Against Design

I’m a game designer. And I teach game design. So I have a lot invested in the idea that game design is a discipline, maybe a young discipline, one that is still defining itself, but nonetheless a legitimate, professional design discipline with established principles and techniques and hard-won knowledge to be cherished and preserved. And I believe that idea. I do believe game design is something you can study and learn and work to master.

But lately I find myself questioning design as a way of understanding where games come from and what makes them work. There are so many great games in the world that don’t reflect good design principles, or that don’t seem designed at all.

Look at Shadow of the Colossus for example. What do we, as game designers, know about videogames? Well, we know a few things, we know boss battles suck. We know jumping puzzles suck. We know you get great games by focusing on meaningful interaction and you don’t get great games from aping cinema and focusing on graphics.

So, how about a videogame that is nothing but boss battles, and each boss battle is a jumping puzzle, and the whole thing is set in a giant empty world with nothing to interact with, and a lot of the main motivation of the game was an attempt to achieve some film-inspired visual effects? Does that sound like a good recipe for creating one of the greatest videogames of all time?

Or take League of Legends. This game breaks so many rules of “good design”. It is a clone. It is over-complicated to the point of utter indecipherability. It is fussy, baroque, full of arbitrary, non-intuitive details (Last hitting? Inhibitors??). It makes no attempt to teach the player or draw them into its labyrinthian systems. If you didn’t grow up playing it you might as well not bother trying to learn. And it’s the most popular videogame in the world, and maybe the most important and the most beautiful.

Look at the AWP, the signature 1-hit-kill weapon in Counter-Strike. It’s completely unbalanced. Any sensible game designer would have rejected it. Luckily for us, Counter-Strike wasn’t made by sensible designers, it was made by unreasonable people who kept this unbalanced ingredient and evolved the rest of the game around it.

Or look at Counter-Strike surfing, one of the weirdest, most beautiful and interesting game genres of the past 10 years, which was created by players and map-makers without the help of any official game designers at all, thank you very much.

I admire good design. I respect good design. But I have to admit that many of the games I have truly loved do not seem to be the result of good design, they seem like beautiful accidents, hot messes, mistakes that worked, acts of God, or lucky, miraculous mutations.

Design implies a kind of rationality, an ability to identify clearly-defined problems and apply known techniques to solve them. But I think we overestimate the utility of our definitions and the power of our techniques. Like economists who overestimate the predictive power of their mathematical models we are overconfident about our ability to predict and explain the qualities that make great games.

I have even grown skeptical of the iconic image of the designer – smart, confident, sophisticated, stylish, informed. This image has come to represent a romantic illusion about the scope of our ability to define and solve problems.

But songs are not designed, paintings are not designed, poems are not designed.

The alternative is terrifying. That we don’t know, that we will never know, that the problems we are trying to solve are not only unsolvable but undefinable, inexpressible, beyond comprehension. That we are negotiating with trees and shouting at volcanoes. But I have come to believe that this alternative is the truth. Or, more precisely, that the truth resides somewhere in between – close enough to seduce us with faint glimpses of its profile, far enough to forever elude the grasp of our design patterns, our textbooks, our lesson plans and our clever blog posts.

I recognize the value of building an established discipline, and of crafting a shared set of principles that define game design as a profession. But, I also think that in our efforts to define and legitimize our practice as a professional discipline we sometimes forget the history we inherit, the legacy of games made by communities of players, games made by amateurs, by dilettantes, by mathematicians, mothers, scientists, gym teachers, shepherds, inventors, philosophers, eccentrics and cranks.

And in honor of this tradition I would like to suggest other verbs for us to describe where games come from, alternatives to the overconfident precision of the word “design”. Words like invent, discover, compose, write, find, grow, perform, build, support, identify, copy, re-assemble, excavate and preserve.

At the NYU Game Center we struggle with this issue daily. Our approach is to define game design broadly, as the act of making games in a way that is driven by vision, in pursuit of a creative goal, mindful of how what you make will intersect with the people who play it, of how it will intersect with the world. We teach critical literacy and the fundamental principles of solid design, but within a context that leaves space for the unknown. Game design, from this perspective, is not so much the application of rules and guidelines as it is an unruly collision of divine inspiration, hard work, and good taste.

And for my part I will continue to design games, because that’s all I know how to do. But I will attempt to do so with a renewed sense of humility before the inexplicable greatness of games that have managed to spin the silver thread of love from the wool of the world in ways that I cannot hope to understand. Clutching my rulers and my pencils to my chest, in the night, in the middle of the storm, begging for lightning.