Exaggerated Perception of Influence

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Players perceive that they can influence the outcome of the game, regardless of whether this is correct or not.

One of the appeals of games is arguable that players can influence what happens while playing, and feel that they have various possible ways in how exert that influence. However, that influence cannot be to powerful since then reaching any goal in any given game would become too easy and lose whatever potential for appeal it could otherwise have. This line of thought can both be found in the common advice on game design attributed to Sid Meier, “a [good] game is a series of interesting choices,” but also in how definitions of games mention goals, conflicts and uncertainty (e.g. Suit[1], Salen & Zimmerman[2], Costikyan[3], Juul[4]). Typically players' influences are limited through lack of information or skill in executing actions, through active opposition or through randomness in the outcome of actions.

Although it may see strange that designers would like to trick players they may wish to make players believe that the have more influence on the game than they do for two reasons. First, the designers have limited resources and may want the world to feel more open than it actually is by giving the players the illusion that they can explore or interact with more of the diegetic game world than they actually can. Second, the designers may wish to tell a story in a certain way or stage encounters in special ways without making the players realize that they are being guiding into a certain situation.

Some games allow actions that do not actually make players come closer to achieving goals, or even changing the game state. When these actions appear meaningful, including being meaningful to the player but not within a game state perspective, the players have an Exaggerated Perception of Influence within the game.


Games with well-developed stories, such as the Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda series, do not let players experience the stories unless they complete the goals. Since these stories are more or less linear the actual effect of players' actions on how the story finally ends is very limited (what the players' do control is if they get to experience it). Even in games where several branches in the story exists (e.g. Dragon Age: Origins or the Fallout series) the variations have also been created before the game sessions began. This does not mean that players of these types of games do not have any influence: locally the gameplay can give players high levels of influences and on a meta level players can have concrete choices of which achievements to collect and which strategies to try.

In September 12th players are given the impression that they can free the world of terrorism by killing individual terrorist but learn through gameplay that their own actions create more terrorists. By thus providing players with an Exaggerated Perception of Influence they unknowingly engage in a futile activity designed to make them reflect on approaches to combating terrorism.

Using the pattern

Given that players' perceptions of influence in a games is a highly subjective issue, designing for this pattern to occur in games is difficult and many solutions can easily backfire if players realize that a certain pattern is used to try and achieve an erroneous opinion of their own importance. In fact, when players no longer become better at playing a game and fully understand their possibilities of influencing the game, it may be impossible to achieve the pattern for those players. Since one way of no being able to improve in a game is to have fully mastered it, Gameplay Mastery is typically in conflict with Exaggerated Perception of Influence. That being said, this pattern can mainly be instantiated in games in two ways. First, through affecting how strongly players can control the gameplay and, second, how many options players have when trying to affect it. These do not have to be strongly related but can of course be combined. In addition to this, players can be given much influence on one level of interaction within the game without being able to change the way the game develops on overall.

Giving players more control over gameplay is primarily done through Facilitating Rewards of different sorts. Providing players with Abilities that at least seem relevant to their goals can provide an Exaggerated Perception of Influence if the players can misjudge how much influence they actually are given. This can further be promoted through Buffs, Increased Abilities, New Abilities, Tools, or access to Controllers regardless of how large the gameplay benefit is or if these are Temporary Abilities; this simply because the mentioned patterns cause a change in the level of influence the players have (this may be especially true in games with Red Queen Dilemmas). Skills are not as effective as the suggestions just given since Skills often state how likely success are in some form or another; Skill tests that are determined completely deterministically can even work against the pattern. Balancing Effects can give players Exaggerated Perception of Influence simply because the games provide help to them, but this may backfire if clearly detected by the players and then lead to a lost perception of influence instead.Similarly, Player Augmentations (such as Auto-Aim) can both make players have or lose Exaggerated Perception of Influence depending on how they perceive their own agency in the game.

