Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Many Faces of the Game Designer

If you're a student taking my Digital Game Design class, consider this a spoiler warning: we'll be covering the topic in this post later, so turn back now if you don't want to ruin the surprise.

Now, for the rest of you...

Explaining what "Game Design" is to people outside the industry has always been difficult, because it's such a broad field with such a wide variety of tasks, and because it's intangible (i.e. generally, you can't point to any part of the screen of a video game and say "that thing there is game design"). Yet, it is vital for us to be able to explain what we do to the rest of society -- or at least to our friends and families who want to know more about our lives. And for ourselves, so we can constantly remind ourselves of why we shouldn't just give it all up and become accountants.

So far I've found the following analogies useful:
  • Game Designer as Architect. We don't build the game (or skyscraper) ourselves, we just outline the plans (game design documents / blueprints) to let the programmers (construction workers) know what to build and what it will look like when it's done. As far as I know, this analogy is original, and I was the first to state it this way.
  • Game Designer as Party Host. We invite the players to play our game (visit our party), and do our best to make it an enjoyable experience for them. I first saw this analogy in the first few pages of the recent textbook Game Design Workshop.
  • Game Designer as Artist. Much of game creation is just like the creation of any art form. This is self-evident to most game designers I know, but was proven ever so succinctly by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (which is as much about Game Design as it is about Comics, as any game designer who's read it can tell you). This was also touched on by Raph Koster in his book, A Theory of Fun. And of course there's been the question of "whether games are art" that has been argued on both sides since the birth of the medium... and if games are art, then it's not much of a stretch to say that designers are artists.
  • Game Designer as Educator. Raph Koster's book argues this as well. In brief, the theory goes that games are fun because they keep us in the "flow", i.e. giving us tasks at the upper end of our abilities; our brains find this an enjoyable state to be in because they are improving by learning; thus, games teach... which means game designers are teachers. Raph makes the argument far more persuasively than I do.
  • Game Designer as the Judicial Branch of the Government. Donald Norman, in his book Design of Everyday Things, famously states that "design is the successive application of constraints." Then designers are the ones who place constraints on the player -- you must do this, you can't do that -- similar to lawmakers in the rest of the world.
  • Game Designer as God. No idea who I can attribute this to, and of course everyone who's passionate about any field thinks that God is one of their kind. But I mean this in the literal sense; we create a world, its inhabitants, and all of the rules that govern it... and yet, we also create free will (as exerted by the players). Generally, our games are much less complicated than the physical Universe, but the basic principles of creation are the same.

Do you have any other analogies you'd like to share? Post them in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Well, during my WISE project on game design in high school in 2003, I used both the "architect" and "God" analogies for my admittedly non-game-centric audience. They seemed to work very well in getting the point across - heck, my parents finally figured out what it was I'd been doing for the past several years.

Anonymous said...

I think God is not that bad, but with the problem that the world we build (or let build) is most probably not easy to defend as the best "possible world" ;) So there is no Leibniz who writes a Monadology for us ;)

Personally i like the architect thing most, because first it refers to the greek thekton, the builder or carpenter. Second it is also the root of the word Tektonics which refers on one hand to the "ground" or basic qualities and quantities of a world; and on the other to the process to create aesthetic experience via the design and implementation of technology. In that sense game design and development can be seen as an activity of Tektonics. And as arche means "the head" or "leader", so a game designer can be seen as an "architect". Also note that Sappho described the poet as an "thekton", which connects building to narrative construction as well.