This two-day intensive workshop offered by Cambridge Digital Humanities will explore the different ways that digital and analogue games are designed, particularly how you can design with intent to communicate a mood, theme or message. Participants will learn game design skills – such as boxing-in, design documents and prototyping – alongside opportunities to test them out by creating their own short games. The sessions focus on game design, how to shape mechanics and play experiences, so no technical skills are needed. Participants will create their short games using both non-digital tools and simple, free software that will be taught in the session.
In this blog post, Anne Alexander, Director of CDH Learning, asks workshop instructors Emma Reay and Adam Dixon about game design in the context of academic research and skillsets.
Emma Reay is a third-year PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge and an associate lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. Her current project explores depictions of children in videogames, and her research interests include representation studies, children's digital media, gaming and education, and playful activism.
Adam Dixon is a game designer and writer who makes both physical and digital games. He has worked on everything from big public games that involve running around cities to narrative video games about learning scientific skills. Much of his work has involved working with museums and research organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, Science Museum, Nottingham Trent University and the V&A. This has included designing games, using play for public research engagement and most recently, teaching teenagers to create digital games for Wellcome Collection’s Play Well exhibition. Outside of that he works and releases his own games including roleplaying games, LARPs and interactive fiction.
Photo © Emma Reay
Q. Why should academics and students care about game design?
Emma: Every new communication technology tells us something about the cultural moment from which it emerged, and, equally, it shapes that cultural moment in pervasive ways. Whatever one’s personal relationship is to videogames, the fact remains that they will be memorialised as the defining art form of the twenty-first century – and that is the century you happen to be living through. Academic studies of contemporary social relationships, of contemporary cultural expression, of the role of technology in the modern world, of modern spirituality, of modern economies, of our current education systems – almost any area of enquiry – should be contextualised within a framework that acknowledges the impact of videogames. What is more, ignoring game design as a key form of cultural expression produces a kind of mass illiteracy. Being able to play games but not create games is like being able to read but not being able to write. That is to say, if you can read a novel you don’t necessarily need to be able to write a novel, but you should be able to write a shopping list. The same goes for ludic literacy – everyone should be able to create a shopping-list game. If we want a dialogic relationship between game-makers and game-players, we should encourage a blurring of those two categories. At the same time, play is primeval and ubiquitous. We are already game designers, and have been since we were children. In fact, our game design skills probably peaked in childhood and have been going steadily downhill since then. Understanding why humans play games is a path to understanding something about the human experience. Thinking about game design is also a way of thinking about psychology, anthropology, rituals, reflexes, rebellion, competition, biases, and drives, and how these form and disrupt the ‘rules’ which we live by.
Adam: Game design opens up a whole range of possibilities around how you can explore and tell stories. For me, the best games are participative. They give players authority to put their own spin on things. They are invited to collaborate with the designers and with each other – creating something unique to them. Some of the best game design tries to really open up this space for collaboration. It is often about working out the most reliable way you can relate a mood, theme, feeling or experience. Learning game design opens a new way to share ideas and information – where the audience has a degree of agency on how they engage both with and within the text.
Q. Can you give examples of games which you think are effective in communicating complex ideas?
Emma: This is a really difficult question because I have far too many examples. Most modern videogames are extremely complex rule-based systems that use audiovisual representation and narrative frameworks to explain and justify their complicated rules to the player in a way that is intuitive and easily grasped; but this works both ways – the rules themselves start to explain or comment on what is being represented on screen. So a game that is about the bureaucracy of totalitarian regimes like Papers, Please or a game that looks at the impact of war on civilians like This War of Mine describe the challenges and complexities of living under these unbearable conditions through extremely challenging and unfair rules, which force the player to take morally ambiguous actions: the rules themselves are a description of a complex environment. Games that explore mental health issues such as Hellblade, Depression Quest, or Spec Ops: The Line, simulate a first-person experience of navigating a hostile world with a debilitating mental condition in a way that no other medium can. Other media can describe what it is like to experience a psychotic episode, or devastating depression, or a trauma-related flashback, but only videogames can enforce these limiting conditions upon you and challenge you not to look through someone else’s eyes or walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but to look with your own eyes and walk in your own shoes along someone else’s path.
Since play is embodied and somatic, videogames can communicate directly with the limbic part of the brain – this is especially profound in games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons where grief is expressed through physical paralysis, or in survival horror games where every audiovisual sign requires an embodied response. Some games are brooding and obscure – they don’t communicate a single, decipherable message but they instigate continuous puzzling and rumination long after the console has been turned off – games such as INSIDE had me pondering its meaning for weeks, only to conclude that this lingering puzzlement was part of the game.
Sometimes it’s easier to see the complexity of ludic communication when you consider a very minimalist game with ‘low production values’. One of my favourite games is Thomas Was Alone, in which you play as a set of two-dimensional monochrome shapes. Aside from the Douglas Adams’-esque narration, there is no characterisation of these shapes on a representational level, and yet their unique personalities are conveyed through the interactions available to the player and the way they can be moved around the game space. The game facilitates a surprisingly rich, deep, very funny, very moving experience without using stunning visuals or poetic language – it relies wholly on systems, rules, and mechanics.
