Class Prompt: Engaging the senses


In fall 2021 I taught a “World Design” class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

One of the ways to create a sense of place and make environments more memorable is to engage more of the player’s senses. As game creators we don’t always have a lot of avenues to do this! We can’t actually provide smells, for instance. If you’re working on a pen and paper game, as some of you are, you may not have direct access to ANY of the player’s senses, and need to instead evoke them with words.

So some useful angles to look at this from: 

  • We have a lot more than the mere 5 senses that Aristotle identified. Depending on the framework used, we as humans may have up to 55 unique sense receptors. So it’s never as simple as just “engaging the sense of hearing”, or “sight”. This website I found with a quick search has an interesting breakdown.
  • We can evoke sensations in players’ minds through association, memory, or description, which can be prompted in all sorts of ways. 
  • People’s minds process and understand sensory information differently. People with aphantasia may not react as strongly to written description, whereas it may be all that’s ever needed for people with hyperphantasia. People with synesthesia may associate senses in wildly different ways than we expect.  

Some direct examples: 

  • When the wind blows in Ghost of Tsushima some players can almost feel it on their skin because of the excellent use of sound, the wind FX, and the way the environment reacts to it. 
  • Some players feel a sense of vertigo when they look or fall down a large hole in an environment.
  • Games like F-Zero and Marvel’s Spider-Man use repetitive patterns in the environment and changes to camera field of view to accentuate the sensation of speed.
  • Poets are masters of evoking senses through association or memory. Look to people like Robert Frost. 
  • When I’m running a tabletop game, I like to tell my players what their characters smell and how the air feels: damp, dense, still. Or tell them that their hairs stand on end as they sense a presence. These are simple descriptions, not particularly artful, but they add dimensions that are otherwise missing.