Saturday, June 27, 2009

Prototyping: An Odyssey (Part IV)

In Part I, scholar Altug Isigan looks to etymology and the Odyssey for lessons on prototyping. In Part II, he observes that prototyping is usually about aspiration towards a “product” -- a goal which can be plagued by overrepresentation or underrepresentation. In Part III, he describes a notion of prototyping that finds balance between two approaches in creativity, the controlled and the impulsive approach. In Part IV, he concludes that the most valuable product of prototyping is not a better game, but a better game designer.

Crystal, Flame... or Both?

From what we have discovered in our odyssey so far, we can say that prototyping might benefit from the unification of two seemingly contradictory approaches, the controlled and the impulsive approach… Or, as Italo Calvino’s calls them, the traditions of the Crystal and the Flame (1988: 71). Let’s compare their characteristics:


Represented by



Methodological fastidiousness

Patient searching



Order (Program)


Geometrical rationality


Self-organizing system



Represented by



Rushing into extremes

Flashing inspiration

Shape shifting/Playfulness


Chaos (Happy accidents)


The forking paths of Life


Order out of noise


The Crystal can be summarized as the “union of a spontaneous logic of images and a plan carried out on the basis of a rational intention”. The Flame on the other hand sees “imagination as a means to attain a knowledge that is outside the individual, outside the subjective”; it’s an attempt to “identify with the world soul” (Calvino; 1988: 91).

What does a possible combination of the both look like? Let us listen again to Italo Calvino:

[The third way is] imagination as a repertory of what is potential, what is hypothetical, of what does not exist and has never existed, and perhaps will never exist but might have existed... [It is the] spiritus phantasticus [...] that is, a world or a gulf, never saturable, of forms and images. So, then, I believe that to draw on this gulf of potential multiplicity is indispensable to any form of knowledge. The poet's mind, and at a few decisive moments the mind of the scientist, works according to a process of association of images that is the quickest way to link and to choose between the infinite forms of the possible and the impossible. The imagination is a kind of an electronic machine that takes account of all possible combinations and chooses the ones that are appropriate to a particular purpose, or are simply the most interesting, pleasing, or amusing. (Calvino; 1988:91)

You are a game designer in the 21st century, an age of goals and expectations; milestones, deadlines, products, profit. It’s true; these are realities and you have to deal with them. But if you look carefully into the office spaces around you, you will see a repertory of potential or hypothetical game designers that do not exist, that have never existed, and perhaps will never exist, but yet might have existed.

Recall them.

…There we are, my friends, arrived at home, in safety, reunited with our beloved (and within our selves). We’ve grown during our voyage, and now let me share with you, my loyal comrades, what I’ve learned for myself from this our odyssey.

The Voyager is the Destination

Calmly watching the sea from a height, and facing the sinking sun, I hear my inner voice saying: “Every finished prototype is an exploration of the potentiality of the game designer. It is the game designer, as a multitude of potentialities, who refines himself with every new prototype he makes.”

The ultimate result of prototyping is not a better product; it is a better game designer.

A seasoned designer knows that the secret of the ninja is not his pace or her exactitude, nor the sharp sword, but the preparedness for the decisive move when the time for it comes. This is a quality that one gains though experience in both control and impulse. Ironically, exactitude is oftentimes a matter of approximation, and pace oftentimes a matter of patience. I believe that for the aspiring game designer (the designer-as-prototype, the designer-as-potentiality), there is one great motto to adopt: festina lente: hurry slowly.

Allow me to bid farewell to you with a short story about a Chinese artist:

Among Chuang-tzu's many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years," said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen. (Calvino: 1988: 54)


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Borges, Jorge Luis (1999). “
On Exactitude in Science”.

Calvino, Italo (1988). Six Memos for the New Millennium. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dickinson, Emily (1991), Collected Poems. Philadelphia: Courage Books.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike (1998), Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio.

Fullerton, Tracy (2008) Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach To Creating Innovative Games (2nd Edition). New York: Morgan Kaufmann.

Gingold, Chaim (2008). “
Catastrophic Prototyping and Other Stories”. In: Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach To Creating Innovative Games (2nd Edition). New York: Morgan Kaufmann: pp. 182-185.

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Preface”. In: Dickinson, Emily. Collected Poems. Philadelphia, Courage Books: pp.13-16.

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Emily Dickinson and the Poetry of the Inner Life”. In: Dickinson, Emily. Collected Poems. Philadelphia, Courage Books: pp. 394-401.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.


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