Towards a more useful discussion of game design.

13 Apr

After every GDC the conversation about definitions blossoms once more. This time, it’s Raph Koster and Leigh Alexander heading the sides. It’s always a fun time to listen in and see what got mulled over at the latest conclave, but it’s also very frustrating for me at times.

The discussions are always vivacious, passionate and filled with fantastic examples of interesting things being executed within the medium, yet I find they lack something: a desire to reach useful conclusions.

I have a pretty stringent conception of useful, which may rankle with some folks who love a good chat about what this or that means. I was brought up in an environment saturated with science and scientific literature, so Popper has been sitting on my shoulder for a long time and Kuhn has been whispering in my other ear. Their work was directing science to its modern understanding of itself- the practical search for useful information. The usefulness of information is directly related to its capability to successfully predict things. So the statement ‘Any time you have a triangle where the sum of the squared values of the shorter two sides is equal to the square of the longer side, the two shorter sides form a right angle, so it is a right angled triangle’ is extremely useful, as it predicts a very specific phenomenon with 100% accuracy. The statement ‘Any time you have a game, it is a set of rules with an objective’ is… not useful at all. It is descriptive, not predictive.

So useful here is used in a specific way- the ability to predict something (with the important possibility that the prediction might be demonstrably wrong). Our definitions of games are not useful definitions, because they don’t predict anything. They don’t come out of a set of useful ideas, like ‘right-angled triangle’, about which we can make predictions. If I have a right angled triangle, I know it will behave in certain ways, because through a lot of effort it has been shown to do so beyond reasonable doubt. Currently ‘rules’ and ‘objective’ are not useful ideas because they tell us nothing of that sort. They are just definitions, we don’t actually know what they do, what their footprint in the non-hypothetical universe is.

This kind of property in a concept is crucial to any practical field, be it engineering, medicine, chemistry or what-have-you. Design is one of the most practical fields of all, since its whole raison d’etre is about figuring out how to build things from ideas. If those ideas are not predictive, we can’t use them to make design decisions. These discussions of the definition of game, while fascinating to me as a scholar and thinker, are next to useless to me as a designer. They don’t make predictions, they don’t render themselves wide open to testing. Given they come from a community of people who identify themselves as ‘game designers’, I am, perhaps now more understandably, frustrated.


The main frustration for me is this calls attention to a broader lack of purpose in the discussion around game design. We are perpetually involved in observation and examination, but rarely do even those most qualified to do so offer a useful statement. Each designer stands alone, reliant on their own experience to form their own system of useful guidelines and rules upon which to base their design.

It is true that we have some useful design rules, ideas about maximizing engagement and immersion, structuring game flow and so on, but these typically are on the vague side of useful. Given the design community’s fascination with genre and detailed analysis of gametypes, I’m continually disappointed at the scarcity of people offering testable predictions of a more focused sort, ideally with them presenting a well defined and rigorous test they performed themselves.

I’m not saying that the design community should turn into a bunch of whitecoated statisticians, but it’s important to recognize the value of presenting discourse in such a way as to generate useful ideas. Not only does it give new designers a handhold to pull themselves into challenges of the field, but it will, eventually, aid in the development of a consensus on these nebulous definitions we love to argue about.

So when you want to talk about something cool you’ve found in design, think a bit about what the underlying idea you think it demonstrates really is. Is there a way you can show that? Can you say something like ‘This demonstrates the principle X, which suggests that if I did Y, with this or that parameter ensuring I’m just testing X, I would get an outcome within the bounds of Z.’

Even if you can’t do such an experiment, constructing your thoughts about an idea this way will help you figure out whether the idea really is that interesting for other designers. The more elegantly you can demonstrate your observation a falsifiable way, the less time you have to spend arguing with people on the internet about it. You’re either right or you’re wrong. If you’re right, the design community gets some really useful information. If you’re wrong, the design community gets some information that is not quite as useful, but still way more valuable than most.

To tie this back into the recent debates, I’ll quote Leigh:

My main idea is that we have much more to learn and gain, at least for now, by eschewing definitions than we do by prescribing them.”

This sentiment is probably informed by the same feelings I have. Our definitions are not founded upon useful values. By ignoring broad categorical definitions for now and focusing on studying their components to produce more practical understandings of how those components function in reality, we will achieve more than trying to wrangle definitions that are ultimately not that beneficial to designers, as much enjoyable banter as they create.


