomes unable to defend oneself until the action is completed.

Adding Helplessness to Multiplayer Games with FUBAR Enjoyment creates Mutual FUBAR Enjoyment since the helpless players will focus their attention on those players that can help them.


Helplessness removes Player Agency. Since it stops players from affecting the outcome of the game, it enforces Downtime but with the important distinction that the gameplay progresses and that other players may still be able to act. It generally works against Empowerment, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, and Freedom of Choice. It opens up for other players to take on Social Roles as helpers of the player that is helpless (as well as letting the one suffering from Helplessness take on the role of a victim).

Helplessness may not be something players perceived as a positive state, and this makes it suitable to use as Penalties. It can be seen as a way to create Ultra-Powerful Events which in turn quite easily creates Tension in the players, and possibly Anticipation as they notice that effort is being made to help them or that they their fate is being sealed. It makes it impossible for players affected to have Exaggerated Perception of Influence, but in Multiplayer Games players can instead be made to feel it if they can save incapacitated players, i.e. if the Helplessness naturally gives rise to Rescue goals. When this occurs, they can contextually be seen as having Privileged Abilities, and saving others can easily create expectations of Delayed Reciprocity.

For games where players can ask for help through Unmediated Social Interaction or Communication Channels, Helplessness may easily give rise to Negotiation and Guilting.

When Helplessness is self-inflicted through engaging in Extended Actions, they provide additional Tension and evoke Risk/Reward considerations.


Can Instantiate

Anticipation, Downtime, No-Ops, Penalties, Rescue, Social Roles, Tension, Ultra-Powerful Events

with Communication Channels or Unmediated Social Interaction

Guilting, Negotiation

with Extended Actions


with FUBAR Enjoyment and Multiplayer Games

Mutual FUBAR Enjoyment

with Multiplayer Games

Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Delayed Reciprocity, Privileged Abilities

Can Modulate

Extended Actions

Can Be Instantiated By

Budgeted Action Points, Loss of Control, Neighbors, Resources

Can Be Modulated By

Companions, Helpers, Multiplayer Games, Time Limits

Communication Channels or Unmediated Social Interaction in Multiplayer Games

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Empowerment, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Freedom of Choice, Player Agency


An updated version of the pattern Helplessness first identified in the paper Exploring Aesthetic Gameplay Design Patterns – Camaraderie in Four Games[1].


  1. Bergström, K., Björk, S. & Lundgren, S. (2010). Exploring Aesthetic Gameplay Design Patterns – Camaraderie in Four Games. Paper presentation at Mindtrek 2010. Tampere, Finland.