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10:22am on Friday, 13th October, 2017:

Design as Art


When I gave the design-a-Viking-game students the presentation that explained what they needed to do, I told them to figure out what they were trying to say to their players through their game design and everything else would drop out from that.

Of course, none of them did figure out what they were saying through their design.

Of course, all of them did figure out what they were saying through their design, they just didn't realise it.

Around 40% of the students were on the games degree, with the rest straight Computer Science. Some of the groups had all games students in them; some had none; some were mixed. I was chatting to one of the all-games groups afterwards, commending them on actually having made a game as often when you get a group of game designers together it's a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth: they talk endlessly but can never agree on anything. I was told that this was the case, until someone suggested clans as an idea and everyone else felt they could get on board with this.

Well yes, of course they would. They were a team. They could see the other teams forging ahead, and they knew they needed to rally round and do something. They needed to act as a group — as a clan. Vikings aren't especially known for clans, but the concept of the clan is what the members of this particular group realised individually was needed at that juncture. Their game design was expressing their situation at that very moment.

This happened in other groups, too. It almost always happens; you just have to read the gameplay to see it. Two groups of non-gamers went with slightly modified versions of Snakes and Ladders: you follow a track, doing what you're told, only interacting with others when forced, and at the end you're free. That explained their situation, too. They didn't want to be there, but they were, so they just jumped through the hoops we put before them, behaving in a civil fashion but not really engaging with the challenge or each other, until they reached the end.

One group of non-gamers was particularly interesting as their first concept was for a Viking trivia game. I told them it was a seriously bad idea, and they needed to go away and think of a better game. They'd gone with a quiz idea because they didn't really know what to do to make a game, and had so many questions about it that they didn't even know to ask. Their response was to reflect this in their game design. However, composing hundreds of questions about Vikings that anyone other than an expert on Norse mythology might answer would be next to impossible, so I told them not to do it. They were very deflated by this, and wanted to bounce back. Their resulting game involved building stacks of blocks in a two-player strategy game. The mechanics were quite nice, although they still need some tweaking; they're much better than I'd have expected from non-designers, but programmers are people with a systems-oriented way of thinking and they came up with something that did have some clever interacting systems. The key was the stacks of blocks, though. Other groups used blocks galore, too, but none of them stacked them into towers. Only this group did. They needed to stand tall and reassert themselves after I disparaged their first design and knocked their confidence. Building towers resonated with all of them for this reason.

Another group had a hidden-map game. You didn't know where you were going until it was revealed. They're in the first week of their first year at university. That checks out.

Another group was supposed to have 6 members but only 4 showed up on the first day and only 2 on subsequent days. Their game, Axe to Grind, was about lone heroes slogging across rough terrain with few resources, trying to get to the end.

Sometimes, it's clear the game design is saying something but it's not clear what. There was one with an absolutely symmetric map and absolutely symmetric play. Either this was the work of a group that made its decisions with scrupulous democracy, or it was run with an iron fist by someone who liked order. I don't know which it was.

The other group made up of all games-course people (one of whom has amazing graphic design skills) was built about the concept of different players each playing different gods with different abilities. The group was recognising that every member had their own individuality to bring to the game, but they were willing to buy into the larger picture so long as their own talents were recognised.

One interesting game from a mixed group had a mechanic that led to beautiful, long lines of pieces connecting different players together. On the face of it, it therefore looked like it was a bridging game, but actually it was saying more about exploration. This team, alone among the teams, did (when I prompted them) reflect on what the game was saying and why they had made the decisions they had made. They're presenting their analysis this afternoon; I expect it to be more incisive and accurate than my (somewhat superficial) one.

I could have done this for all the remaining groups, too. They all made artistic decisions that were informed by their situation, environment and group make-up (plus the fact that it had to be about Vikings on a board of hexes). Sure, they didn't know they were doing it, but they were. The ones with game designer potential will note this, and try to bear it in mind in their future designs. Their first attempts will probablly be in the art-game vein: self-conscious attempts to use games to say something they could have said so much better some other way, carrying little meaning in the gameplay and relying heavily on symbolism in the dressing. The best ones will either skip or push through this to think of what they want to say in terms of the gameplay, because the gameplay is how they articulate what they want to say. Reading gameplay is one thing; writing it is where the art of game design manifests itself.

We have some good prospects for game designers here — computer scientists among them. I just hope we don't beat the enthusiasm out of them in their first year, leaving me with empty husks to reinvigorate when I get them in year two.

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