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.