At a GDC 2013 talk called "Making it Matter: Lessons from Real Sports," QWOP creator Bennett Foddy argued that developers should look to real-life sports to get players to care about their actions in a simulated world with arbitrary rules — video games, in other words.
The primary challenge is that the outcomes in both sports and video games are fundamentally "pretty pointless and arbitrary," he said. Despite that, sports are massively popular, and developers can learn from this.
"The player needs to care about how they play the game," he said.
Part of the reason athletes care so much is that there's a huge amount of money on the line — but that's not the only reason.
One possible solution could be for developers to focus on making the game a performance, he said. Like skilled athletes, this would show that players of fighting game not only know what to do and but are able to do the work required to succeed. This builds upon his observation that sports are performative. Players' actions convey meaning to the audience, and this symbiosis creates a kind of feedback loop in which the audience's presence makes performances matter more.
Usain Bolt probably broke world record dozens of times, he said, but it didn't count until the grandstand was full. That's the difference between training and a sport.
"You can make your game matter just by designing it to be performed," he said, showing a video of J.S. Joust to emphasize his point.
Sports also raise the stakes with a focus on human achievement, frustration and even suffering, he said.
"Sports are dramatic because the stakes are higher," he said. Both athletes and spectators are attracted to this, he said, using the Tour de France as an example of a sport that pushes the human body to its limits.
To Foddy, Video games do their best to undermine the sense of achievement and drama with quick loads and saves. It's one of the biggest mistakes game designers make, and one that's easily reversible.
"There's no do-overs in competitive sport," he said.
Video game designers could overcome this dumbing down by, for example, limiting the number of retries or when players can play.
"Shit-talking" in sports "increases the stakes both metaphorically and in reality," and competitive video games might learn a lesson here. Games that bend over backwards to avoid a death state make the outcome feel "predestined and meaningless," he said.
It's easy to see how this could occur in competitive multiplayer situations, but developers can also incorporate it in single-player experiences, he said. His game CLOP does so by insulting players every time they lose.
Finally, Foddy said that video games can also cultivate integrity like real-life sports. Sporting organizations have done so by coming down against fixing and doping in part because the results of a match aren't interesting if there's a fix in, or if one player doesn't try.
To Foddy, whether developers emphasize skills, highlight performance or foster competition alongside integrity, it's ultimately about creating meaningful experiences.
"The biggest challenge that we face is to make the events that we face matter to players."