Verbs that can act on many objects

When trying to provoke emergence, design verbs that can act on many objects.

From The Art of Game Design, by Jesse Schell:

Verbs that can act on many objects. This is possibly the single most powerful thing you can do to make an interesting game. If you give a player a gun that can only shoot bad guys, you have a very simple game. But if that same gun can be used to shoot a lock off a door, break a window, hunt for food, pop a car tire, or write a message on the wall, now you start to enter a world of many possibilities.

By increasing the number of ways you may combine verbs and objects, you create an interaction alphabet.

It is possible to increase the composability of your alphabet even further, by using parts of speech.

From Controls as Language:

It’s always surprised me that most games don’t really have any equivalent to adverbs: discrete ways of doing things, such as “quietly” or “aggressively”, that can be applied to any verb in order to modify its effects.

It’s much easier to learn four generic verbs and three generic adverbs than twelve entirely separate verbs. Transfer of learning plays a major role here: if a player learns the adverb “quickly” in conjunction with the verb “walk”, and then learns the verb “hit”, they may be able to transfer their understanding of the generic adverb to the new verb and correctly intuit (without explicit instruction) that the combined phrase “hit quickly” may be used to make a rapid strike.

The typical user interface can be seen as an alphabet of verbs that compose with objects, but not with each other. A smaller alphabet, with a greater degree of composability can be easier to learn, and more expressive.

Another example, again, from Controls as Language:

The Vim text editor makes use of an input language with distinct parts of speech rather than a conventional one-keyboard-shortcut-per-action editor control scheme, and is frequently lauded for its power and flexibility as a result.

When you make small, composable alphabets it provokes complex emergence.


  • Where might we increase the number of objects a verb can act upon?
  • How might we create small alphabets of actions, and increase the number of interactions?
  • What side-effects do verbs have?