Category Archives: Game Design Library

Review: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Book: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
Author: Jane McGonigal, game designer for alternate reality games
Year: 2011

Summary: an optimistic, visionary plea for harnessing the power of games to improve society and increase happiness, focusing on gamification and alternate reality games. Written for a general audience, so good for outsiders or even gamers, but of limited use for game developers.

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I’ll start this review with a caveat: this is not my kind of book so I approached it with some trepidation, but still wanted to give an honest, fair review of the text for people who are more into the subject matter. Thankfully, even though my reservations remain, I thought Reality is Broken was very good and brought me some new ideas and terms I was unfamiliar with.

The book is just over 400 pages, though I thought it was a quick read. McGonigal’s writing style oozes with friendly, infectious optimism, almost like a full-length version of her TED talk. It’s divided into fourteen chapters, each identifying a problem (with reality) and a fix (derived from games). It is written for a general audience, so insider lingo (like “co-op”) and very popular games (like World of Warcraft) are described in great detail and might bog some readers down. On the flip side, information most people aren’t familiar with such as new terminology (like “ambient sociability”, where you play solo in a multiplayer world) and relatively obscure alternate reality games (like World Without Oil) are also detailed out. Reality is Broken has more practical information than I would expect from such an inspirational book due to the level of detail in these examples, but still lies very much in the realm of ideas rather than a how-to guide.

There are a few key arguments McGonigal makes within the book and she backs each of them up with one or more case studies of existing games, both from popular entertainment and from the fringes of serious games and alternate reality games. She argues first that reality is broken – our communities have become fractured, people are not engaged in civic and social issues, depression is epidemic, and our jobs leaves us largely unfulfilled. Second, that games excel in fixing these problems by creating virtual communities, engaging people meaningfully in productive work (even if that work is toward goals in video games), making people happier and more fulfilled, and fostering collaboration. This leads to a plea to use the well-tuned systems in games (short and long-term goals, immediate feedback, multiplayer mechanics) toward real world systems (education, investigative journalism, citizen science, and so on) in order to engage people in fixing the world’s problems, using those productive hours for lasting change instead of escapist entertainment. Lastly, McGonigal claims that gamers themselves are perfectly suited to help fix those larger-than-life problems with their extensive experience in collaborative projects and crowdsourcing (such as WoWiki, or folding@home).

One element throughout the book that I found particularly valuable is McGonigal’s description of the design process and thoughtfulness behind several of the alternate reality games that she has designed. (She also uses the term “directed”, which I don’t see often in game development but is surprising apt to describe the ongoing performance-oriented gameplay of alternate reality games.) The author takes many lessons from positive psychology (the study of happiness) and designs her games to include “happiness activities” like physical touch, complimenting or helping others, contemplating death, and collaborating in service of a much bigger goal. She admits that these activities, even though they are supported by research, are “hokey” and come off as inauthentic to the skeptic (incidentally, exactly what I was thinking when I reached this section) and that even though we know what to do to be happy, we still do not do it. McGonigal points out that games can be used to trick people into engaging with them and gives specific, detailed post-mortems of how she integrated these activities into her games.

Mind you, the examples that demonstrate McGonigal’s claims – alternative reality games that successfully and meaningfully improve the world – are few and far between, reaching a crowd numbering in hundreds or lower thousands. While they have interesting design goals and strategies, these games are not yet changing the world on the massive scale that McGonigal envisions. She is a futurist not a historian, and her role as a researcher at the Institute for the Future means I expected a lot of big, provocative statements that have yet to prove themselves.

Like I mentioned at the start, I have some reservations about Reality is Broken. There is a lot of focus on psychological studies and applying their results to games or game-playing but most of these studies are phrased as variations of, “study suggests X in Y scenario, so then it should still suggest X in Z scenario”. These are bold claims, especially when they make up the bulk of McGonigal’s argument that games can improve happiness, yet few of the studies directly deal with games. This isn’t really the fault of the author – the problem lies in how little research there is now and how much work there’s yet to be done. Since the author works on the bleeding edge of serious games, and this text is, in part, to demonstrate the worthiness of future work, I found these leaps of logic pretty reasonable if under supported by the science.

