My background (and the reason for my interest in this class) is that I’m a game designer.  The games industry is, as I like to describe it, in it’s adolescence.  We have lots of people shouting to the heavens “Yes!  We really are an art form!” and then on the other hand we also have lots of games where you shoot people and half-naked girls are running around.  The industry seems to have one identity crisis after another, and we are constantly trying to prove to the world that we are not making just toys for little kids but that we’re doing something artful or meaningful.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the process of game design, particularly the idea of intent, for my thesis project this year.  I’ve found a number of game analysis and game design frameworks that have been thrown into the ring by prominent game designers and academics but there seems to be some major disagreement about the fundamentals of this process.  This makes our current class discussion of explanation vs. understanding particularly relevant for understanding what it is we do when we design or play/experience a game.  For example, one article that I read recently, titled “The Chemistry of Game Design” is a rallying cry for the development of a science of game design.  Some notable quotes:

As an industry, we need to beyond the mystical hand waving that defines modern game design. It is now possible to craft, test and refine practical models of game design built from observable patterns of play. We can describe what the player does and how the game reacts. Recently, we’ve begun to crack open why players react to certain stimuli and are able to create models that predict pleasure and frustration.

The bigger hope is to move our alchemical craft towards the founding of a science of game design. We currently build games through habit, guesswork and slavish devotion to pre-existing form. Building a testable model of game mechanics opens up new opportunities for game balancing, original game design and the broader application of game design to other fields.

During our discussion in class today about the difference between explanation and understanding, I thought about this article and realized that game design is not a science and simply cannot be a science.  There are no fundamental laws of game design out there that are scientifically reproducible.  Even the surest of game design tactics are based in psychology which is decidedly a soft science and in the realm of understanding, not explanation.  In Elridge’s chapter “Understanding Art”, I found his ideas about imaginative perception to speak directly to this notion.    The idea that we can’t say a painting is serene because of the formal element of the color blue is the same as saying a game is fun because of the formal element of a particular rule.  In games, rules don’t translate directly into experiences in the same way that formal elements don’t translate directly into expressive significance in art.  While the debate rages on in and out of the games industry, I’ve always sat on the “games are art” side and this passage in particular really helped me formalize why.  (Well, at least why games aren’t a science.)  The question for me now is: if we can’t say all blue paintings are serene and all games with rule X will have experience Y, then how do we purposefully build specific experiences?  How do you make a serene painting?  Maybe that’s another class all together 🙂