Adam: There are so many, and they do it in so many different ways. There are games like 80 Days, which is an interactive fiction game that explores, among other things, colonialism – in many ways a reclamation of some of the themes of the literary classic. Kentucky Route Zero is as good an exploration of working-class Americana as any media around. Vignette games are a fascinating area of personal expression, at their best designers use restrictive mechanics to explore moments from their own lives – games by Nina Freeman and Jenny Jiao Hsia are good examples (and I made sure to hold your head sideways uses minimal mechanics to communicate a tender, personal story). There are a whole host of games designed to communicate political positions or explain complex ideas, such as Gerrymander, this game about working as an Uber driver or Casual Games for Protestors. On the more scientific side, there are games that are used to communicate research or even carry it out such as Sokobond and Foldit. Outside of videogames, indie pen and paper roleplaying games form one of the most interesting design spaces around. The Quiet Year is one of the best reflections of communities I’ve seen, with mechanics that explore debate and disagreement and consensus, while through a game of Dialect players create their own language reflecting languages place in isolation and resistance.
Q. How do you think the skills associated with game design might help researchers think differently about their own research projects?
Emma: Designing a game requires a particular mode of thought: you have to devise a set of carefully balanced rules, mentally simulate the broadest possible range of eventualities, and – all the while – continually returning to the player’s experience. You can apply this kind of thinking to you academic work; for example, visualising your research as a system of rules can help you to streamline and summarise your central concepts, whilst also allowing you to consider previously unseen patterns or relationships between elements. Equally, imagining the best way to engage players and maintain their interest can alert you to the most exciting aspects of your work, which could help you to structure public talks and engage with non-specialist stakeholders. Finally, game design is about playful, creative experiments – it is a fun and freeing challenge, and puzzling over your own research with this curious, exploratory mindset could reignite your passion for a subject that might have been dampened under the constraints of traditional academic contexts.
Adam: I’ve seen game design used in a range of different ways to aid or communicate research. Some of the things I’ve been involved with have included using physical games as a way to share simple public health information about germs with the general public, using a game not too dissimilar to hopscotch. I also worked on a video game for the Science Museum that taught science skills to young people – how to be curious, to experiment, to ask questions.
But beyond being a way to communicate, there are lots of other skills to be gained. One of the most obvious overlaps between game design and research for me, is how designing games can be similar to designing studies. There are a lot of similar skills; from anticipating how people with react in a space or to stimuli, writing meaningful prompts and questions (though in game design, you’re usually trying to introduce bias rather than avoid it), to building ways to create safety for participants (especially in multiplayer games). Beyond this, the course will give you some experience and knowledge in game design techniques, including practical time to learn tools. We’ll also be introducing interesting games and styles of design that might be useful!
Q. Is game design for everyone?
Emma: No, but it should be. There are two main reasons why someone might feel excluded from game design. The first relates to the stereotype of ‘the gamer’. This put me off studying game design, and I’m still not sure if I would refer to myself as a ‘gamer’, despite the fact that I am doing a PhD in games studies and spend much more time playing games than I do engaging with any other medium. The image of the greasy, adolescent, socially-inept, Dorito-becrumbed boy in his parent’s basement rage quitting the latest militaristic shooter is not appealing, and not relatable for most people. It is also not accurate. The average age of a gamer is 36, and only fifteen percent of gamers are under the age of 18. If you do not limit your definition of ‘game’ to PC and console games then more than fifty percent of gamers are women. Nonetheless, there is a small but very vocal reactionary subset of gamers who conform to the gamer stereotype, and they work overtime to make women, non-binary people, queer people, people who are not white, people with disabilities, and the elderly feel very uncomfortable in gamer spaces. Diversifying game design should be everyone’s priority, but unfortunately those on the inside are unlikely to open the door to us unless we knock.
The second reason is that people might feel that they lack the technical skills to be able to design games. However, programming is just one part of game design, and while it is useful to understand how this part of the process works, not everyone on a game design team needs to be a coding wizard. Creating analogue games such as board games and card games is part of game design (and the board games industry is currently exploding with creativity, diversity, and profitability!) and there are lots of types of free game design software available online that can be mastered without much technical training. Great game design is usually the result of a combination of interlinked but distinct skills – you don’t need to be a jack of all trades, but can draw upon your own strengths.
Adam: Yes! If you’ve ever home-ruled a game of monopoly or created a simple game to play with a kid, you’re a game designer. There’s a temptation, because videogames feel new and in fashion, to pretend game design is this big, weighty, important thing – but we’ve been playing and designing games for as long as we’ve been around. Game design is like writing, film making or drawing, as important as you want to make it. If it feels like a thing that you want to learn, that you can get something out of, then this is intended to be a good starting place. We’re focusing on design skills, rather than anything technical. We’ll be using a range of techniques that are useful across physical and digital game design. For me, what I’d want you to get out of this course is a chance to learn – or hone – a set of skills and knowledge. My aim is to give you things that you can take away and apply as makes sense to you, whether that’s as big as creating a game about your research or just using those skills to enhance your other practices.
Photo © Emma Reay
Monday 2 December 09:30 – 17:30 Cambridge University Library, IT Training Room
Tuesday 3 December 09:30 – 17:30 Cambridge University Library, IT Training Room
This programme is open to graduate students and staff at the University of Cambridge. PhD students and Early Career Researchers have priority for the scheme, but applications from other categories of staff and MPhil students are welcome.
To find out how to apply visit the Cambridge Digital Humanities website.
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