As a designer, I have some other nitpicks, such as the focus on feedback to mean points, achievements, badges, and levels – these are qualities that give gamification a bad reputation. (Feedback in game development means much, much more than ticking numbers.) The author also puts an overwhelming emphasis on questing, avatar rewards, mini-bosses, and similar role-playing game structures as the “fix” to gamifying real-world systems, which I disagree with. (Note: the author never says gamify or gamification in the book to describe this process). But as a book targeted at the general audience, this is not really the place to dive into the subtleties and best practices regarding game design. I would love to see a book by McGonigal written directly for game designers on how to take those lessons from positive psychology, crowdsourcing and collaboration, and so on and apply them to games, and vice versa.

The main reason I find myself hesitant towards Reality is Broken is that I am naturally skeptical of a book that makes such big, grand, self-serving claims about how games can fix the world, repair broken communities, treat depression, and harness the ‘crowd’ to solve problems like climate change and food insecurity. As a game designer, I’ve already staked my career in games and I naturally want to hear that they can be used to improve the world. But when the claims are as overstated as those McGonigal proposes – especially when propped up by some questionable psychology – I can’t help but let my skepticism lead the way. I sincerely believe there is a place for serious games and that work in this area is valuable and meaningful. But the level of optimism strikes me as naïve and does a disservice towards other fields – like education – by implying that game designers can go in and “fix” them. This pushes my buttons the same way Silicon Valley start-ups attempt to “disrupt” various social services with their technological expertise, often causing more problems than they purport to solve. I think we need a bit more humility in our lives, and that is something Reality is Broken does not serve its readers.

All that said, I did enjoy the book. It’s easier for me to talk about what I didn’t like than what I did so I don’t want to give you an unfair review. It is deliberately provocative and demands a lot of discussion, so if the goal were to increase the discourse about the positive power of games, I’d consider this a success. I’d easily recommend it to people who think of games only as escapist entertainment or otherwise don’t see the value in gaming but are naturally curious (I know two non-gaming family members who will be getting a copy next time I see them). Game developers who are interested in alternate reality games and serious games may want to give this a try, but keep in mind it’s not a text that teaches you how to design with these elements in mind, but rather why you should.

Review: The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell

Book: The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
Author: Jesse Schell, game designer, VR enthusiast, and professor at Carnegie Mellon
Year: 2011 – 1st Ed. (2nd Ed. came out in 2014)

Summary: A really excellent, comprehensive introductory textbook to the field of game design. There’s a supplemental card deck of “lenses” that are nice for early prototyping or smaller indie projects.

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There are many books touted as introductions to game design for students or aspiring designers and I’m often skeptical of their claims, having run across so much bad advice. When doing the initial research for this game design library series, I’ve found dozens of books that seem to paint an incomplete picture, or whose lessons quickly become outdated with new technology. The Art of Game Design has none of these flaws: it’s comprehensive, covers design irrespective of technology (but does not ignore it), and contains concepts and examples that have me nodding along in agreement from experience.

The Art of Game Design is a Game Design 101 textbook: it reads to me like a full semester college curriculum on game design, from theory to practical concerns, that has everything you need for self-study except for a list of assignments. If I ever taught a game design course, I would design my curriculum right from this textbook – so while I definitely recommend it for students, it should also be necessary reading for teachers of (practical) game studies courses. (Schell himself teaches at Carnegie Mellon and I’ve been told the book is based off of his teaching materials, which is a good recommendation for that program).

