When designing games we often describe interactivity in terms of actions and verbs. We do so casually and interchangeably, but there is actually a difference between the two. It’s the difference between causing change within a game versus the physical inputs you use to make that happen.
Here’s what I mean:
In the famous ‘Claw’ scene in Toy Story, psychotic Sid throws some coins into a machine that offers the chance of winning a toy by controlling the position of a grabbing arm and then making it descend. It’s a game, often an unfairly stacked game but a game nonetheless, and one that Sid wins. It is enclosed. The player has a doll (the claw) through which he acts. There is a win condition, and of course a lose condition. There is also some risk in the form of the money entered to be allowed to play.
It’s a good illustration of the separation between game world and real world. As Eric Zimmerman reminded us recently, the separation between game and real is a magic circle, a special space which we demarcate and treat differently to the physical world. Within that circle there are rules.
A football pitch has legal restrictions over what is considered permissible play. A videogame has a physical separation between it and the player. Even a tabletop roleplaying game maintains a separation between what is ‘in character’ or ‘out-of-character’. The Claw cabinet physically prevents Sid from reaching in and taking whichever toy he wants, and is against the rules to tip the cabinet over or smash the window.
The concept of the magic circle is important for understanding the difference between actions and verbs. Each belongs on different sides of the divide.
A verb is a physical interaction with a controller, piece, die or other component. To use a verb is to select, move, click, kick, press, roll, talk or do something else in the real world that then translates to a game-world action. Verbs are also sometimes called inputs, impulses or interactions.
Mastery of verbs is a significant part of the tests that all games set. Skill-focused games in particular put great stock in developing physical attributes that the player uses to take action. A tennis star practises the combination of her ‘overhead swing’ and ‘jump’ verbs almost constantly, as the two are important for mastering the ‘serve’ action. A Quake player needs to get really accurate and fast at the ‘move mouse’ and ‘press button’ verbs to be able to use the ‘shoot’ action well.
However other games are less about verb mastery and more about smart actions. There is not much difference to flamboyantly tossing chips into the pot in Poker or just putting them there. The result is the same: You made a bet. There is also no good way to master the verbs of moving a King in Chess. You just pick up the piece, move it legally and put it down. There are mild rewards for mousing-over to harvest quickly in CityVille in order to rack up bonus points, but it’s not rocket science.
While actions are infinite in their variety, in practise there are only a small number of verbs that almost all games use, like ‘press’, ‘select’, ‘drag’, ‘drop’, ‘hold’, ‘push’, ‘spin’, ‘roll’ and so on. As new controllers such as WiiMotes, microphones and or touch screens have appeared in recent years, the available list of verbs has expanded (‘wave’, ‘pinch’, ‘swipe’, ‘shout’ etc). While some of them are proving short-lived, the potential for new kinds of founderwork to emerge from these verbs is high.
If Sid pushes and holds the joystick with his thumb (verbs) then the Claw moves in a straight line away from him until he either releases the stick or it reaches the edge of the box (action). If he pulls back, it comes back to him. Push left and it goes left. Push right, likewise. Push the button and movement is disabled and the Claw drops down to grab at something.
Actions are the things that the player’s doll does in the game when one or more verbs are used in the real. They involve trying to do things that change the states of other things (this is called opening a loop) in order to create wins. An action win, for example, could be considered as the successful use of verbs by the player. When an NFL quarterback throws the ball, the verb is to throw, the action is to make a forward pass, and there are good and bad forward passes that he can make.
The number of possible actions that you can design is endless, and this can create a problem for game makers: It is perfectly possible to create actions that use verbs which the player doesn’t understand. It is also possible (all too common in fact) for a game maker to create an action that he understands perfectly because he designed it. And yet in the outside world it draws blank stares.
You could program a game that used a steering wheel to make trees grow, or push a button and all characters in the game suddenly hate you. You could tie jumping in a platform game to pressing Select on a joypad. But these combinations of verb and action are just wrong. They fail a user-experience test because they don’t feel natural. They are arcane. Not fun.
Some designers also talk about a difference between operant actions (I pass the ball) versus resultant actions (I pass the ball to Jerry Rice because he is in the end zone). This is a distinction that I tend to avoid because it quickly becomes a quagmire of determining meaning. Each is the same action: The quarterback passes the ball.
Choosing whether or not to pass to Jerry Rice is a tactic.
When the ratio between action and verb is 1:1, they are essentially the same thing. A player pulling the right trigger on a joypad controller to shoot a gun is an example of a 1:1 ratio. However in many games the ratio is not 1:1.
In Virtua Fighter 5 the player must use several verbs in quick succession to make Sarah Bryant perform a Combo Somersault Kick. Each button or joypad press is a verb (expressed with notation such as Punch-Punch-Back-Punch-Kick) but the combination of verbs results in just one action (a fancy kick). The ratio is 1:5, and so the test for the player is just how quickly can he perform the verbs to make Sarah do what he wants.
Even a simple action like moving a Chess piece involves picking up the piece, moving it legally and then placing it, which is three verbs. Ordering multiple units to move in StarCraft involves moving the mouse, selecting the units and then the location on the map to which they should move. That can mean anywhere from 1:3 to 1:30. The more verbs involved, the more refined an action can become.
One verb can also produce many actions. Holding down a trigger in a shooting game usually invokes automatic fire, which means that through one verb (‘hold’), the player may kill many enemies (actions). Holding the accelerator in a driving game is just one verb, but can lead to a stream of actions as vehicle position and momentum changes. Sid pushing and holding the joystick to move the Claw is similar.
The resulting ratio might be 2:1, 10:1, 100:1 or more. Verbs used in this manner are often used in conjunction with other verbs, such as holding accelerate and also steering. Otherwise your car will just crash.
The reason for distinguishing between verbs and actions is that it helps zero in on what the true tests are in your game. This aids in understanding why actions are frustrating or fun, and whether the game is asking too much or too little of the player.
You should always want the player to enjoy their interaction in the game rather than making it feel forced. When a game feels lacking, it is often because its verbs are not used in interesting ways, or its actions are underwhelming. My hope is that by learning to separate the two, you can see each for what it is and work to make the experience of using both as fun as they should be.