<a novref=true text=@key href=pattern-tension.html>Tension</a>


The feeling of caring about the outcome of actions or events in a game without having full control over them.

Tension occurs in games that have uncertain outcomes, when players have emotional investments in which of these outcomes occurs but cannot fully control them. Tension can be either due to several sorts of interest in the outcome for players: if they are trying to make one of the outcomes occur; if the outcome has an affect of characters in the game that the players care for; or if the outcome has real-world effects.

Example: Having placed most of one's markers in a bet in Poker is a classical case where players can feel tension.

Example: The dark and claustrophobic environments in the Doom games easily cause Tension as players guide their Avatars through rooms and corridors, expecting monsters to appear.

Using the pattern

The presence of Deadly Traps, Player Killing, Player Elimination, and Enemies with Overcome goals guarantees the existence of forces that are trying to inflict Penalties or Damage on players, so these can be used to create Tension. This can be further modulated by using Near Miss Indicators, by making the Enemies more powerful over time, as Boss Monsters are examples of, or by making Tied Results impossible through Tiebreakers. The threat of Early Elimination is a concrete way to raise Tension. Competition and Conflict between players also creates Tension, often more than by the presence of Enemies. This Tension between the players can be modulated with Balancing Effects. When the ways to overcomethe Enemies orother players depend on Paper-Rock-Scissors relations, the Tension can be further increased since players may choose ineffective methods. Consumers with no positive effects that automatically consume players' Resources provide similar Tension to players as Enemies and opposing players.

Narrative Structures can create Tension in games in the same ways as in other narrative mediums, and can be modulated by Clues or Red Herrings, but can also do so in games through modulating players' Perceived Chance to Succeed, typically by giving players an Uncertainty of Information. However, when narratives do not contain Tension, or when the unfolding of them causes players to have Downtime, players are likely to lose any feeling of Tension. Game Masters can notice these occurrences and adjust the Narrative Structure or interaction accordingly.

Putting Time Limits on how long players have to try and succeed with actions is an effective way to create Tension. This can be done as an explicit Time Limit or be achieved implicitly through The Show Must Go On. The Tension can then be further increased by requiring Attention Swapping.

Another way to modulate the Tension is by restricting players' powers or freedom, for example, by Shrinking Game Worlds, Limited Set of Actions, or Movement Limitations. The Tension caused by dangerous opponents or objects in the Game World can be modulated by setting the Right Level of Difficulty and can be made to be present before the threats themselves when Traces are used.

Forcing players to make commitments and then not letting them affect the outcome, or at least limit how they can affect the outcome, can create Tension. Betting and Stealth are similar in that they are activities that require Turn Taking, Downtime, and No-Ops can create Tension, and both are usually combined with Randomness, Tradeoffs, Risk/Reward choices, and the possibility to feel Luck. Geometric Rewards for Investments can create this form of Tension as the invested Resources are bound, and failed investments cause not only the already invested resources to be lost but lessen the value of Resources that have not yet been invested. This form of Tension can be further modulated through the presence of Progress Indicators and Status Indicators but can be ruined by Perfect Information about the evaluation function and all the game state values that affect the function. However, Tension can be lost instead of created if the players lose a Perceived Chance to Succeed because of necessary Leaps of Faith, extended Downtime, or Turn Taking.

Many activities and goals in games combine several of these aspects, for example, Combat or Aim & Shoot activities give players opponents and threaten to take players' Lives. Continuous Goals and Extended Actions with Delayed Effects can combine the risk of losing ongoing Rewards with the threats of Penalties, for example, through King of the Hill or Evade goals and in Quick Games.

Many aspects of Cooperation and Social Interaction where players have to rely on other players' actions give rise to Tension. Any interaction where Uncertainty of Information or possibility for disinformationexists due to player communication can generate Tension, but it is especially likely to occur with Delayed Reciprocity or when Betrayal and Bluffing is possible. Examples when Tension can be created in this fashion include Player-Decided Distribution of Rewards & Penalties and the presence of Shared Resources. Tension related to Social Interaction exists in many cases for both the ones that can lose from the actions and the ones that can gain, as is typical in Social Dilemmas.

Reversability and the possibility to recreate previous game states through Save-Load Cycles lessens Tension, as players can replay moments that contained Tension and the feeling is less likely to be as strong on subsequent exposures. Therefore, Tension does not usually work together with general Experimenting, although they can do so when the experimentation is motivated by Player Defined Goals.


Tension is one of the more direct ways game can be designed to have Emotional Immersion. Tension can be caused by putting players in the position of missing Rewards or in the position of receiving Penalties, which either affect themselves or something with which they have Identification. Especially Competition and questions of Ownership can evoke Tension, in the latter case either because players have Gain Ownership goals or because opponents want to take away Ownership of something from players. Anticipation is a way to modulate Tension, the more Anticipation players feel, the more Tension they will also likely feel. Feeling forced to perform actions within a certain Time Limit, for example in The Show Must Go On, can in some cases be a reason for Tension to occur. Game Pauses in general have an effect on levels of Tension.

Tension can spill from games into the real world as Extra-Game Consequences, and the risk for this happening increase with the presence, as especially combinations of, extra-game rewards, Social Interaction, and questions of Ownership.

Repeated exposure to the same form of events or actions decreases the Tension they cause, so Replayability and Tension is difficult to combine, especially if the Tension is caused by Narrative Structures or other effects that rely on players not knowing what will occur. This problem of repeated exposure can partly be mitigated by Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses, as for example, naturally occurs in Tournaments or can be explicitly designed through Boss Monsters or Narrative Structures.


Instantiates: Emotional Immersion


Instantiated by: Attention Swapping, Early Elimination, Damage, Deadly Traps, Continuous Goals, Aim & Shoot, Conflict, Shared Resources, Extended Actions, Leaps of Faith, Penalties, Movement Limitations, Competition, Limited Set of Actions, No-Ops, Consumers, Tournaments, Overcome, Social Dilemmas, Balancing Effects, Stealth, Rewards, Enemies, Betrayal, Tradeoffs, Lives, Game Masters, Player Defined Goals, Evade, Turn Taking, Risk/Reward, Uncommitted Alliances, Narrative Structures, Paper-Rock-Scissors, Boss Monsters, Player-Decided Distribution of Rewards & Penalties, King of the Hill, Delayed Reciprocity, Ownership, Uncertainty of Information, Randomness, The Show Must Go On, Delayed Effects, Shrinking Game World, Luck, Betting, Right Level of Difficulty, Tiebreakers, Downtime, Experimenting, Combat, Perceived Chance to Succeed, Player Elimination, Bluffing

Modulated by: Time Limits, Status Indicators, Near Miss Indicators, Red Herrings, Cooperation, Quick Games, Identification, Player Killing, Progress Indicators, Game Pauses, Clues, Geometric Rewards for Investments, The Show Must Go On, Traces, Save-Load Cycles, Anticipation

Potentially conflicting with: Perceivable Margins, Downtime, Perfect Information, Replayability, Turn Taking, Reversability