Game design as a scholarly activity has been continually undermined by forces both within and without of the games industry. This was the controversial message from academic David Surman, speaking at the alternative British video game conference, Nottingham GameCity, earlier today.
Surman, a senior lecturer in game design at Newport Art School and one of the event’s organizers was quick to point out that designers are some of the most poorly paid people in the games industry.
“Because we don’t value the game designer’s role, their vision is often subsumed within the views of the higher-ups, when really their contributions should be the most highly-prized in the development process,” he argued.
Surman claimed that our failure to imbue game design with identity, cultural relevance and to settle upon a language that goes beyond the utilitarian components of the process has ensured that there is still a stigma attached to the discipline for students studying game design.
“We need to open up the language and stop talking in purely mechanical terms,” he said. “At the moment we seem restricted to talking about design in mere manufacturing terms.”
The academic admitted that part of game design undoubtedly concerns these systematic factors, for example, deciding that Mario will jump for 0.7 seconds and that each level should last for 90 seconds.
“But we need to talk in terms that oscillate between code, design, opinion, bringing together the fractured, disparate roles of game creation to reach a language and conversation that goes beyond technical frigidity”.
In the past two years Surman revealed that he has seen game designers advertised as: ‘gameplay engineers’, ‘gameplay editors’, ‘user experience coordinators’ and ‘play technicians’, terminology, he argued, that demonstrates how out valuing of game design is limited to the mechanical and technical.
Surman conceded that it makes short-term sense for developers to orientate design towards manufacturing. “However, in the long term,” he said, “increased technical responsibility covers up a deficit in the creative coordination of game making.”
When we fully commit to the idea of the game designer being a visionary then they have real responsibility. There is a sense in current games development that game designers have an easy ride in comparison to the more technical roles. But a designer’s responsibilities should include considering public engagement, critical practice, project direction, creative contextualization, interaction with other creative sectors and reflecting changing demographics.
The designer’s role should be one of a ambassador within the team, defining the language of the project, not merely handing in a functional specification document and letting everyone else get on with piecing it together, Surman said. If we have a more grown up game design culture, publishers will relate to developers in different ways. All manner of structures will shift to accommodate the maturing of the medium.
Surman concluded that we must seek to “bolster and reinforce some contemporary ideas about design, while clearly critiquing some of the native tropes that circulate around a discussion about game design. “This is the only way that the medium can mature,” he argued, “by championing game design in a way few are doing at the moment.”