PS: again, I will stress, I’m deeply interested in conceptualizing and understanding the concepts of games and play for my own pleasure. I just find these thoughts impractical when I get my hands dirty, compared to more functional psychology, sociology, physics and so on. Relying on these disciplines to provide our predictively tested information is all well and good as a juvenile discipline, but if game design seeks to stand alongside other fields, we need to create our own research agenda grounded in practicality and applicability to real-world design tasks. I think this approach should be championed and promoted more by the luminaries who act as role-models for the design community.

I’m also not saying that general discussion around game design is not useful in a more casual sense. It’s absolutely necessary for giving us insight into where the more stringently defined useful information can be discovered and why it might be important. It’s just that mistaking that sort of discussion for the most important, serious level of analysis in the community is a real problem that’s holding game design as a field back.


4 responses to “Towards a more useful discussion of game design.

  1. evizaer

    April 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    I’m all for providing testable hypotheses and testing them.

    What we need are scales upon which we can judge characteristics of play experiences. Measuring game experiences has observational issues: People synthesize game experiences differently given context and experience. Gaining an understand of the effects of context and experience is very difficult due to their variability being continuous through time: you just can’t reproduce the same results with the same subjects because you can’t unexperience something. There are so many variables involved in how a human being processes a game and generates the kinds of opinions we can measure that I’m not sure we can start testing in rigorous and meaningful ways yet. Don’t we have a lot of method-finding to do first?

    The descriptive and less immediately practical stuff seems orders of magnitude easier to actually do than the kind of experimentation that I would like to see.

    I may just be ignorant and missing some work that has been done on this topic. Please inform me.

    • thereisnosaurus

      April 13, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      aMmmm. I quite agree, that the descriptive and less immediately practical stuff is way easier, which is the point. If game design wants to grow as a discipline, we have to embrace more rigour than the armchair journalism that currently informs our debates. Again, not saying that it’s not valuable, but it has a far lower limit as to what it can accomplish. We’ve generated enough discussion over the last decade or so to give us a reasonable body of thought from which to draw some initial questions that need serious and predictive answers.

      As to methodology, that’s the hard part. I still don’t think games design is mature enough to foster a formal disciplinary methodology, so each individual is going to have to come up with their own and their audience will need to judge whether their methodology and falsification structure is sound for a given question. Even if it just shifts the debate to the viability of various methodologies for testing questions, I think that’s a far more valuable debate to be having than the definitions one.

      In reality, I think games design can support a lack of shared methodologies. Disciplinary methodology is primarily a necessity for sciences because of the sheer weight of research being done, people can’t afford to read both the question and the answer for everything and balance it all internally. Compared to that, I’d say there are perhaps still only a few hundred people on earth who are capable of framing the sorts of predictions that are important to game design, so every new prediction can support its own methodological framework. It’s not ideal, of course, but I think getting down to business rather than waiting for a universal theory of games before we begin engaging in real design research is important.

      It’s all about pushing people interested in talking about and developing the field of game design towards doing so in a constructive way that produces tangible benefits for people who are actually making games.

  2. Finlay Curran (@FCExB)

    April 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    There are people out there in the academia side of things that are trying to formalise the science of this game design stuff. Obviously is it a young field but it is growing. One problem though is that they are having a hard time reaching out and conversing with the more practical side of it. I.e. talking to games designers.

    I will point you to this guy and his website:

    He is developing A.I. that designs games and has recently decided to try and reach out to developers from the academic community.

    Also here is his twitter if you are interested:

    • thereisnosaurus

      April 16, 2013 at 6:53 am

      Honestly I think trying to make design into a true science is… misguided. Even after a century of trying really hard to formalise and be rigorous, most disciplines in the humanities are barely on the edge of scientific. Not because the people doing them are stupid, of course, but because their subject matter is really hard to be truly scientific about.

      However, it’s not difficult to phrase statements using a prediction/hypothesis model. This doesn’t make them scientific, but it does provide clear guidlines as to how the statement can be falsified and put to rest, and if supported where else it might be handy to apply. This is how many other fields of design have come up with their early conjectures (rule of thirds in graphic design, serif/sans-serif usage in typography, seam placement in clothes design, knowledge-in-the-world systems in household design etc. See the design of everyday things for a great example of a design text that sets its argument in predictive terms.

      I’ve come across GBA briefly before, it’s an interesting project. Unfortunately it’s really outside my specialty in game design which is systems of human experience, rather than raw mathematical systems, so I can’t really provide much thought on it till he presents his work in a formal manner so I can have a look at his work and arguments deriving from it properly.


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