For providing control over gameplay, letting players have a Determinable Chance to Succeed can be a basis for Exaggerated Perception of Influence. Even if this may seem paradoxical since they know exactly how big chance they have to complete some action or goal, the figure shown to them may not be the actual chance succeeding. For the chance of single actions, Interruptible Actions may add extra uncertainty and thereby make the figure not accurate of the real chance of success. For goals that require many actions the chances shown may not take into considerations of actions taken by Enemies or other players in Multiplayer Games, and simply adding up the probabilities may skew players' expectations to be too great. Grinding may be another way to achieve the same effect, since even if one has a small chance of succeeding one may believe that one can after many actions reach a goal. Randomness can achieved Exaggerated Perception of Influence but this is a volatile solution since it depends on players feeling that they have Luck, and it they do not the Randomness counters the effect rather than supports it. Fudged Results instantiated through Extra Chances can compensate for this to a certain degree. This perception is also brittle in the sense that players with Strategic Knowledge about the Randomness or about the statistics involved will not have the perception (even with the presence of Extra Chances), and for games with Replayability many players may achieve this form of Gameplay Mastery. Even so this is one of the few ways to support No Direct Player Influence.

Presenting many options to players is quite easily done with Freedom of Choice. It is a usually an requirement for Exaggerated Perception of Influence since even if the players' actions could affect the game world in significant ways the players' contribution is diminished if there was no other choice. However, it is not always necessary. Games that test players' skills in performing certain tasks through Dexterity-Based Actions, e.g. Timing, Aim & Shoot, Maneuvering, let players have a possibility to influence the outcome of the gameplay even if there is only one option of what should be done. For Aim & Shoot, this can be augmented through Auto-Aim functionality which can make players perform better without them being able to notice if it is due to themselves or the game system. Having many options is most interesting when one has enough time to consider them. Since this can be difficult to provide in games with Limited Planning Abilities, e.g. through requiring Attention Swapping or having Time Pressure, these patterns counter Exaggerated Perception of Influence. In contrast, games with Tactical Planning provide these as do Turn-Based Games and Tick-Based Games when there is enough time between each tick.

Imperfect Information can help create Exaggerated Perception of Influence because players may not know how good their true chances are and wish (unconsciously) to believe that they have larger chances to influence the game than they actually do. This can especially be the case when Imperfect Information in used in combination with End State Scoring, but the latter pattern can provide Exaggerated Perception of Influence on its own if it too complex for players to calculate every players positions before the game actually ends. The promise of Illusionary Rewards is a way that players can be tricked to having an Exaggerated Perception of Influence by thinking they can get Rewards which are in reality unattainable or do not affect game states or game outcomes.

Game Masters can provide as many possible actions to players as they find plausible while maintaining Thematic Consistency. Further, they can skew the outcome to players' benefit (but typically have to do this to both maintain Thematic Consistency and Player Balance) and can specifically fake the Randomness that they are responsible for generating through Feigned Die Rolls. These possibilities do together make Game Masters able to give players an Exaggerated Perception of Influence. However, since Game Masters can also cause Ultra-Powerful Events whenever they choose to, they may work against Exaggerated Perception of Influence if they are too liberal with using their power. Companions is one tool that can be used by Game Masters for this purpose, but those under the control of Algorithmic Agents can also be used in this way. The ability of other people that those playing the game, e.g. through Non-Player Help, can also work against the pattern since it lowers the overall influence the players themselves have on the outcome of the game.

