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Game Design

Entry updated 31 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.

While the practice of game design has no direct relationship to sf, a brief section on the subject has been included here to define and clarify concepts used elsewhere.

Although new Games have been created throughout recorded history, the first attempts at a theory of game design do not seem to have emerged until the early 1970s, among board and counter Wargame developers. The term "game designer" itself, referring to the profession of making games, was coined at this time (see Redmond Simonsen). Analyses of existing forms appeared considerably earlier, as in Harold Murray's A History of Board Games Other Than Chess (1952), but these were not intended as guidelines for the creation of original works. Most early Wargames, Role Playing Games and Videogames were designed primarily by intuition and rule of thumb rather than on the basis of any kind of theory, by individuals who typically also implemented their games (by programming computers or writing rules) and created any associated fiction. In the modern Videogame industry, however, game designers are usually specialized professionals who operate separately to implementers and scriptwriters, and share a certain amount of terminology and core assumptions about the nature of their work. It is worth noting, however, that a tradition of group planning persists in many Videogame development companies, where games are designed more by consensus than by any one individual or by a team of specialists.

A good overview of current approaches to game design, from a somewhat academic perspective, can be found in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003), by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. Works which are specific to a particular form include the Wargames Handbook, Third Edition (2000) by James Dunnigan (for Wargames), the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design (anth 2012) edited by Janna Silverstein (for RPGs) and Fundamentals of Game Design (2006) by Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings (perhaps the best of the many books focusing on current practices in the Videogame industry). One of the key concepts employed in such works is the "magic circle", a term borrowed by Salen and Zimmerman from Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (1938 trans 1949) which describes a special physical or conceptual space, within which normal codes of behaviour are suspended and replaced by the rules of the game. Perhaps the single most commonly made point is that games should be "easy to learn but hard to master", meaning that understanding the basics of how to play should be simple but grasping all the ramifications of the rules and becoming truly proficient in the game should be difficult. This maxim clearly applies to such classic Board Games as Chess and Go, for example.

Arguably, all games are essentially types of interactive media, in the sense that film and television are both types of visual media. On this basis, Janet Murray suggests in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1997) that all forms of Interactive Narrative (or "cyberdrama", in her terms) are characterized by "immersion, agency, and transformation". Here immersion is the ability of the simulated world to seem real and compelling, and agency the player's power to affect that world. Transformation, meanwhile, refers to the way in which involvement in the game can cause participants to adopt a new identity, analogous to the sense of vicarious presence experienced by many novel readers and film viewers. Clearly other media can also be immersive or transformative in this sense, and games in which the player takes the part of a director of the action rather than an actor within it may not offer the possibility of transformation (see Interactive Narrative). Nevertheless, the concepts of immersion and agency appear to speak to the nature of interactive media in general, and Murray's original triad seems relevant to all games in which the player participates in shaping a story.

Transformation, in Murray's sense, can be experienced in more than one way. The typical relationships of players to the characters who they become within a game could perhaps be categorized as those of the teleoperator, the role player, and the identifier. Here the teleoperator controls their character as if it were an extension of their own body within the simulated environment, an approach seen in many players of First Person Shooters and other action-based Videogames. The role player, on the other hand, relates to the character as a friend, a separate personality which the player guides or controls through the game. This perspective is most common in games with strong stories, including most RPGs, Adventures and Computer Role Playing Games, as well as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, which are typically not based on predesigned narratives. Finally, the identifier immerses themselves fully in the alternative personality of the character. Most players do not experience this; those who do are generally participating in RPGs, Multi User Dungeons or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games for which they have created an alternate persona which they use to interact with other players.

One final point applies to the essential nature of game design. The practice of design is greatly affected by the available technology, which determines what types of games can be created. To name only one example, Massively Multiplayer Online Games were not practical until the internet was opened to commercial use, but appeared very shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the evolution of games has not been solely determined by technological factors. There is, for example, no technical reason why Gamebooks and RPGs could not have been invented much earlier than they were. This indicates that while technology dictates what forms can be devised, the actual types of game which emerge are a matter of personal creativity and cultural influence. [NT]

see also: Worlds in Balance.

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