Game Design as Expression Pt. 3

Game design as expression… a weird concept, eh?

- Aristotle

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Hey! This is part 3 of a series where I discuss the concept of using game design as a means of self-expression. [Part 1][Part 2]

The most intense and strange discussions are to come. For now we get an easy week in which we’ll look over the unique affordances of game design as expression compared to your other options, such as singing or poetry or drawing.

Games are neat because

  • Players embody avatars, so you can help people feel like they “are” someone

  • Players can understand “invisible” systems and rules by going through those rules themselves

  • Players can see feedback from their own agency in a certain world

I originally had a list saying the strengths of everything else like music and art. But partway through writing it, I realized I was having a lot of trouble pointing out concrete differences between why someone would want to use (for example) music over writing or painting. More or less, it always boiled down to “it’s just what you’re comfortable and good at.”

Maybe with music, you have way more freedom to collaborate with other people, or you get the ability to improvise more freely among the temporal plane since it’s something you actively express ‘over time’.

And, maybe writing feels best for some people because it’s the perfect amount of structure and freedom to have pre-existing meaning-markers (words) to play with.

But then, painting lets anyone who thinks visually do a 1:1 conversion of their feelings onto a page. Or something close to it, anyway.

My point is this: I don’t think I can make a concrete list of what affordances each medium brings, because everyone kinda has different reasons for using their medium of choice.

But if I were to generalize, I think game design can be useful if you happen to be the type of person who expresses things better through procedures/rules rather than the other media you have available.

So, instead of speculating about a person choosing media, I’m going to speculate about the medium choosing people. Here are some things that make you a good candidate to make games for expression.

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1) If you play a lot of games.

This sounds obvious - you like them, so you’ll recreate them, right? What I mean though, is that the #1 way to get better at writing is to read. And the main way to get better at filmmaking is to watch movies. And so on.

So in that regard, if you enjoy playing a lot of games, and you start to think about them critically, then you’re already kind of set up for success with actually doing game design yourself. You already have an instinct for how games can express one feeling or another. Aside from just knowing some design tips, playing games also gives you a good idea of tropes and figures for you to mess around with for one effect or another.

2) If you’re good at thinking about frameworks.

This is a bit modified from Ian Bogost’s Procedural Rhetoric. What I mean is that, if expressing yourself through gameplay is creating rules and reactions and feedback to demonstrate a certain mood, then it helps if you already happen to approach your identity/emotions from a systems perspective.

That sounded a little abstract, huh? To generalize (a lot), we could maybe make a theoretical scenario in which four people all feel the same mood.

  • The painter makes an abstract image involving spikes, bold dark blotches, but also a daub of yellow in the center.

  • The writer weaves a metaphor of a flower pushing through asphalt on the side of a highway.

  • The musician jams out a tune with slow sweeping beats in D minor featuring a few cello tracks as the main melody. Near the end of the song, the key shifts and the cello picks up. Hard to type out but I hope you get the idea.

  • The game designer makes a cramped room with a host of un-interactible elements, even though you have so many actions that you can do. Eventually you find, in a hidden corner, a spirit that has a unique reaction to each of the actions you do.

I typed this up on the spot so it’s a little trite… don’t @me pls. But I hope that conveys the idea of how you can express some kind of meaning in a ton of different ways. Game design is a little funny because you often need to combine visual+auditory+procedural elements to make something work. But then again, rappers combine poetry with samples and instrumentalization. And I haven’t even brought up all the weird stuff that film needs to think about, like acting and set design. So it goes. But let’s get back to the main point - no shame if you forgot, I did too - we’re looking at what kind of person should seriously consider game design as a medium for expression. And if you think in systems, maybe that’s you.

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3) If you’re competent, or willing to become competent, at game design tools.

This sounds self-fulfilling, right? Or at least, a repetition of the second point (if you’re good at thinking about frameworks). Well, the difference is that it’s one thing to have a natural propensity imagining things as particular medium, and another to have the physical, mechanical and logical competency to get that internal storm out of your body and into the world.

At some point you have to either be good at, or be willing to learn, how to actually implement your cool thoughts.

...And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

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It’s not easy making a game. Even card games or dice games are difficult in the sense that they’re kind of limiting objects to think with. Which can be good for starting designers but… good luck easily expressing your feelings for someone with a pair of dice and some blue tokens from Wal-Mart. What are you gonna do, have people read your rulebook for 30 minutes to discover how to play a 10-minute procedure that expresses a warm and fuzzy feeling?

(Personally I am so down for that, but that’s not exactly accessible.)

I’m getting too heated too soon, though! Next time we meet, we’ll look at the problems that get in the way of actually using games for self-expression. We know that it’s possible to express oneself through games, and that it has its own strengths. But we’re also going to know how difficult it is to make a game. There are a ton of problems, and it’s not easy to fix this system, but I honestly believe someone’s gotta clear the way for expressive games. I’m going to do my best to be one of them - and I hope we’ll have you, too.

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