Exaggerated Perception of Influence can be difficult on a global level to maintain in Unwinnable Games, or those with Drop-In/Drop-Out or enforced No-Ops. The same also applies to games with Challenging Gameplay, e.g. those with Algorithmic Agents that oppose the players too well (those that play too badly cause problems for this pattern as well). To achieve its' presence in these cases, one instead has to focus on giving players' too strong impressions of their own influence on a local level. One way to achieve this is through Smooth Learning Curves, since these can let players have a good chance of success initially and maintain that by slowly increasing the difficulty. This can be complemented by Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment or other Handicap Systems so that the game system behind the scenes makes the game easier at whatever points players happen to have problems (but this solution has the same problem as Randomness; if players have Strategic Knowledge about its presence it may hinder rather than support the intended effect). For Unwinnable Games, use of the Red Queen Dilemmas can give an Exaggerated Perception of Influence since the actual improvement provided by for example Tools, New Abilities, and Improved Abilities, can be countered through more difficult Enemies and Traps. This is typically combined with Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development, and can be boosted through Player-Created Characters or the Creative Control that Player-Planned Development allows. Another approach is to reward players that have reached a certain level by making them into Entitled Players; having powers not directly related to the gameplay but to the game can give a different type of influence. While this can be used also in games that can be won, in Unwinnable Games there is less risk of players misusing their influence.

Sanctioned Cheating is a way of providing Exaggerated Perception of Influence to players by creating a category of possible activities that are in a gray zone between being allowed and not being allowed.

Diegetic Aspects

To a certain extent Exaggerated Perception of Influence can be achieved through diegetic means by making Enemies look more powerful than players' Avatars if they at the same time know that they have a good chance of succeeding.

Interface Aspects

Mimetic Interfaces provide one way of creating Exaggerated Perception of Influence since the game system can both exaggerate and judge in favor of players' performances of actions if designers so wish.

In games which promote Exaggerated Perception of Influence through the ability of Tactical Planning, Progress Indicators and Game State Indicators are interface patterns that can support the planning ability. Vision Modes can also promote the pattern since players can see game worlds in several different ways, and this is especially promoted when it is an Privileged Ability.

Narration Aspects

While Multiplayer Games can have problems of making each player be the protagonist of the game's main story, those games that have Mediated Gameplay can partly overcome this through the use of Phasing.


Exaggerated Perception of Influence can affect Emotional Engrossment and Player Agency as it makes players feel that their actions are important in a game and that there is Value of Effort for these. The possibility to influence encourages Stimulated Planning but this, and the perception of influence, is restricted by Limited Foresight and Limited Planning Abilities in the game. Exaggerated Perception of Influence can mask or make it more difficult to detect a Predictable Winner as it can create Performance Uncertainty on oneself; this can be used to make gameplay feel meaningful even when outcomes would otherwise be felt to be given. In the same vein, Exaggerated Perception of Influence can be used to let players feel that they can affect games that might actually have so Complex Gameplay that players in the beginning do not know important consequences of their actions. It can also be used to make players feel they have Further Player Improvement Potential than they actually have.

As mentioned above, patterns such as Challenging Gameplay, No-Ops, Drop-In/Drop-Out, Randomness, and Unwinnable Games in themselves may diminish players' sense of being able to affect the outcome of the gameplay in a game. Predetermined Story Structures has a mixed relationship to Exaggerated Perception of Influence. It can, due to the limitations on possible actions and what order events need to occur the pattern creates, limit players' in having an Exaggerated Perception of Influence. This is most clearly the case when Cutscenes are prsent but this can also be the case for Scripted Information Sequences if the fact that there is a script becomes apparent. Indeed, beginning to play a game that one knows has a strong story is done with the Extra-Game Information that one has a limited impact on the possible stories that can develop. However, Predetermined Story Structures can of course put players in positions where they have unproportionally large influence of the diegetic environment compared to what they control in this environment, so the pattern can also create Exaggerated Perception of Influence. Related to Predetermined Story Structures, Enforced Agent Behavior and Ultra-Powerful Events can destroy the sense of Exaggerated Perception of Influence in games, even if players can influence the initiation of the latter, since they cannot affect their development. Non-Consistent Narration, as for example through the use of Instances, also limits players' sense of power over the story development since the stories they create through their gameplay may not have any effect on the overarching narration of the game's world. Also related to Predetermined Story Structures, Surprises (e.g. Surprise Attacks) are likewise events that can destroy the perception since they cannot be anticipated.

