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Responsibility in Game Design

Nov 17, 2011   //   by Josh   //   Games, Uncategorized  //  1 Comment

At the moment, one of the biggest struggles I am having as a game designer is giving players objectives.  I have the power to give people an objective to achieve, so what do I want people to do?  When I ask myself that, I realize that I am potentially putting a lot of power into my own hands (along with a tremendous amount of responsibility!)   Think about some of these questions: “What do I want people to do?”, “How do I want people to behave?”, “What do I want people to take away from this experience?” This makes me think about other games that I’ve played [and enjoyed] and the thoughts or answers to those questions that game designers must have made while designing some games.


For a game like Grand Theft Auto, someone sat in a room and answered some of those questions: “I want players to [virtually] kill other virtual characters with weapons.” or “I want players to steal cars [because you're not allowed to in real life!]” or “I want players to steal money to buy drugs.”  Maybe they didn’t say it out loud and they probably didn’t say it in those exact phrases, but someone had to think of the concept, convey it to a team, and test it out to see how fun it was.  And it must have been fun and people must have liked it because it sold like crazy!

I struggle internally with the idea of pushing content that is “unethical”.  If I make a game with violence in it, am I condoning that action?  If I put my brand logo on food that is bad for people’s health does that mean I want people to die?  Do I really want me kids and people playing my game to learn about violence or stealing or death like this?


I recently discovered an indie game called Catapult For Hire by Tyrone Henrie.  There was an interview conducted by Indie Games Channel where they ask him about his motivations and I really think I can relate to this guy [aside from the fact that I don't have the guts to quit my day job to program games full time since I'm supporting a family of 5]. In that article, he tells why he started developing Catapult for Hire:

Originally, I wanted to enter a game into a competition and so I decided to do something involving catapults. [...]  I didn’t want to do just another game where you throw stuff and hit stuff.

So from that, we can imply that his primary objective was to “do something different”.  Reading on a little bit, I found a more concrete example of his game design goal:

From a gameplay standpoint, my goal is to create a sense of childlike wonder where the world is your little plaything.

So there is a very abstract goal for his desire to make a video game, in which many game developers (including myself) share.  I do enjoy exploration and fulfilling curiosity, giving people an avenue to “play” things they cannot in real life.

Build A Better Mousetrap

In a recent interview with Raph Koster, he talks about developers being inspired by those that came before them.  The developers of EQ wanted to build something better than MUDs, the developers of WoW wanted to build something better than EQ, etc… etc…  So, I guess that could be viewed as an inspiration.  When we see something and experience something, I think it’s natural that we want to point out the flaws and try to fix them and make it better.

So should I just try to build something better?  Take the latest trend, fix a few things and tweak it?  Or is that shallow?  Personally I can’t see myself just creating another game like game X.  I feel like I need to make a difference and do something unique.

The Gamification Reality

Raph Koster also talks about the gamification of things in the real world and how the lines between gaming and reality are becoming blurred, in a totally whimsical but seriously awesome presentation at GDC Online this year.  Game design is no longer focused on your basement dweller, soda drinking, couch potato persona, it’s getting “serious” and “popular” and “social”, GASP!

Will Wright takes it 1 step further with a new start-up company called Hivemind, who will be developing games of the genre “personal gaming”.  In this article, Will Wright explains his concept of “personal gaming”:

The idea is that the game will be designed to provide a personal experience to each individual player by taking into account aspects from the player’s real life….If we can learn enough about the player, we can create games about their real life. How do we get you more engaged in reality rather than distract you from it?”

So, Will Wright is suggesting here that the objectives of these “personal gaming” game designs are to engage you more in reality rather than create a distraction.  I mean, right there he flat out calls games a “distraction”… which really makes a lot of sense.  So as a game designer am I really just building a “distraction”, something pointless to pass the time?  In some ways, I can’t help but feel that yeah, that’s what every game I’ve ever played is doing.

Virtual “Reality”

However, I am also reminded of Mojang and Minecraft and how they are inspiring communities to design their neighborhood.  Through this sandbox “game”, people are going to share their ideas about the community and construction companies are going to use these “virtual blueprints” to help design real.  life.  places! How cool!  The game becomes a tool!

Speaking of tools, our bodies are wonderful tools too.  Bret Victor of WorryDream.com, wrote an article that discusses the Future of Interaction Design.  What do I take from this?  Well, I think that consoles like the Wii [and Kinect] are already showing us the potential that our bodies have in the gaming world.  The idea and effort that went into designing this system was not merely an extrapolation of existing designs (add 1 more button, use 1 less finger), where we continue to use a controller.  Instead, they utilized the human potential to interact with the game worlds and created something that changed the world of gaming!  So, some game designer was inspired to give more meaning and value to gaming by creating this, which I think is great.

Then there is Foldit.  The concept is that by playing a protein folding “game”, you are helping contribute to important medical research, which can help real people!

Education Games

My children play lots of education based games right now that teach them numbers, counting, shapes, letters, logic, colors, and many other fundamental life skills that we also teach them by way of reading, talking, drawing, discussion, tangible toys, playing games, etc…  But I guess the point here is that some game designs are built with the intention to teach somebody something of value.  Knowing that golems are weak against fire and the only way to kill a 1 eyed tree frog with blue skin is to fire a poison dart into belly doesn’t really provide a whole lot of tangible takeaways.  That’s rather useless information really, but it’s fun!  Education game design takes the idea that we can convey important facts to people through fun activities.  Personally, I was always more motivated by labs than reading from a book in Science class.  I thought it was great to see stuff in action and learn that way.

As a game designer, our fundamental goal is to give our players something to do

So now that I wrote this blog post, I guess I am still asking myself:  What do I want people to do?

1 Comment

  • I much prefer inmftoarive articles like this to that high brow literature.

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