I have papers from 4th grade in which I declared proudly that I’d be a game programmer one day, but I didn’t know ‘game design’ existed until 2009, my first year away from home. I found Rules of Play in an art school’s library, where I had been digging for weeks, searching for purpose and direction in a scary new city. The Brainy Gamer, Lostgarden, and Gamasutra soon came into my universe, and then an unending, unfolding expanse of thought and writing about games that totally enraptured me.
Having always had a proclivity towards philosophy and critical theory, this discovery seemed important to me, and important to games. I couldn’t stop thinking about the things I was reading, and the things I was writing in response.
I was a budding game designer. I thought about game design. I wrote about game design. I applied the things I thought. I made a lot of small games, supposedly to learn more about design.
Years later, and a couple significant releases down the line, I understand much more about how games are made: especially, about how mundane and unspecial the process can easily be, as well as how diverse actual studios’ processes have been.
The reality is that there is little overlap between game design theorists whose work I follow and creators whose games I’ve personally connected with. So why should I continue to assume that compelling essay work translates into solid advice for creators?
In fact, much of my current thinking on my own process, informed by (admittedly still very limited) personal experience, goes contrary to the common sense ideologies I was handed as a starting point 7 years ago. I strive to bite off more than I can chew. I think it’s wise to invest significantly in whatever idea strikes me as the most exciting, rather than working on many small prototypes at once. I think playtesting, while good at catching bugs and bringing you back to reality, should be used as a creative tool only rarely. I believe that ideas can be genuinely valuable. I think that often, the non-mechanical components of a game are more important than the mechanical ones, and so I tend to work on visuals and writing at least as early as mechanics.
SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE
The objective, engineer-like creativity sold by most game design writers is a trap for folks like me. If my voice isn’t heard naturally and I have to warp it to find my audience, maybe they aren’t my audience. Neither of us will be fulfilled at the end of the day. I haven’t spoken honestly to them, and dishonesty harms everyone involved.
Design and art are traditionally separate fields, and different creators have different ideas about which tradition they’re part of. Games certainly have affinities with both. As a kid, I looked up to novelists, painters, animators, poets: conventional artists. Game criticism, game design theory put me down the wrong path for understanding myself as an artist who makes games. Metrics, models, and playtests are dangerous because they have the ability to create game designers who think like stock romance writers—they teach you to use the trappings of an art form to mask thoroughly impersonal and ultimately forgettable emotion-generating machines.
It’s not that people shouldn’t be thinking about what they’re making, or that doing work on paper is bad. It’s that design is the wrong word for what some of us are trying to do today.
Playtests can be a valuable part of an artist’s process, except that playtest again is probably the wrong word. We should be thinking about critiques among fellow creators, critics, friends, as we do with poetry or painting. I want feedback that’s informed, holistic, thoughtful, high expectation, high concept, feedback that can actually push me as an artist and a thinker. I have no interest in the kinds of user studies used in advertising or politics, where scientists observe disinterestedly and optimize their products accordingly, whether they use models or metrics to theorize.
Criticism is part of a rich cultural experience of art, and conversations between creators are important—they provide the ability for creators to evolve their process and find companions in a cold, lonely world. And these design theorists are an important part of that conversation. But the goal of a theory of art should not be to drive a linear path for a whole society of artists. Art needs to be diverse. Important and powerful art is distinct. It can be valuable to ignore the amalgamated voice of society.
THE POINT IS
In Chris Bateman’s recent essay, “The Craft of Game Design Cannot Be Measured By Any Metric,” he casually derides a certain group of game makers (his opposites to the mobile business metric designers he’s actually focused on) as being ignorant and dogmatic. It seems like he’s referring broadly to indie/alt-games folks, neither of which camp I feel totally comfortable in, but I saw myself in his description nonetheless.
In some sense, ignorance might be an appropriate word for what I’m advocating: for creators to intentionally ignore with greater diligence the pressures to be similar, to follow fashion or money or power, pressures to use objective, scientific methods of art production. And similarly, I think part of what I’m advocating for could be called dogmatism: for creators to hold firm in their values and goals in order to create works that are more distinct, more filled with themselves, more honest and interesting and worth talking about.