The presence of others players in Multiplayer Games can work against an Exaggerated Perception of Influence in many ways. First, Balancing Effects can make early successes meaningless and later successes less valuable. Second, when Shared Penalties exist players may receive these without having caused them and without having and possibility of avoiding them. Third, many types of Social Interaction including Dynamic Alliances, Kingmaker, and Voting may make a single player only have influence in direct inverse proportion to how many players are playing, or worse when one is in a leading position. Scapegoats in particular may strongly counter Exaggerated Perception of Influence for those being pointed out as such. In contrast, even if they may not change the overall level of influence for individual players, delegating power over outcomes to individual players can increase the sense of influence in Multiplayer Games. This includes Player-Decided Distributions , Free Gift Inventories, and the previously mentioned Voting. One case were Multiplayer Games can give provide Exaggerated Perception of Influence is when players are in clear dependency of others, e.g. through Delayed Reciprocity or Helplessness. On a extra-game level, letting players be in control of Player Kicking can both let them have an Exaggerated Perception of Influence since they can kick others but at the same time work against it since they can be on the ones being kicked.

Anything that actually lessens players abilities to influence the gameplay naturally works against an Exaggerated Perception of Influence. This includes Ability Losses, Decreased Abilities, and Penalties in all cases except when players for some reason do not believe that effect them as severely as they in fact do.


Can Instantiate

Emotional Engrossment, Stimulated Planning, Value of Effort

with Randomness

No Direct Player Influence

Can Modulate

Complex Gameplay, Further Player Improvement Potential, Performance Uncertainty

Can Be Instantiated By

Abilities, Abstract Player Construct Development, Aim & Shoot, Auto-Aim, Balancing Effects, Buffs, Character Development, Companions, Controllers, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Dexterity-Based Actions, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, End State Scoring, Entitled Players, Extra Chances, Facilitating Rewards, Feigned Die Rolls, Freedom of Choice, Free Gift Inventories, Fudged Results, Game Masters, Grinding, Handicap Systems, Illusionary Rewards, Increased Abilities, Imperfect Information, Luck, Maneuvering, Mimetic Interfaces, New Abilities, Player Agency, Player Augmentations, Player Kicking, Player-Created Characters, Player-Decided Distributions, Player-Planned Development, Predetermined Story Structures, Progress Indicators, Randomness, Red Queen Dilemmas, Sanctioned Cheating, Smooth Learning Curves, Tactical Planning, Temporary Abilities, Tick-Based Games, Timing, Tools, Turn-Based Games, Vision Modes, Voting

Multiplayer Games together with Helplessness or Delayed Reciprocity

Phasing in Multiplayer Games with Mediated Gameplay

Can Be Modulated By

Game State Indicators

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Ability Losses, Algorithmic Agents, Attention Swapping, Balancing Effects, Challenging Gameplay, Cutscenes, Decreased Abilities, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Drop-In/Drop-Out, Dynamic Alliances, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, Enemies, Enforced Agent Behavior, Game Masters, Gameplay Mastery, Helplessness, Interruptible Actions, Kingmaker, Limited Foresight, Limited Planning Abilities, Multiplayer Games, Non-Consistent Narration, Non-Player Help, No-Ops, Player Augmentations, Player Kicking, Predetermined Story Structures, Predictable Winner, Randomness, Scapegoats, Scripted Information Sequences, Shared Penalties, Skills, Strategic Knowledge, Surprise Attacks, Surprises, Time Pressure, Unwinnable Games, Ultra-Powerful Events, Voting


A heavily revised version of the pattern Illusion of Influence that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[5].


  1. Suits, B. (2005). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press. ISBN 155111772X
  2. Salen, K & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press. ISBN 0262240459
  3. Costikyan, G. (2005). I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games. Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, ed. Frans Mäyrä. Tampere University Press
  4. Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. The MIT Press. ISBN 0262101106
  5. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004). Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN 1-58450-354-8.