Recently, I’ve been reading a couple of really great books on game design. If you have ever been interested in designing games, or, indeed, consumer products in general, I would advise that you try your hand at prototyping a few games for fun. Game prototypes needn’t be digital works of art, or indeed, even digital, and they can challenge you to think “outside the box”
In this post, i’ll briefly summarize learnings I’ve had while beginning to prototype game designs for the past two weeks. For those of you who are interested in the books that these concepts derive from, check out the books: Challenges For Game Designers and Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. The first book is chock full of challenging exercises for aspiring game designers to undertake, and the second book is considered by many as the canonical text for introduction to game design courses.
Any game design books you think I should read next? Let me know!
What is a game?
The first thing to understand about being a game designer is that anyone can design games. What it takes is a desire and passion to understand how to create and design experiences that are fun. In the Art of Game Design, Schell implores readers to repeatedly repeat the Mantra “I am a Game Designer.” until readers believe it. One reason you might decide to design your first game is because when it comes down to it, game design is the study of fun, and how to manufacture it. Without getting too much into the weeds, in order to first understand how to design games we have to understand what exactly games are and what makes them fun.
What is fun? Anybody who has ever been engrossed at work on a challenging problem, or in an intense, exhausting sports match, or a difficult but rewarding problem set at school knows that it is possible to have fun even when performing an activity that wouldn’t necessarily be considered fun. Why is this? The human brain is wired for solving problems, when our brain is challenged appropriately, we are learning. Learning is a crucial part of mastery, and mastery of a skill or subject brings about great pleasure. Part of the reason it delivers this rush of dopamine and seratonin is because it makes us feel powerful and in control of our destinies. Games become addicting because they allow us to gain that sense of mastery, delivering it in regular, easily digestible chunks. In real life, it’s much more challenging to find activities which regularly and with relative predictability allow us to feel mastery while providing the creative outlet that games do. Some of you may be familiar with the concept of Flow. Coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, “[flow] is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Basically, if you’ve ever felt like you are “In the zone” completely in the moment, and enjoying the activity, then you know what flow is.
The funny thing is that a flow state can be induced in even the most monotonous of tasks. For factory workers that have to attach widgets on a manufacturing line, a game can be invented where the worker tries to get a new high score every day, coming with new and innovative approaches to attaching the widget. What matters is the attitude and approach towards the activity in question. One corollary to that is that any sort of activity that is enforced and involuntary and is approached from that perspective will be hard to enjoy. For example, imagine if instead of browsing the internet and social media for fun, you were forced to do it 8 hours a day, ordered to like a certain percentage of posts, and create a certain number of updates. That could hardly be considered fun, right?
My favorite definition of a game (also from the Art of Game Design) is that it is “A problem solving activity approached with a playful attitude.” It is my favorite definition because it is elegant, and defines perfectly what we laid out in the previous paragraphs.” Therefore, when you are designing a game, what you are doing is creating a structure which maximizes for players the opportunity to experience flow.
How can I design my first game?
Much like the Nike slogan, just “Do It”! Game design is a discipline that takes practice. You can read all the books in the world, and play all the games, and you still wouldn’t be a game designer. The best way to be a game designer is just to design your first game. The more you do it, the better you’ll be, so you’d better get started as quick as possible. Keep in mind that game design doesn’t require a fancy electronic prototype. In the past two weeks for example, my friends and I have prototyped two board games, a trading card game, and several puzzles. In fact the best way to test compelling game designs is to start non digitally. While electronic video games and consoles allow for exciting experiences, they often obscure the design itself with window dressing and unnecessary engineering complexity.
If you want to flex your game design muscles, just buy some dice, some index cards and get started! The game is essentially a set of core game mechanics. Core game mechanics are the rules of the game. Start simple. Invent some rules, and play with other people.
I’m out of time now, but next week I’ll actually cover some of the steps to prototyping games and maybe even give an exercise