Game Design as Expression Pt. 1

This world is brimming with emotionally-knotted people. Every day I see people with inner tensions that get wound up like overused muscles - people with underdeveloped capacities for self-reflection or self-love or empathy. While it’s less obvious than neglected hamstrings, it’s arguably much more debilitating.

emotional leg day.png

...Let’s take a few steps back. I want to make a point: designing games as self-expression and emotional catharsis is rare, but it shouldn’t be!

This thought process started when, due to things in my personal life, I started to sense a gnawing feeling inside me. The gnawing feeling is somehow simultaneously an overabundance of feeling and an emotional void. Whenever this happens, I continue feeling that weird bite until I finish making something creative — something that reflects on w/e I’m feeling. By coincidence I had also just read sonnets 60 and 76 by Shakespeare, which gave me a kind of inspirational push I needed to really put something together.

In my case, just last week, the result of my expression was a twine game! (This is version 1.0.)

I’m not writing this blog post to convince you to play/read my game. I’m writing this post to tell you that YOU should design games (or even just systems) in exactly the same way that you’d write a poem or draw a picture for expression.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that’s brought up by Extra Credits (here), but I want to go a little more in-depth about it. Basically, it seems that while people don’t mind playing guitar for catharsis, or doodling in their notebooks to express themselves, or building stone towers to reflect on themselves, game design is ironically something not typically deemed to be engaging on its own. And sure, like being a professional musician / artist / architect (engineer?), it’s not super enjoyable when you’re trying to make a living off it. But you don’t have to make a living off game design to do it!

And, it may sound weird, but you don’t need to start and finish an entire game to enjoy game design as a hobby, either.

You can just design little systems, subsystems, etc and that’s a perfectly valid way to explore and express yourself.

each art form allows you to express very specific Moods in different ways

each art form allows you to express very specific Moods in different ways

In my case, game design tools are a way to simultaneously pass time, express myself, regulate myself, comfort myself and confront my feelings. For my own twine game, I “zoned out” and just kind of typed the first things that came to mind, arranged mechanics in the first way that came to mind, etc. The result is a snapshot of how I’ve been feeling the past week and where I was the past week and etc. Not just in terms of subject matter, but game mechanics too! In the process of doing so I kind of found my own emotional solution that’s helped me become at peace and smooth my own little knots.

I’m talking about myself not to brag that I’ve found an outlet but rather to shed light on the creative process behind game design as catharsis. And I want to air a few worries:

  • Lots of people in this world could really use some more self-reflection, self-expression or a concerted effort to confront their own identities & emotions.

  • Creative expression helps lots of people like me (handle, recognize, deal with, accept, etc.) their emotions and self-identities. I know it doesn’t help everyone, but I know it helps a non-zero amount of people.

  • Different art media are useful for different people. For example, some people can only express themselves through music while others can only write poetry.

  • THEREFORE! If not everyone has access to game design as a tool of self-expression, how many people are we needlessly cutting off from having some kind of tool for self-fulfillment/regulation/expression!?

There’s a lot to cover here, so I’m going to split this big thought into parts. Over my next few posts I’m going to look at game design as catharsis from a few different angles.

  1. (this post).

  2. How do you do that? Isn’t this just called ‘making an indie game’?

  3. What does game design do that drawing/music/etc can’t? Why care about game design as a form of expression/catharsis/reflection/etc?

  4. If game design is so cool and useful, why don’t people do it more often?

  5. What about Garry’s Mod, Little Big Planet, Mario Maker, etc? Also: are the problems behind the inaccessibility of game design things that can be fixed? What can we do about this?

So you can look forward to this being approximately a 5-part series. Until then I hope you enjoy your weekend! :)

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EDIT: I changed #5 to focus more on the “what can we do?” part. But here’s my writeup for stuff like Little Big Planet and Mario Maker below.

The problem with these types of game-maker-games is that most of your creations will be within the realm of making ‘levels’ that need to be ‘completed’. And they’re always played with the expectation for them to be fun, challenging or creative. The last one, ‘creative’, seems to specifically mean ‘impressively engineered’ more often than not. And this is the real issue with these existing game-makers! They’re all still kind of stuck in the realm of helping you make content within a game rather than making entirely new games. I’m sure you can still do expressive stuff but that seems more like expressive architecture than expressive game design.