Archive for the ‘theory’ category

What Makes Game Design Unique?

May 1, 2015

I want to test a pair of assertions: I’ve said for a long time that there are two main things that make games different from anything else that’s “designed.”

The first is that no one has to play a game.

The second is that unlike any other device or software, games are entirely autotelic: the goal of a game is the goal set within the game (or within the player’s head). Games don’t exist to extend, assist, or support some external goal.

Those may not seem like much, but they create conditions that set games wholly apart from any other kind of human creation, and game design apart from any other kind of design. I think this leads in useful directions, but first I want to explore and test these assertions.

First, no one has to play a game. By contrast, if your company adopts new software for accounting or travel, you pretty much have to use it. If your bank changes how their ATMs work, you’re going to get used to it (or switch banks). But with a game, if you don’t like it or don’t get it, you can drop it — the game is entirely optional.

This means that game designers are constantly on the knife-edge in ways that other designers aren’t. Games have to attract a potential player’s attention. They have to draw the player in, help them build a mental model of what the game presents, and make that engaging enough that the player will stick with it and want to put in the energy needed to gain some level of mastery. This means that games are under immense pressure to evolve as fast as possible. There are always other games (now, hundreds of new ones appearing every day for mobile devices) that players can turn to, aside from anything in the player’s life that they have to do.

As a result, game designers spend a lot of time playing games designed by others to learn from them and apply their lessons to their own games. It’s no wonder that games change so rapidly and continuously, or that they consistently lead other forms of technology in the use of graphics, hardware, engagement, narrative, and interaction design.

The second point may be even more important: games are autotelic. Spreadsheets and word processors exist to support an external goal; so do paint programs, flight and process control software, etc. Even in the physical world, hammers, saws, drills, backhoes, scalpels, door handles and everything else you interact with on a daily basis that has been designed exists to further some goal that is external to the artifact themselves. Art, in the sense of paintings, literature, and sculpture, are, like games, concerned only with the goal that the artist sets for them. But unlike games they stand on their own; they are not truly interactive (a statement some will take issue with, but this is a different and longer argument). An artwork may engage someone mentally and emotionally, but it does not create a set of goals and tasks for the viewer. Since only games are both autotelic and interactive, only they enable the player to fulfill some set of goals, changing as the player changes, continually leading them to new internally defined goals.

In the realm of software in particular, only games (and toy-like games in which the player sets their own goals) escape serving some external and pre-existing set of goals and tasks. As a result, there is no “task analysis” that can yield a set of requirements for a game; part of the game designer’s job is to create the player’s tasks and goals out of thin air. Sometimes these may refer to some approximation of the real world (as in a flight simulator), but in some of the most charming examples they have only a tenuous connection to anything like our world, as in Ida’s curious journey in Monument Valley.

If these assertions are accurate, they have huge consequences for how we think about and practice game design, and for the place of game design in the overall sphere of design as practice and as a way of thinking. Games may, I believe, provide us a window into a kind of pure design, unencumbered by pre-defined external goals and tasks. If so, they also illuminate some important aspects of design and how we structure our thinking far beyond games and about the world in general. This is a point I’ll pick up later.

What do you think? Are these assertions accurate? Are there examples of non-game artifacts that are optional and autotelic? Are there other important differences between games and non-game artifacts, or between game design and other kinds of design? Or, are these statements correct as far as they go, but they miss something essential?

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.

Guildwars 2 Breaks the Mold (li’l bit)

July 9, 2010

MMOs have by now evolved a canon of how to deal with combat roles, death, and getting back into play after dying (“resurrection”).  This canon has become so fixed that it’s common to hear about tank/healer/dps as the “holy trinity” of MMO combat that many games just do, well, sorta because that’s how it’s been done.   Every now and again though, some game comes along and pushes the boundaries forward a little.  It looks like Guild Wars 2 is doing that with their approach to combat, dying, and the flow of gameplay.


Why Blizzard and Zuckerberg Are Wrong

July 8, 2010

or, The Persistent Case for Social Scientists

There are some lessons people in online businesses persistently don’t learn.  A lot of these are grouped into the area of “social concerns are just as real as technical ones” or “social issues do not have technical solutions.”

Recently a couple of major players in the online space have shown a stunning lack of regard for social concerns in ways that have long-term effects and that can safely be filed under “Lessons Learned.” (more…)

The (Psychological) Development of “Social” Games

April 1, 2010

At GDC this year I saw a slide in a talk that referenced different developmental styles of play (my notes are sadly unclear as to whose talk this was — if you know, please let me know!).  This has had me thinking about the developmental stages of social games.  Not the software development, but the evolution of the styles of gameplay we put in them as we learn more about creating them.

It should be clear to anyone watching this space that game developers are learning as fast as they can about how to create new gameplay in online (putatively) social games; we know a lot less than we still don’t know.  As such, it’s very interesting to me how closely the emergence of types of gameplay in popular social games is following the path of individual psychological development of play — and what this may tell us about the future of the design of social games.   (more…)

Did Maslow get it wrong? (and why this matters for games)

November 23, 2008

You may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (more on this below the cut).  Maslow’s theory has heavily influenced the architecture of our AI technology, which is why I’m attuned to discussions of it or instances that support or undercut it.  Recently I ran across a theory in education known as “CBUPO,” an ungainly acronym for “Comptence, Belonging, Usefulness, Potency, Optimism” designed by Richard Sagor at Washington State University (an accessible introduction can be found here (pdf)). Sagor’s theory suggests some interesting modifications to Maslow that have consequences for how we understand ourselves — as well as the motivations for gamers and AIs.

(Warning: psychological theory leading to AI and game-relevant thoughts below.)