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Game Design Logophilia

A column about the desire (and opposition) for game designers to focus on establishing a proper vocabulary for game design.

Trent Polack, Blogger

September 10, 2009

6 Min Read

A couple of months ago, the IGDA Game Design SIG Mailing List had a mini-debate where someone off-handedly proposed the formation of a committee to focus on the establishment of a vocabulary for words key to the practice and discussion of game design. This is a topic that has been approached a few times before and it often seems that those for it are outnumbered by people who have an irrational hatred of the concept of a group of professionals defining terms that describe the field they work in.

Instead, designers continue to latch on to terms from other professions to describe the work that we do every day. When we look at a gameplay space, we talk about architectural concepts of space and flow. We do this because our games are constantly incorporating knowledge learned from the field of architecture in order to create a player-relatable space to play our game in.

When we think about how our games make us and others feel through terms taken from literary and film criticism to talk to each other about the effectiveness of the experiences we create or wish to convey. Even within a given game development team there are groups that throw terms unique to game development around. Engineers throw around technical lingo to each other regarding the capabilities of processors, graphics cards, and algorithms. Artists combine technical jargon with traditional concepts of art history and criticism.

One of my favorite works in the field of game design is Doug Church's Formal Abstract Design Tools. The fundamental goal of the piece is an attempt to add structure to the discourse of game design by answering one fundamental question: how do we talk about games? Church goes on to pose the importance of a design vocabulary along with examples about how establishing some fundamental terms for how we talk about games can enrich the way we work, think, and talk about gameplay.

Church takes the example of Mario 64's gameplay as the basis for the creation of two terms which help to define discourse surrounding Mario 64: intention and perceivable consequence. Church describes intention as: "Making an implementable plan of one's own creation in response to the current situation in the game world and one's understanding of the game play options." He defines perceivable consequence as: "A clear reaction from the game world to the action of the player."

Why do designers feel some strange avoidance for terms that are unique to game design? As someone whose college education revolved around English, creative writing, and teaching, the usefulness of a vocabulary for game design is a topic which is, admittedly, close to my heart. Working in and talking about video games every day makes some of us immune to the true complexity that our discussions on gameplay can reach. Despite all of that, a number of our discussions about gameplay get back to one painfully nebulous, subjective word that all of use more often than we ever really should: "fun."

Both of Church's definitions possess an undeniable utilitarian quality and, as such, its difficult to deny the applicability of both terms to our every day work as designers. We don't come up with and agree on terms for our work because we want to exclude others or complicate our discussions, we coin terms for the ease of which we can introduce others to our discussions and so that we can all share common definitions for recurring concepts.

If I were to mention ludonarrative dissonance in a conversation with another designer -- one who made somewhat of an effort to actually read the works of our industry's prominent designers -- he would know what I am referring to. But the term ludonarrative dissonance is one of the handful of terms (if that) which have caught on in the industry and, as such, it's difficult to not sound pretentious or heavy-handed whenever applying the term to an actual discussion.

How and why did ludonarrative dissonance ever actually catch on within the field of game design and game criticism? The term originated in an entry by Ubisoft Montreal Creative Director Clint Hocking when he applied to the term to his discussion of Bioshock. The success of this definition isn't simply that Hocking is a remarkably talented and immensely respected design in the game industry, but that his approach to the definitiong and application of the term to his own piece was handled in a very instructive manner.

One of the reasons that Clint Hocking is so well-respected (even outside of the scope of his immensely impressive body of work) is that he works hard and successfully to define the boundaries of his own discourse. He explains a term critical to his discussion to his audience and immediately employs that term in a practical, useful way. Regarding the Bioshock criticism, Hocking discusses at length the fundamental basis of the game and how it forms its ludic contract with a player through the gameplay acts that a player partakes in.

All the while, Bioshock is simultaneously establishing its narrative contract. And at a key point in the game the two contracts that the game has established with the player collide in a moment of ludonarrative dissonance. It's Hocking's expert establishment of the boundaries of his own discourse alongside the core of his argument which work so well to establish a cohesive work that conveys a fundamental point and yields a relevant, useful term.

The uncharacteristic popularity of a term like ludonarrative dissonance is an outlier in the game industry. Its use in a number of design texts and discussions seems to indicate a design-focused audience willing to embrace the establishment of a shared vocabulary, but the adoption rate of any well-defined terms is minimal at best.

Maybe a committee of game designers is not the ideal situation for kick-starting a common design vocabulary, but if not a group of willing professionals, then who? Are we forced to rely on the hit-and-miss adoption rate of very well-defined terms by individual designers writing on their personal sites? As brilliant as some of our industry's luminaries are, the adoption of terms shouldn't solely fall from a single person's well-written texts to a network of that designer's body of readers.

At some point, we have to get proactive about the creation and propagation of terms that a group of designers feel represent concepts critical to the practice of our work and the teaching of our work to others. Why not now?

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