The book itself is split into 33 chapters, each one tackling an important concept that builds upon previous ones. Schell starts at the beginning with basic ideas and definitions – designers, games, players, ideas, iteration – continues into the heart of game design – mechanics, balancing, puzzles, interface, story, spaces – and even dives into the necessary logistics – documentation, playtesting, publishers, and profit. It is extremely comprehensive in that he covers all the major topics of game design, familiarizing students with important concepts and giving them the language to describe and analyze them. It clocks in at 489 pages with large pages packed with text and plenty of diagrams.

Schell’s approach to game design differs from my own in many ways, and has its own quirks or proposed ways to model complex ideas. For example, he offers his own alternative to the MDA (Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics) framework that specifically incorporates story and technology. He analyzes and compares a number of different definitions of “game” and offers his own admittedly incomplete but highly practical definition: that a game is an experience. I can get behind these mental models and add them sparingly to my toolbox, though I didn’t find anything really revolutionary within its pages (nor did I expect to).

As a working designer reading this, it retreads a lot of familiar ground. If someone has never really put any thought into what it takes to balance a game, this book will give you not one but twelve different axis to think about (physical vs. mental, easy vs. hard, short vs. long, and so on). Most of this is already second nature to me, so at times the reading felt a bit of a slog. It’s only when Schell dove into subjects I know very little about – such as his chapter on transmedia storytelling – that I found myself fully engrossed in the text. I appreciated the book, personally, as a tool to fill in holes in my knowledge I didn’t realize I had. I can’t honestly think of any subjects he failed to cover, and all the usual “rules of thumb” or lessons taken from other media (from the hero’s journey to the Big Five in psychology) are all mentioned.

One of the strengths of The Art of Game Design lies in its personal anecdotes and examples used throughout to illustrate every idea, concept, piece of vocabulary, and step along the way of making games. Sometimes this feels a bit wordy and long-winded – long paragraphs describing a real or hypothetical game can feel redundant if you already grasp the idea. But since I consider the prime audience for this book to be students, the repeated information presented in a variety of ways means that almost everyone will come away with a good understanding of any given concept.

Schell’s playful enthusiasm for games (which you’ll know if you’ve ever heard him speak) shines everywhere. It’s written personably – the author has a distinct, friendly voice and uses his previous experiences in games and other careers (like juggling) to tell anecdotes and explain his process. Some chapters interested me more than others but, to be honest, the tone and quality of information was really even throughout the entire book. A few sections I could have skipped (interface, brainstorming) because the topics did not interest me as much, not because they weren’t well-written.

I read The Art of Game Design at the same time as I began design for a side project. I found myself wishing there was a workbook or checklist companion for the textbook – but this is where his Deck of Lenses comes in.

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Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses – not my image, but rather from the Amazon.com’s customer reviews

“Lenses” are different discrete concepts – such as the Lens of Flow or the Lens of Fairness or the Lens of Story – that give you unique points of view on your game. These concepts are the core of the textbook, where any chapter may have a half a dozen different lenses called out in its own box summarizing and repeating the information written within the text. Each lens has a number of questions to ask yourself about your game when evaluating it.

A Deck of Lenses is a companion to the Book of Lenses: it is a deck of 100 cards, each one containing a different lens (you can see some examples with a quick google search). The deck is also available as a free app for iOS and Android – I didn’t install it since I have my own hardcopy, but I encourage readers to check them out. [iOS link] [Android link]

The lenses he chooses are all excellent, asking important questions to help you reflect on your game. They act like a condensed version of the textbook: if you have already internalized the concepts, these are your snapshots to remind you and act as a direct tool for evaluating your game.

If you’re deep in mid development of a AAA-sized game then I’m not sure you’ll find much use for A Deck of Lenses. But I think they could be a tool for indies or people making small games by themselves judging by how I used them on my own small project this month. It will vary based on whether you, personally, find a use for them or add them to your habits. I suspect mine will soon end up back on the shelf gathering dust again like they had for the last two years.

