Designing People

I’ve been putting this post off for almost a month, partly because I’ve been so busy, and partly because it’s kind of a big deal to me. Near the beginning of June, in the course of two days, I closed the book on my first self-published game, Dog Eat Dog, and helped launch the first social game I worked on at Loot Drop, Pettington Park. From zero games to two games in a week is a hell of a thing, and I’m very proud and grateful to everybody who has given me the opportunity to do what I love. You can buy Dog Eat Dog right here. Now I just have to keep going.

My friend Elizabeth Sampat made an interesting post a while back that goes to the heart of something I’ve been trying to put into words here — Everything is Game Design. A game is really just a system of rules with a presumed internal logic, after all. By that definition, games are everywhere. For example, I don’t apply economic analysis because I think games are economics; I do it because economics is really just a subset of game design. But, then, what is game design?

When the Nintendo first came out, it was marketed towards — and was a great success among — a specific demographic: kids, that tiny span of life between 6 and 12 years old. It’s funny, in some respects, that this is the case, because some of those early games are absurdly difficult, especially if you try to pick them up now, when you’ve (probably) gotten past 12 years old. Given the things that people were doing on the system, why would they aim it at kids — and why did kids love it so intensely?

Well, it’s really tradition, at some level — kids have always been perceived as the primary players of games. But it’s also a larger point: at those ages, people are developing their strategies for surviving, and achieving, in the real world, and the process they use to do this is the exact process you use to learn about and succeed at a game: putting in input, observing the results, forming mental models, chunking and categorizing, looking for feedback loops, and everything else game designers have to think about all the time.

Let’s say you have a game with two levers, one labeled “Act Out” and one labeled “Be Good.” When you pull the Act Out lever, ominous music plays and monsters come out. When you pull the Be Good lever, nothing happens. What are you going to do when you play this game? You’re going to pull the Act Out lever all the time. Monsters might be unpleasant and even dangerous…but they’re better than NOTHING HAPPENING. If the only feedback you can get is negative feedback, you’re still going to go for that feedback in preference to no feedback at all.

Sound familiar?

Game design — and by implication, most forms of design — isn’t primarily mathematics or aesthetics. Primarily, game design is cognitive psychology. It’s just that instead of applying it to people, you apply it to the world people live in — and by doing so, design the people themselves.

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