Stunts & tricks: emergent gameplay and intrinsic rewards

When a player gains mastery of a game’s mechanics they often seek to express said mastery through the manipulation of mechanics to produce an exciting result. Stunts and tricks within games, that are not intended as the focus of gameplay, are known as immergent gameplay.  Immergent gameplay stems from a mechanical or environmental system that generates an unconventional way of playing, which is designed by the player.  Examples includes jumping off of a building and shooting an target while in free fall, or flipping a police car while driving it to smash only portions of the light bar to cause the siren to sound distorted. Players engage in and practice these tricks, not because the game rewards them but rather because the successful completion of a stunt is its own intrinsic reward.
In games, mechanics are introduced, practiced, and mastered through the course of a game, this experience of ordered growth is known as progression.  As players become more adept at the core mechanics, additional mechanics are introduced to maintain the player’s engagement and to illustrate their prowess.  Games that allow players a core kit with the ability to expand as they grow in skill are known to have a low skill floor and a high skill ceiling.  Meaning that the low barrier for entry allows many players to pick up the game while still providing veterans with an experience that challenges them.

This can be seen in all manner of games; video games, analogue games, and sports. In video games is is the manipulation of the player character in the digital space, in analogue games it is taking advantage of a series of difficult rule exceptions to achieve an unforeseen victory, in sports it is the fake out plays, the dunks, and curveballs.

Tricks allow the player to forego the natural manner of gameplay for something flashier or more exciting.  For some this only serves as something to boast about. However, the expression and practice of tricks and stunts highlights an important aspect of human innovation.  Once we stop looking at a system as we are told to use it and begin to look for every manner in which we can operate, intended or otherwise, we begin to see the potential of things as opposed to their finite meaning.  “That sloped walkway right next to a turn in the road overlooks a cliff, if I am ever being chased I could use it for a quick and dramatic getaway, instead of driving down the road.” “Yes I could go for the shot, but if I simply lob the basketball gently towards the hoop my teammate will be able to catch it and dunk.”

Challenging ourselves with stunts allows us to expand upon gameplay and often times this can lead to entire paradigm shifts for how a game is played. On their own playing games to pull of stunts serves as entertainment, but when viewed through the lenses of innovating on gameplay, we can begin to understand that growth and challenge go hand in hand.  Once we grow beyond the confines of our original play structure we begin to enforce new rules to increase our fidelity and capabilities.  Tricks illustrate the desire to push ourselves to not only master a system but to improve upon it and leave our personal mark. The reward of a trick is growth, the thrill of a stunt lies in the challenge it presented the player and the unique achievement that comes from completing an unconventional goal.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.

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