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The Designer's Notebook: What's On The Designer's Bookshelf?

February 23, 2005
 

I'm unbelievably busy at the moment - catching a few days at home between a teaching trip to Sweden and a teaching trip to Germany, and the Game Developers' Conference looming just around the corner. This is to say nothing of juggling various consulting clients. So I thought this time I'd have a trawl through my bookshelves and talk a bit about what I've found useful.

At the top of my list is the excellent Gender-Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market (Charles River Media, 2004) by Sheri Graner-Ray. This book is thorough, well-researched, and very readable. It's not a theoretical, academic tome, but aimed directly at the designer and producer of consumer videogames. Graner-Ray has a long history of making games for both sexes and she knows what she's talking about. Wisely, she avoided writing about "how to make games for girls," opting for inclusiveness rather than gender specificity. The late-'90s games-for-girls movement was mostly a flop (see my earlier column, "Games for Girls? Eeeeewwww!"), as publishers jumped on the bandwagon and turned out a bunch of low-tech games in pink boxes. They were poor value for the money and didn't sell well. Graner-Ray has realized that the key to success is making games that appeal to women without necessarily being women-themed.

My only complaint about Gender-Inclusive Game Design is that it could be a bit longer, and spend more time presenting positive examples from existing titles. But that's a very minor quibble. For anyone who calls him- or herself a professional game designer, this book is more than a must-read, it's a must-own.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said the philosopher George Santayana, and nowhere is this more true than in game design. We have been developing computer games for more than 30 years now, and during that time we have built a sizable body of work and created a number of conventions, some useful and some pretty stupid ("blow up everything that can blow up") but hanging on for historical reasons. Most histories of videogames have been histories of the business, concentrating on the personalities and financial side rather than the games themselves; Rusel de Maria and Johnny Wilson's High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games (McGraw-Hill Osborne, 2003) is a good example. J.C. Herz' Joystick Nation (Little, Brown, & Co., 1997) is also good, but it's more of a sociological commentary on the effect of games on their players and the community at large. I'm not particularly interested in the sociology of players; that way leads to Marketing. I'm more interested in the potential of the medium, an avenue of thought that leads to Art.

From the design standpoint, I haven't seen any better history of the game industry, and more importantly what that history means, than Steven Poole's Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames (Fourth Estate, 2000). Poole looks inwards, not outwards, not so much at what games do but at what they're about. The book is witty, well-written, and thoroughly-researched (it was the first to teach me that the first videogame was not Pong, nor yet Spacewar, but William Higginbotham's Tennis for Two, played on an analog computer with an oscilloscope). A good example of his thoughtfulness, and one that I intend to borrow for my own lecture on architecture and videogames, comes from the final chapter. He's talking about the emotion of wonder:

…Videogames at their best build awe-inspiring spaces from immaterial light. They are cathedrals of fire. Now, it is true that the great cathedrals of Europe, at Rome, Chartres, or Köln, purposively evoke wonder not as a purely aesthetic end in itself, but as a means to lead the spectator to humble contemplation of his or her impotence in the face of the grandeur of God. Videogames, on the other hand, represent the latest stage in the secularization of wonder that has been abroad since the fine arts were divorced from religion and aesthetics was invented. Some people deplore this development; others argue intriguingly that that wonder has always been equally a secular instinct, providing the motivation for empirical scientific investigation.

I don't agree with all of Poole's conclusions, but that's all right: I admire the breadth of his vision and his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve.

I quit being a programmer a long time ago, and that's a one-way door: the amount I would have to learn to go back to it is prohibitive. However, I do keep one book around for reference when I want to research something about finite state machines or scripting. That's Core Techniques and Algorithms in Game Programming (New Riders Games, 2003) by the irrepressible Daniel Sanchez-Crespo Dalmau. It's fat, it's heavy, and it covers some of everything. Definitely useful if you want a solid grounding in the techniques of modern game programming. Loads of code samples and quotations from Picasso too.

For pure theory, I look no farther than Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (MIT Press, 2004). This massive, comprehensive book dissects games, play, and gameplay down to their atomic components and discusses them in detail. It tends to consider non-digital and digital games interchangeably, since rules are rules wherever you are. If you want to know about the effects of positive and negative feedback, or the difference between a cheater and a spoil-sport, this is the place to come. It also includes numerous references to the great theoretical works of Huizinga, Callois, and Sutton-Smith, among others, so it's an excellent starting point for deeper reading.

Rules of Play is not a primary source for those who want to learn how to design commercial videogames, because the book doesn't give any how-to advice about writing design documents or working with a development team. But it's invaluable for understanding the possible consequences of your design decisions.

