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Making game design accessible and engaging for all creatives

Written by: Jamin Warren



Time to read 4 min

For the last 30 years, game designer and NYU professor Eric Zimmerman has been attempting to deconstruct the language of play. To many, making games can seem like an impenetrable black box. But Zimmerman argues that we need the right building blocks to start the process of games. And once we do, any creative field will benefit from adding game-making practice to their overall design and creative process.

In advance of his workshop, Game Design for People Who Hate Games, we talk to Eric about how to decode what we play, why he wrote a book, and why medical interface designers won’t be improving any time soon.

Jamin: Eric, can you tell me how you got into game design? 

Eric: I studied art, so I studied painting as an undergraduate and have an MFA in art and technology.

First, I had a whole childhood of playing and making games. So, you know, we wouldn’t just play with Legos but invent elaborate, complicated games, developing board games or physical game variations for Kick the Can or Ghosts in the Graveyard.

As an art student, I was casting about for a cultural medium to work that wasn’t reshuffling the cards of a deck that were dealt to me by history, to use a game metaphor for art. There’s something about video games because that was when 3D games first came out, like Virtua Fighter (1993) in the arcade, and the first kind of glimmerings of 3D was Myst (1993).

One thing that surprised me when I entered the game world from the art world is that, you know, artists have all of these theoretical debates. All these stylistic, political, and cultural movements happened in the past and are happening now. You align yourself with them, talk about your work, and defend and describe it relative to these theoretical movements.

So, it’s not like video games were new, but there wasn’t a critical discourse for the makers. That led to teaching and thinking about game design as a discipline. If I approached game design the way I did as an art student when it came to painting or art making, what would it be like?

We need some vocabulary. We need some ways of thinking about and talking about games.

Jamin: For someone unfamiliar, walk me through those three giant pillars of making games: rules in play, systems, and interaction design.

Eric: I want to think about them as culture and be an anthropologist to be critical of them. I got part of this hardcore, modernist, and formalist training in painting. We were talking about art as lines, colors, and composition. Well, what’s the equivalent in games? It’s about systems and rules and interaction.

What makes a game experience meaningful? How are games put together? Games are beneficial for people who are not in games. There are many reasons that, for me, games are super helpful as a playground for training design thinking and creating human experiences.

Suppose you are designing an interface for a medical database where you have to access information and get a medical record. In that case, someone will use that interface, even if it’s badly designed and awkward. Ultimately, that person has to get to the medical database. So there, even if the interface is poorly designed. With a game traditionally, especially a commercial game, we’re there for the pleasure of the interaction.

The interaction is not a means to an end. It’s an end in and of itself. If I’m not having fun playing this game—interacting with it, pushing and pulling at the levers of cause and effect, and seeing how a game reacts—If that’s not fun, I will move on and play another game.

While games, when successful, seem easy, light, and fun, they are hard to make. If you are not providing that satisfying, meaningful experience every moment, there’s no reason why anyone would keep playing. You know, they could be playing thousands and millions of other games.

Games often feel about empowering people and being able to do anything, be anyone, and have superpowers. But from a game designer’s point of view, more often, we’re putting restrictions and limitations on behavior. We’re constraining behavior through rules and shaping interaction to make things meaningful.

For example, if you want players to be creative, give them a blank piece of paper and say, “Hey, you know how to tell a joke or improvise. Do it.” Now that’s going to fall flat. What you need to do is give them a very narrow bandwidth.

Jamin: What about playtesting, like prototyping and iteration? Games seem uniquely positioned to help people think differently.

Eric: Every form of creative and cultural expression has some rehearsal.

If you’re a writer, you do an outline, then a draft, and then you’re editing, correct? Games are the only place to practice this [behavior]. What’s interesting about games is that because every game is a dynamic system, it’s a set of moving parts. You have to spend time with it. How do I use this thing?

Games force you to let go of your preconceptions and embrace radical uncertainty about what will happen.

How do I make it better? And so what’s exciting and fun, but also challenging about games, is you have people in a social experience interacting with each other. It’s very unpredictable. Games force you to let go of your preconceptions and embrace radical uncertainty about what will happen during a playtest. Embrace what’s working and what’s not working.

On the one hand, there are these kinds of rules and systems and interactions. These concepts help refine our understanding of interactive, participatory, and complex systems. And then, on the other hand, there’s a process whereby we can practice that design process in a kind of miniature way by making games and modifying games.

One of the reasons I wrote The Rules We Break book is that I realized that I’ve been teaching game design for about 30 years. I realized it’s a very specialized knowledge, and only a few people have been doing that for so long. And I have so many approaches, tips, tricks, exercises, and weird games to play, lead a discussion, and structure a process. And I just wanted to share it.