Game design thoughts: Surveying the foothills

Image result for video game mountain

Wait, this mountain doesn’t have any foothills!

Since camping out in what I referred to as “Game Design Mountain“, I’ve spent some time doing a bit of work, and a bit of navel gazing as well. I’ve approached this mountain a bit like a cartographer and also a bit like an ecologist and an anthropologist. I’ve been trying to get a good lay of the land as well as to see who is here and what their worldviews are. I’ve only scratched the surface of the realm of game design, but I thought I’d take some time to pool some thoughts into more of a coherent blog piece than simply allowing my heart to continue to grow this congealing anxious need to communicate.

There is a profession that didn’t exist 50 years ago, I’ve heard stated more than a couple times, called the ‘game designer’. This person specifically designs games. Games have been designed in the past, but they might have just come about through historical iteration, like ancient board games, or they might have just been done by people who were in some other profession. Abstract strategy games have existed for a long time, as we can archaeologically provide evidence of, if people were playing sports games in ancient times, it is hard to tell. If I were to make a bet, it would be on the side that sports existed alongside board games and most likely other children’s games of imagination. Cool, we live in an interesting time because now there’s game designers! But what of some of the stuff people talk about when it comes to game design?

The perennially arising and ritualistically stamped out question of “what is a game?” is something of interest to me. Like a weed that just won’t go away, or perhaps a nagging pain in tooth. If one gets the aching tooth checked out, it just might have to be plucked. There is one point that I’d like to say on this issue, and it’s probably been said a million times elsewhere by far more intelligent beings than myself, that video games although historically newer, are much broader than what one might refer to as a “classic” game. Video games can be ‘classic games’ and they are often a whole lot more than just that. Personally, I enjoy both ‘classic games’ and other kinds of ‘games’ as well. On one hand, I really enjoy sports and strategy. Since I was a kid I love playing games like Basketball, Pool, Backgammon and Chess as well as card games like Spades, Rummy and Poker (and later as a teenager, Magic The Gathering). I’ve also enjoyed video games that I would say are strategic (or tactical), particularly fighting games and multiplayer shooting games.

On the other hand, we have games like Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, Dead Space, Zelda, Metroid, etc. that are more linear, in that they have interactive worlds, with story endings. I greatly enjoy these and hands down, my favorite game I played last year was Inside. I can’t give it more praise. 10 out of 10. I digress,… both classic games and ‘story games’ are interactive and have been shown that they can be more on a spectrum than in a dichotomy, but sometimes can be a two-in-one. Call of Duty Black Ops, the last CoD game that I actually enjoyed the story of, and Dan Cooke does a good job talking about this, is basically two games in one. It’s both what he calls a “hobby” (the multiplayer aspect) and a “content game” (the campaign), but one chooses either or in the main menu. What does one do when faced with a dilemma of two audiences? You grab the bull by the horns and build something for both. For a while the CoD series were the biggest grossing media content pieces in American history.

Demon’s & Dark Souls were a strange and twisted marriage between multiplayer classic game (of fighting) and of narrative and world exploration. Dark Souls is almost a quintessential example of what happens when sport, computers and story are mixed in a complementary way. If I were to diagnose the cause of the problem of ‘game vs story’, I would agree with Raph Koster that it is the two-culture problem and  just the continuing case of Western history, where the romantics split with the scientists. Perhaps because Japan (and everywhere else) just don’t have the same history, it’s easy to ignore this and keep on crafting category busting works.

Game design theorists, though seem to, tend to, from my limited surveying, lean more towards being interested in the classic game side as opposed to all the other stuff we call games these days. If I were to make another bet, it might be because they tend to come from a more objectivist approach, paralleling empiricist methods of “discovering” natural laws (scientific method) and then applying those theories in practice (engineering). They are searching for objective truths about games, game laws?, and then want to apply them by creating interesting dynamic systems of play. They tend to be abstract, strategic games and this is a valid endeavor.

There is another kind of objectivist approach to game design, not mutually exclusive to other approaches, I noticed, that draw heavily on traditional scientific theoretical models of human psychology. They attempt to utilize understandings, particularly from behavioralism, cognitive psychology, and a smidgen of social psychology, to craft games (or interactive media) that fits into the objectivist models of ‘human nature’. The point is, game design appears to be within an objectivist paradigm. But isn’t that really like me pointing out that the sky is blue?

All of this is fine, the paradigm is here, but the game design talk is often a bit too mechanistic and limiting for my tastes. A bit tinny really. I won’t argue with them when it comes to defining games, (Keith Burgun has an interesting set of definitions that are actually pretty useful), but that doesn’t mean that the pursuit of monastic truth is my thing. The Western, theoretical side of game design mountain is now probably a lesser interesting side for me, unless it diversifies its overall framework. I will say that I do see that many people who talk about game design to be interested in the more humanities side and that is pretty cool. I think perhaps the revitalization of game design discussion is coming back with a bit less sharper corners from what I understand of its short but scattered history. Still, it tends to be heavily Eurocentric. That might be because I’m doing all my research in English.

If I had to differentiate myself, I would say that I take more of a pluralistic approach to game design, as I do with philosophy. I don’t have any reason to believe in objective truth, so don’t think there can be objective truths about games either. I think truths are evolving and diverse, much like languages. I appreciate the mechanical side of game design (although my skills aren’t developed in this realm), yet I don’t see the humanities side of games as being opposed to the mechanics side, nor is it simply a qualitative “layer” on a mechanical object. Many video games may not be games, but they aren’t not games either. Many so-called abstract games might not simply be cold mechanics as well, but can be infused with different worldviews too. The ancient game Ur was played in hopes that the god Marduk was on your side. For Mesopotamians, playing this game was a way to engage in the grandiose and the cosmic. It just depends on what myth you ascribe to and whether you are open to acknowledging this plurality.

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