In videogames players often have to make life-or-death choices in a split second, often based on numeric quantities like health or mana points. A good game makes this information clearly available; a bad one hides it amid a lot of other data that the player needs less frequently. To create a good visual design, read three books by Edward Tufte, a professor of both political science and statistics at Yale University. I've mentioned them in an earlier column ("Cartographic Cartwheels") but I think they're worth bringing up again. They're about displaying information efficiently and unambiguously. Although really intended for graphic designers and print media, user interface designers can learn a lot from them too. The books are called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. They're large-format hardbacks, beautifully produced and printed in color. They're full of examples both good and bad -- the unreadable manual of emergency procedures for an aircraft would be hilarious if it weren't so scary. All are published by Tufte's own company, Graphics Press. One warning, though: he's not too fond of computers - says the screens are far too low-resolution compared with high quality printing. Well, he's got a point.

I do, obviously, own a copy of my book, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design (New Riders Games, 2003), which I actually use for reference from time to time and I think is still the best general-purpose book on videogame design on the market (if we didn't, we wouldn't have written it). However this isn't meant to be an advertisement so that's all I'll say.

I own other books that are directly on point with respect to game design, but to be honest, I don't use them very much - I bought them mostly to research the competition while Andrew and I were working on ours. My next batch of books is rather eclectic and reflects my own design interests more than anything else.

I borrowed a tattered paperback copy of The Prince, by Niccoló Machiavelli, from my grandmother when I was 18, and only replaced it when it fell apart twenty years later. It's short, incisive, and devastating: the classic analysis of statesmanship and power, particularly the power of despots and dictators. Anybody who wants to make a game about how human beings behave in such circumstances should read it, even if they're only making up the backstory.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, is an insightful and acidly witty look at the lunatic behavior of people in groups. The author examines both the tulip mania of 1624 and the South Sea Bubble, both crazes that made the dot-com boom and bust look like kid stuff. His most interesting study, however, is about the Crusades - especially the First Crusade, in which a huge percentage of the population of Europe simply downed tools and started walking towards Jerusalem, led by charismatic religious maniacs. Neither the armed might of the nobility nor the warnings of the supposedly all-powerful Church were able to dissuade them, and most of them died of starvation on the way. A good example of how nice neat simulations of human behavior can't tell the whole story, because when people get in big enough crowds, they completely lose their reason. There's also a useful history of alchemy for the medieval RPG types.

The fact that I include a history of the Crusades should tell you that I'm a fan of medieval history, so Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books, 1987) is another valued work. Tuchman argues that the 14th century was a distant mirror of the 20th, with its splendor, pageantry and wealth and its poverty, wars, and plagues all mixed in together. A multi-faceted world, and one that's not easy to pin down in convenient stereotypes, whether positive or negative. It serves as a good reminder that a human universe is a living thing, always far more complex than we realize. Someday we'll build fantasy universes as rich as the real one - if we make the effort to try.

As far as fiction is concerned, there's too much to mention it all so I'll confine myself to a few major series. First, everything Tolkien wrote. Even if you don't like Tolkien, his work is so utterly seminal to modern fantasy, including computer games, that a person without some knowledge of it is handicapped. The early works of William Gibson, if you want to know where the best grim, gritty science fiction first came from. Gibson should have been a film director: he's got an amazing visual imagination and the ability to convey his vision in fresh, exciting language.

However, I've pretty much been through my cyberpunk phase and am now looking for deeper and more life-affirming messages, which can often be found in the works of Ursula K. LeGuin, particularly her stunning Earthsea Trilogy. (I regard the "fourth" novel in the series, Tehanu, as an interloper and failed experiment.) Finally, the Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels about a sea captain and a ship's surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars are my current favorites. The author is Patrick O'Brian, a man who seemed to have stepped out of the early 19th century and is able to bring it to vivid, elegant, warm, profane, and often very funny life on the page. Being fed up with childhood propaganda about the American Revolution, I never gave a damn for the Georgian or Regency period; O'Brian changed my mind and made me a fascinated student of the era.

As for reference works, a quick list should suffice. Forget Webster, The Chambers Dictionary is far superior, both in comprehensiveness and in the quality of the etymologies. My wife also owns the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM for the ultimate in etymological thoroughness, but it's expensive as all get-out and doesn't give pronunciations. The Encyclopedia Britannica on CD (the print edition is temporarily in storage) is a vital tool. Bulfinch's Mythology and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable are also both standbys, although Bulfinch is bowdlerized to suit Victorian sensibilities. Plus I've got many of the world's sacred texts, including the Bible, the Koran, the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching and the Book of Mormon. I'd like to add some Indian mythology too, filled as it is with wondrous stories and characters.

All in all, an odd but useful batch of stuff - obviously there's a lot more that I didn't have room to mention. There are also some major gaps - I really need a good book on AI that manages to walk the line between rah-rah enthusiasm and technical impenetrability (the first meeting of my class in LISP was also my last). And I need lots more works on psychology, anthropology, architecture, art, and political science.

Online, Project Gutenberg and Bartleby.com are the places I resort to most when looking for books. But there's still nothing quite like taking a fat tome down from the shelf and flipping through the pages to find something you need. Online works may be fast and efficient to access, but they don't offer the warming intellectual pleasure of knowing: I own a good book.

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