Mixtape medley of blood
Opening night

We know games


Video game enthusiasts are a cheeky lot. We write blogs and record podcasts spouting off about game design as if we know what we're talking about. We toss around phrases like "core game mechanics," and "level design," in our discussion of games, confident we're qualified to ring in on these subjects, praising or deriding games that succeed or fail in these or other aspects of design.

In fact, many of the most vigorous online discussions/arguments/flamewars about games revolve around design issues, conducted by enthusiasts, almost none of us designers, making big proclamations about pixel shaders, physics engines, particle effects, and all sorts of other technical terms we've learned second-hand.

We're experts with big opinions. Why? Because we play games. We play lots of games. We're qualified to evaluate game design because we consume it. The games themselves teach us all we need to know. If we pay close enough attention to a game like Bioshock, for example, it will unveil the underpinnings of its design to us as clearly as if we were diagramming a sentence. Right?

I have my doubts.

I spent the last two weeks working my way through Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, and I must say this book has enhanced my understanding and appreciation of games more than any single gaming experience I can recall.

To be sure, playing a great game can stimulate a useful analysis of its design, and veteran gamers can certainly assemble their experiences to draw valid conclusions about what's happening under the hoods of the games they play. But Schell has set out to unpack and scrutinize the principles underlying solid game design, and he has done so with great precision and elegance. This is the most readable book on design I've yet seen, but Schell has sacrificed no depth or detail in his 512-page effort to make his subject accessible to all curious readers.

Schell's premise is simple: game design is a relationship among designer, game, and player than can best be understood and explored as a series of perspectives - or "lenses," as Schell calls them - that provoke insightful questions. These lenses essentially explore ways of seeing and thinking from a variety of disciplines and fields of human activity such as psychology, architecture, music, film, theme park design, mathematics, writing, puzzle design, and anthropology.

Schell wisely avoids discussing these as abstractions; rather, he pinpoints the key activating aspect of each and explains how it enhances the game. For example, he notes that Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island began as a simple map of a fanciful island. He quotes from Stevenson:

...as I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

The story emerged from Stevenson's fascination with his imaginative locale. As Schell notes: "Most videogames do not happen in a world of words, but in a physical place. By making sketches and drawings of this place, often a story will naturally take shape, as you are compelled to consider who lives there, what they do, and why."

Schell believes the designer creates an experience that occurs in the player's mind, and this experience arises out of a game that provokes the player on a myriad of intellectual and emotional levels. He writes largely in 2nd-person, which may strike some readers as too casual, but the result is a conversational tone that creates a relationship between Schell and the reader that develops over the course of the book...a bit like the triad he describes among game, designer, and player.

The book is accompanied by a deck of 100 unique "lens cards" that feature key questions intended to kickstart your thinking about story, aesthetics, creativity, etc.. These cost extra and add no real content value to the book, but they are handy in breaking out the lens questions posed in the text, and they can easily be applied to inspire creative work beyond game design.

I have a feeling that real-world working game designers find little value in books like this. Perhaps, I'm wrong. But from where I sit, The Art of Game Design's real impact has been on my own grasp of design from a player's and a critic's perspective. Just as a proper knowledge of cinematography can enhance one's understanding of a filmmaker's technique and how a camera communicates meaning, thinking hard about the structural and philosophical building blocks of game design can enrich one's appreciation of a well-made game. That's precisely why I'm grateful for this book, and it's why I think you may find it useful too.

By the way, Jesse Schell will deliver the IGDA Education Summit keynote address at GDC next month. His topic will be "A Guided tour of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses," scheduled for March 24. I look forward to being there.