Analogy is how the designer bridges the gap between the player and the abstract mechanics of the game. Analogy makes relatable and relevant what would otherwise be a litany of abstractions and seemingly arbitrary relationships.
Games and gameplay are often presented with expressive graphics representing familiar concepts that help the player learn how to play and quickly come to grips with the current state of the system through analogy to the real world. Even when games don’t try to model pieces of life with any accuracy, as in typical combat in a turn-based RPG combat system like Final Fantasy’s, there are myriad graphical symbols used to denote in-game concepts, and the player can more easily relate to the game because of their referential power.
As with any art, knowing your audience is essential when you are designing a game. Picking certain analogies over others, then using the more meaningful terms and symbols that the player will understand, leads to rapid, effective communication from game to player. Good analogies draw the player in quickly, letting them buy into the game’s systems and fluently begin what will hopefully be a long and fruitful process of experimentation and learning. Good analogies do not only make the game easier to learn, they speed up the player’s ability to internalize complex game states through usage of a mnemonic form that’s easy to memorize. The logical structure of the game already does this (Chess players remember sensible board positions much better than random ones), and that’s compounded by the additional layer of mnemonic power derived from analogy.
Analogies can convey complex meaning quickly and neatly wrap up many rules in an easy to grok package. In a Civilization game, the tech tree and each individual technology the player can research rely on analogy to convey a relatively complex idea–that of the advancement of civilization granting great capacities to make money, war, and cultural artifacts. Civilization games present a much more limited subset of the implications of this broad idea, but even an unfamiliar player can, just through interpreting this analogy, quickly come to grips with enough of the rules of the system to get started using it. Modern Civilization games have thousands of rules behind the scenes that play into technological advancement, but the player can use the UI and their life experience to make educated guesses at the general form of most of those rules and they’ll gain a significant portion of the knowledge they need to make the decisions they want to make. They can fit the game’s own idiosyncratic interpretation into this broader framework with a lot less effort than they might memorize one new abstract rule atop thirty they’ve already memorized. Compare Civilization games’ rich analogical structure to Chess. Chess has very little rule complexity compared to Civilization, thus its analogical structure needs not be as strongly tied to its mechanics. “Rook”, for example, is not a word familiar to a modern player outside of the world of Chess, but there are so few rules attached to the name–merely two movement rules and castling–that this weak signifier doesn’t handicap the player. This is typical of abstract strategy games. Their rules are remarkably simple and they need to be since their design asthetic of being an analogical desert prevents them from sustaining much complexity without making the interpretational task of the players nigh insurmountable.
Strong analogy has downsides, too. The player’s functional fixedness bias makes her more likely to stick to the analogical use of game elements instead of constructing a game-specific model immediately. Multiplied by the many components in a typical strategy game, the implications of the references in a design can mislead a player. Using analogy to convey information quickly is a double-edged sword and must be treated with care.
In short, analogy is the tool the designer uses to package the complex and intricate into a cognitively-friendly form. If a game is about some area of human experience in which a player already has interest, the game can share in the cognitive benefits of that interest. Analogy is incredibly important to making games feel relevant, and to making games playable in the first place. Thus analogy is one of the three foundational aspects of games that designers must keep in mind at all times.