The Designer's Notebook: The Tao of Game Design
August 19, 2008 Page 1 of 3
[What's the point of designing games? Veteran educator and designer Ernest Adams examines the concepts of fun, enjoyment, and personal fulfillment to reveal the key, uplifting tenets of game creation.]
The Japanese language uses suffixes to modify the word that precedes them. Two of these suffixes are -do and -jutsu. The -do ending means "the way of..." whatever it is modifying, while the -jutsu ending means "the skills (or methods, or techniques) of..."
Consider the words jujutsu and judo. They refer to two different approaches to a particular martial art, a form of unarmed hand-to-hand combat that concentrates on grappling, pinning, and throwing. Jujutsu is the older and more brutal form, intended for lethal combat. Judo is a sport that derived from jujutsu.
When appended to the name of a martial art such as judo, the -do ending refers to a philosophy behind the art -- a set of values that are intended to guide the combatant in the proper use of the jutsu, or techniques, of battle. The Japanese word do is cognate with the Chinese word tao, which also means "way" or "path", and also connotes a mental or moral discipline rather than a purely practical collection of rules.
It seems to me as if this distinction could apply equally well to game design. Game design has many jutsu, and these are well-known. Challenge, growth, choices, balance, pacing, novelty, surprise, risk/reward, social interaction, storytelling, creative play -- all these are techniques we use for creating entertainment. But what values guide our use of these jutsu? What is the tao of game design?
The first answer that the novice will give, undoubtedly, is "give the player fun." I've already explained why fun is too limited a concept on which to base a medium as powerful as ours, so I won't bother to do so again. Broaden the idea of fun a little and you get enjoyment.
But I find even enjoyment is too restrictive. Broaden it further, and we come to entertainment. For the most part, we want to give the player entertainment -- whether it's pure fun or some more complex kind of experience.
Video game design is not analogous to martial arts, however. In martial arts the goal is always victory, and victory is precisely defined -- the death or submission of the enemy, or his defeat according to a system of rules adjudicated by referees. Different jutsu will lead to victory over different kinds of enemies, but victory is defined the same way no matter who the enemy is.
That's not true for entertainment, because different people like to be entertained in different ways. They enjoy doing different things, they like to face different challenges, and they like to experience different emotions.
The tao of game design cannot be "give the player entertainment," because there are no rules about how to entertain everyone. Let's look at it another way.
Most art forms (painting, dance, music, film, theater, literature and so on) are purely expressive. The artist expresses; the audience observes. The audience may also contemplate, criticize, interpret, applaud, or reject the art, but the one thing they cannot do is change it.
Video games aren't like that. They're interactive. The player and the designer collaborate to create the experience that the player will have. The designer has most of the power, of course: she constructs the world, establishes the actions available to the player, and defines the goals towards which he will strive.
And yet in spite of the designer's pre-eminent role, the game is nothing without the player. A video game that nobody plays is an empty thing, a mere collection of machine code. To be meaningful, the game must be played.
In fact, the game doesn't really exist until it is played. By convention we refer to the software as "the game," but in truth, the software is not the game. The game is the act of playing. It comes into existence when the player starts up the software and crosses into the magic circle.
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