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GCG Feature: ‘Playing to Learn’

You can play video games for enjoyment, or you can play them to become a better game designer. The difference is how you play, says James Portnow author of a new feature article on Gam
You can play video games for enjoyment, or you can play them to become a better game designer, says James Portnow, who explains the difference in a new feature article on To learn about games by playing them, the user has to pay attention to the game differently, and even play at a different pace. Using examples such as Final Fantasy X, the Silent Hill series, and BioShock, Portnow dissect a few aspects of well known games, calling attention to the things a designer should watch, as in this excerpt: “As you go about playing to learn, it’s important to remember that a game is not just the sum of its parts. A game is more like a living organism with all its systems interacting, working together, and affecting each other. It’s impossible to look at any mechanic in isolation. Go back to the beginning. What happens when you turn the console on? When you first boot up the disc? Is there an intro movie after the company logos? Is there a start screen? Is there a gameplay demo? How the game begins sets the tone for the user’s experience. Plus, as a game designer, even something as simple as the start menu is a tool you have in your bag, and it’s a lazy designer who doesn’t use all her tools. Start screen and options. Look at the start menus for different types of games. How are they laid out? What are the different choices? How are they presented? Are they themed or “gamey?” If there’s an option’s menu, one of the first things you should do as a designer is go to it and check out what the developers let the user set. Take note of what’s set as the defaults. The defaults tell you a lot about how the designers view their game and whom they think their target audience is. Some start menus I think are interesting are: • BioShock (the sound it makes when you move between options) • Indigo Prophecy (completely themed) • Call of Duty 4 (shows players how much they have yet to unlock).” You can now read the full article on and take a designer’s quiz at the end.

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