Recently I got some positive feedback to an old article for GameCareerGuide and Game Developer Magazine. The comment was from an instructor of game design, who appreciated the main point of the article: when possible, avoid wasted space.
The premise (and one of my basic assertions about design) is that deliberately or not, every component in a game communicates information to the player. The task of the designer is to pay attention to what and how the elements communicate, and to use those properties to communicate deliberately.
Ideally a game will instruct, inform, and illuminate its own premises with every beat of play — and ideally all of that will be invisible to the player. A game that fails to communicate deliberately will often misfire and lead the player down undesirable paths, or otherwise fail to explain itself to the player. Either result will tend to lead to a sense of manipulation or neglect, which in turn will lead to frustration and boredom.
In the article I singled out a very good game that due to its scale and ambition is not often prone to criticism. There are many of these games — imperfect, yet grand enough to be holy. Since they are holy, every part of them is beyond reproach. It’s the same problem with any medium, but gamers seem to get out less than other connoisseurs and from my experience often have less of a frame of reference.
The trouble with situations like this (that is, the golden calves) is that bad habits, unexamined, become codified. People repeat them by rote because that’s what they know. This poor grounding sets up a basic lack of discipline to design, which leads to further lapses in judgment, which only exacerbates the psychological detachment between the player and the design.
So although those original games may be solid, with just a few problem areas, a failure to illuminate those problems may be irresponsible by virtue of the games’ influence. That, to my mind, is one of the biggest failings of modern game design. If something generally works, the overwhelming tendency that I see (in the press, in the design community, and in the most obsessive audience) is to let the problems slide.
With videogames, blinders are almost a badge of honor. If you can’t overlook a few minor problems then you’re a casual player, which means that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Since videogames tend to be highly technical and specialized, only experts are qualified to comment on them. One of the worst insults for long-time gamers is to call someone a casual gamer, or a non-gamer. It’s like you’re either with them or against them. If you’re against them, then nothing that you say is of value.
The responses that my writing generates, then, tend to fall into two categories. In the first circle we have the game designers, the artists, the creative, and the analytical. In the second we’ve the gamers, the forum trolls, the obsessive, and the consumers. Broadly speaking, category A seems to appreciate my game writing. Category B does not.
The typical category B response contains any of a few common elements. Usually it’s angry, usually dismissive. The reader will focus on a passing error of fact — I counted the wrong number of stages or I didn’t know about a secret code — and ignore the actual argument. The user will complain that I failed to cite any sources, and insist that my arguments mean nothing unless I’m quoting someone else. Most often, the reader misconstrues the article in ways that I can neither predict nor understand. When I explain where they misread the piece, they tell me that I’m wrong and that what they interpreted was what I really meant.
As rude as it may sound, my experience shows that gamers tend to have real problems with reading comprehension.
My typical category A response contains none of these elements. The reader may have missed a shade of meaning, or failed to connect a couple of dots in my argument, but they get the general picture. If I clarify the point, they tend to accept it. They might offer a well-reasoned counter-argument. They express relief that someone has verbalized an issue that has bothered them. They express surprise that this is the first they have heard or thought about the issue, and vow to think about it further. Even if they don’t agree, they are interested in the arguments and they respond with civility.
By its nature, Group A is interested in how and why things work. It always wants to know how things could be better, more elegant, more eloquent — because its members themselves have a need to express themselves clearly. Group B is interested in how things are, and how they have been. The current consensus is the rule, and the only ideas that matter are those that reinforce that rule.
It’s a battle of principles versus facts, subjects versus objects. Both are, in a sense, rules — and rightly so, as videogames are all about rules. Again, though, it’s focus and priority. A principle says, “This is a good thing to be aware of.” A fact says, “This is true.”
Though they lend a practical weight, facts tend to shut down discussion. The only inherent meaning they hold is a record of what has been said before. When the thing that we’re talking about is a medium of communication, the most rational way to address it is in terms of pragmatic idealism: given the tools and limitations at hand, what’s the best way to say what you want to say?
Expressing ideas is difficult enough that outside of a deliberate exercise it would be irrational to close off any useful options or avenues of expression. When talk turns to videogames, however, that is a common response.
I have said before, with no small hyperbole, that the ideal game designer would never have played a game before. You can see why; in place of preconceptions, all they would have is conceptual problems and solutions. Likewise, I think the ideal game should be transparent to someone who has never seen a videogame. From my experience, I think that the people who matter generally agree. The gamers… not so much.
The eternal question is how to achieve this transparency without without sacrificing nuance or complexity. Hit the balance right, and the gamers won’t know the difference — but the new players will think you’re speaking just to them. This is the way that we keep the medium alive.
The best answer that I can give is to keep talking about it. So long as the wrong people keep telling you to shut up, you know you’re on the right track — and if the noise starts to blur the path a little, a little support from the right people can help to make it real again.