There is a second edition out now and I briefly looked at it – it has some new content, new lenses, and recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter. I don’t think the changes are substantial enough to warrant getting a second copy, but if you can’t decide between the two then pick up the second.

Personally? I found The Art of Game Design kind of boring since it spent most of its time introducing me to concepts I am already familiar with. For this reason, I hesitate to recommend it to experienced designers but, as they say, your mileage may vary. So far this looks like the most comprehensive (encyclopedic even) book on common design concepts. I think most students and aspiring designers (as well as those that feel they have gaps in their knowledge) would be better off armed with the information in these pages.

Review: A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

Book: A Theory of Fun for Game Design
Author: Raph Koster, game designer on MUDs, MMOs, virtual worlds
Year: 2004, but I read the revised edition for 2014

Summary: A good introductory text on game design that briefly covers a gamut of practical topics in game design, but doesn’t go into much depth on any one of them. Good for students completely new to design, but I would not recommend it for professionals.

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When asking for a good book on game design, A Theory of Fun is usually pretty high on everyone’s list – and for good reason. It’s short at only 279 pages, but only about half of those have text – sometimes not even a full page. Each page has a matching illustration on the opposite, ranging from whimsical drawings to infographics. The writing is easy to read, full of personal anecdotes and a teacher’s patience rather than a dense academic book or one set out to evangelize a particular view of games. It has a personal but also very matter of fact tone that jumps right into the content.

This is not a how-to book: you will not get practical advice for being a better designer or designing a game within its pages. It starts off with the question of “what are games and why are they important?” and answers it with the meaning of games, what is fun, how games are used for learning, how people interact with games, and finally a call to action for games to take their rightful place among the arts. It provides a good informative basis for what design is and general issues designers must consider, such as player retention, skill, mastery, core types of games (dominance, territory acquisitions, etc.), the difference between systems and aesthetics. It’s the kind of book that I may hand to an outsider to explain what makes games different from other media, and why they should be considered art.

Keep in mind that the book is very short and despite its brevity it jumps between subjects so quickly that it can feel that you don’t really dig into any given one. However, everything it does cover is pretty meaty, if short. This is in contrast to other introductory books that are very, very long because they repeat information or spend a lot of time explaining the same concept in multiple ways. It’s well-divided, and uses plenty of bolding or bullet-points, so it’s also an easy book to skim for information.

I first picked up A Theory of Fun nine years ago – and I read about half before deciding that it was okay but a bit basic. Now that I know a bit more about design, I thought it was a good moment to reread this – all the way to the end – with a more critical eye. I personally like much denser texts, so while I appreciated the breadth of A Theory of Fun it left me rather unsatisfied and retreading ground I am already familiar with. I am not going to repeat everything the book covers here – if you want that, you should read the book – but rather just some points I found particularly interesting.

The author throws out most of the definitions of “game” because they aren’t very good at giving working designers a good model for making games. Instead, he offers his own – that the purpose of games is to exercise the brain, and you exercise the brain by challenging it to identify patterns. Games give players an opportunity to practice and understand patterns in a safe context, where stakes are not as high as in the real world.

Patterns require interaction and feedback, and this loop allows players to develop their own mental model of the game and its objects and, with iteration, improve that mental model. From this, Koster focuses on games as systems and most of his lessons on games, challenge, difficulty, interaction, feedback, and so on rely on this understanding of the relationship between games and patterns. His definition of games notably includes practice, training, roleplay, simulation, and drills.

One of the important arguments he makes is that games are, at their core, about systems and everything else – like aesthetics and narrative – are dressing. He argues that the value in games must be found in that interaction and feedback loop and this is what sets games apart from, say, a book. You could describe this as a two-way dialogue between the player and the system. He even says at one point that game systems by themselves do not contain morals – Tetris with a different dressing could be a game about mass murder, for example. Ultimately, he points out that we (as developers) have done a great job at improving the dressing in games, but a poor job of innovating on those systems.

