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Why We Design Games

A rudimentary and low level look at why we design games and touching on the idea of what went wrong when a game panned as not fun.

Thomas Church, Blogger

November 19, 2012

5 Min Read

What is Game Design? Game Design, at its simplest, is the design of games, both digital and physical. We create a set of rules & boundaries, token objects to be interacted with, and avatars or other methods for which players can interact with these objects. Then occasionally on top of that, we wrap everything up in a visual or idealistic theme. But to what ends do we do this? What purpose do we design games for? The answer is we design games to transfer or make obvious certain knowledge, and in doing so, elicit an emotional response from our player and other potential viewers.

This answer is most obvious when looking at the reason most young designers put forth on why they want to become designers: to create fun and kickass games. I myself entered the video game industry under the hopeful dreams of spreading to others what joy video games have given me throughout my life. However, as most designers begin to actually design games and have their designs peer reviewed and examined by the general public, they will invariably encounter plenty of complaints that their game is simply not fun.

This isn’t to say that their game isn’t actually fun per say, but instead the idea of “fun” to many people means many different things. What has occurred is that the designer’s vision of fun contrasts with what potential members of their audience view as fun. For example, a designer implemented a harsher than normal failure penalty to promote player investment in the system and potentially increase the pride and adrenaline rush a player would experience when overcoming adversity.  However, the players of the game may have simply been seeking an easily controllable experience to exert power over due to stress or the feeling of lack of control in their personal life. We begin here to compare and contrasts these many versions of “fun” to each other and find that the emotional response the designer elicited in their audience did not meet the expected or desired results the audience was hoping to satisfy.

It is from this difference regarding the idea of fun that we begin to see the emergence of genre labels to advertise what emotions you are most likely to get from a game and to address this problem of mismatched designer/audience expectations. Someone wanting to play a horror game is looking for the feeling of fear, dread, and a diminished level of power and/or control. This would call for the designer to create a rule set that uses the idea of constant perceived threats and strictly limiting (if allowing at all) methods in which the players can overcome these threats. In contrast, someone playing a God Simulation game wants a feeling of elevated control and a multitude of ways in which to interact and observe the system with. This calls for the designer to create a system that has less emphasis on the player as an individual avatar in the game and stronger focus on the amount of token objects the player can both interact with and elicit responses from. Both of these designs elicit very different emotional responses from the player, yet are potentially still perceived as fun to the same user.

As designers, it is important for us keep our targeted audience in mind and deliver as best we can a system that elicits the emotional response desired or needed. Games are an on-demand service where our customers and audience willingly come to them to seek to satisfy a need. While traditionally this need has been as seen as, “having fun”, it is more often than not that simply satisfying their unique need at the time is what is labeled as “fun” regardless of what the actual need was.

With this firmly in mind, we come full circle and must ask ourselves on a personal level: why do we design games? Why do we use our knowledge, intelligence, and skill in crafting a product that is constantly at odds with the general public regarding its general role in life? Why do so many people in the industry feel so passionately about the craft of creating games? It is because just as we elicit emotional responses from others with our games, so too have games long incited strong emotions from us; often emotions we felt lacking or strongly needed in our life.

We’ve felt the pride of testing our skills against AI and human opponents and showing to friends, family, and ourselves that we did so. We’ve cast our lot with fictional characters that we grew to know and cared for actively, coping with the frustration of their loss when we were powerless to save them or even when it was simply time to say goodbye. We’ve crafted entire worlds as digital gods and learned to love, and at times hate, those that we attempted to craft in our image, watching to see if they live up to our expectations. These experiences granted and the emotions successfully brought about in us are treasured memories. Events that we want to pass down and share with others in our own way. We all know we are better off for those memories and that regardless of what emotion they brought about in us, that it was fun getting to see that side of us. That is why we design games: to make known and elicit those emotional responses from our audience that we can only hope will be just the thing they need.

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