Filling Bars: How Video Games Make Simple Progress Meaningful

"It's a great way to fill bars" is a reference around my apartment about games that have a "grind" element.  For those don't immediately get the metaphor, it refers to games that have some kind of progress bar in it (often experience in an RPG) that one fills by various activities, and when it is filled, there is some advancement in a game.  You get the idea.

How many of our games are basically bar-filling?  We gain experience points to level a character, get enough science scores to give our fledgeling virtual civilization a technical advancement, or or just plain earn enouhg money to build that next railroad.  A lot of our games are filling bars, meters, or coffers, often from highly repetitive behavior.

So what makes us do this – and why is it that some games get us to fill bars and other's dont?  What can we, as media geeks, game designers, marketers, etc. do to understand why bar filling works for some and not for others?

There's several factors.

CONTEXT: The bar in the game has to have meaning – to be part of the storytelling.  It's not Resources – it's a rare alien mineral!  It's not a measure of when your character gets a new sword skill – it's experience hard-won in combat!  You need to make the bar part of the story – or at least a familiar enough metaphor (such as experience points or money) that people get.

BELIEVABILITY: This is a tricky one in gaming, but the "filling of the bar" has to be a believable metaphor – it's also part of context.   People can tolerate your character getting better in combat from fighting monsters, or mining strange alien ores to make discoveries.  These are metaphors they relate to from real life and existing game trends.  Even if you wanted to make them more realistic, you might run into an issue that they don't seem realistic (and in gaming, where space marines can suck up machine gun fire believability is an odd thing).

RESULTS: Does filling the bar do anything that affects the game?  DOes your character get better, do you get to build new buildings, do you unlock new areas?  The bar-filling has to pay off.  When properly balanced it becomes an almost pavlovian experience to see the bar fill up – as a gamer, trust me I know.

DISPLAY: You have to display the "fillable bars" in ways people can easily access and understand.  That's harder than it sounds because you're mixing all of the above elements and good interface design.

So filling bars?  All for it.  But in gaming you need the above elements to make people buy into filling bars.  Otherwise it's just math.

But with the right elements, math becomes something more to people . . .

Steven Savage