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This chapter is from the book

A Voice Needs Words

When I was little, game development was mystifying to me. I couldn’t imagine how any human being could create a game and had no idea where one would even start. By creating a real discourse on game design, we’re not only helping existing game creators become sharper, but empowering new game makers with a vocabulary with which to start thinking about and planning design. We’re actually giving established creators a means of communicating ideas about design to a newer generation. We’re enabling all creators to communicate with and improve each other.

And though people who create games naturally have the most to gain from a real conversation about design, they’re not the only ones who would benefit. I’m thinking of critics of games, but not just journalists. We would all become better critics of games—better able to understand them, to analyze them, to communicate about them—if we could cultivate an environment where real talk about games and what they’re doing and why was commonplace.

We could have a culture that better appreciates and values games. It may seem ridiculous to suggest that games are undervalued in a culture where tens of thousands of fans flock to conventions like the Penny Arcade Expo to reinforce the great myth that developers and publishers are greater than human. But this isn’t appreciation; it’s fetishization. Because the myth that game developers are something other than human is just that: a falsehood. But it was this falsehood that kept me, as a child, from realizing that game design was something that I could do and even earn a living doing.

Imagine an audience of players equipped with the understanding to follow and appreciate what game developers are doing rather than merely idolizing them. Certainly there’s a “magician’s bag of secret tricks” brand of appeal to designing games. After all, we’re designing experiences that manipulate players’ mental and emotional states (consensually and nondestructively, I would hope). There might be a fear that once players can see the smoke and mirrors, they’ll lose a sense of wonder at the trick.

Discussing pacing and expository and characterization techniques in writing has not diminished my appreciation for the written word and admiration for those who can use it well. In contrast, my respect for writing has only deepened with my understanding of technique. I think the average reader is more literate than the average player—not “literate” in the dumb, obvious sense of having read more books, but in the sense of having a wider understanding of the craft that goes into the form they enjoy. It’s not surprising that readers might have a better understanding of what they’re reading than players have of what they’re playing. Not only have the novel and short story been around longer, but writers, being writers, are much better equipped to write about the craft of writing and have done so at length.

A “literate” player wouldn’t necessarily be a more jaded and dismissive one (we have plenty of those already) but could be a more attentive one, one who was more receptive to weirder ideas. In my experience as a designer and creator of games, I’ve had only a precious few experiences where a critic really impressed me with her insight into and attention to one of my creations. Those experiences remind me why I create—to have someone connect with and understand the thing I have designed.

They were also experiences that gave me a better understanding of my own work. What a critic does is articulate an idea that’s at work in a game, puts it in a context with other games, with other schools. They help explain the work to others; they start a discussion.

That’s what we do when we talk about design and our design decisions: we start a discussion. And we allow others to join in that discussion, to participate in the dialogue, to contribute. Why is this subject important enough to warrant a book? It’s not just so that a handful of industry developers can consider themselves a little more savvy. It’s because shattering the silence around game design creates a conversation that everyone can learn from, whether they want to become game creators, whether they didn’t realize they wanted to make games until they learned that developers are just as human as they are, whether they want to be informed critics, or whether they’re content just to be better-educated players. An open conversation about game design demystifies this form that we care about and empowers us with the means to better understand, think about, and, if we wish, to make digital games.

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