This isn’t really new territory – people have been talking about how to evaluate games on their systems and aesthetics for a while, and practicing game designers mostly know that the hardest, most important, and most time-consuming part of making a game are its systems, rules, and mechanics and not the narrative dressing. A lot of students, aspiring designers, and amateurs avoid thinking deeply about the systems, copying them from other games without too much reflection, and instead put all their efforts into the dressing (see: all those 2D platformers). Of course, the same can be said of mainstream AAA games – a different skin, but the core mechanics are usually recycled.

My only misgiving with the book are its nods to scientific studies and evolutionary psychology, largely because both have been used all too often by non-experts to explain away culture as biology. These include topics like brain function, player psychology, how different genders play, and games acting as training for survival. As I mentioned the purpose of this book is to introduce, not dive fully into depth on any one of these topics, so I think it’s better to look at the source materials (he provides many recommendations for further reading) before accepting them at face value. (This is always my rule, regardless of author, and it’s why I have a lot of psychology texts in my reading list).

Much of the information in the book I already knew, but it was nice to have it spelled out directly, including some new vocabulary. The book covers several other topics – I particularly enjoyed the parts on how games are ultimately consumable, and how players are driven to exploit systems. There are a lot of really excellent charts in here for modeling games, including ways to compare them to other media, especially music, to show that all forms of art can be looked at as formal systems, metrics, rules, and mechanics.

I’ve read some of the author’s other writing and I find those more effective than this book, so I was a bit disappointed by A Theory of Fun. The fact that it’s broad in scope, written approachably with a lot of personal anecdotes, and full of whimsical drawings makes it a non-intimidating introduction to design, especially for those outside of the game industry.

A Game Design Library

I’m starting my next side project: to read as much as possible on the topic of game design AND to engage with that writing critically. Specifically, I plan to read books on game design and related disciplines as a supplement to my main source of information: articles, talks, conferences, and chats with other designers.

A few months ago I started collecting books on game design, film, art, narrative, digital media, technology, history, psychology, anthropology, economics, architecture, and so on. These books range among introductions to the medium, specialist texts for working professionals, and academic texts on critical theory.

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My current collection, at 64 books

This collection isn’t complete. As of the time of this post, I have about a hundred more I haven’t picked up yet, some other sources of recommendations I need to go through, and several more books that will be published by the time I am done with these.

My plan is to first read the basic textbooks about game design – both textbooks written by game designers and foundational academic texts on games and play. Once I get passed that base, I’ll start branching out into sub-topics, like social/community/multiplayer, or strategy/competition, or level design/architecture. That’s also when I’ll start grabbing more books to add to my library and fielding more recommendations. I also have a large collection of academic writing, but haven’t decided when or how I’ll integrate it into my reading.

 

My List of Books

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1NjVzM3SGLpPi_eBQ7YbPnYnDzSYlGrSPmF2qON3_7tI/edit?usp=sharing

I’ll keep this list up to date, with the first column listing the status of the book and replaced with links to my reviews as I write them.

You’ll find my reviews under the Game Design Library category on my blog (and I’ll number each one and use tags to help categorize topics, too). Each book will get its own post, but I’ll do separate articles to address specific ideas I found interesting or to compare and contrast how different authors approach the same concepts.

I expect this will be a long-term project. I read quickly – about 2-3 books a month – but I write slowly. I expect to read and review about 20 books a year (maybe more if I can figure out how to edit myself…).

 

If you want to recommend a book not already on the list…

Please check it against my wishlist of books I haven’t bought yet to make sure I don’t already have a record of it. Feel free to leave a comment below with new ones with a brief reason why it’s important and I may add it to my list. I am particularly looking for books written from outside of the American perspective so if you know of any please share (this includes but in no way limited to games history and culture in Japan or Europe).

I may eventually open up my list to voting if there’s a specific book that people would like to see a review of, but for now I have a pretty solid plan in place to keeps me busy up through April.