Sunday, October 7, 2012

Game Designers are Artists and Technicians – Because Life Requires Both

In this article, creative director Chris Swain indicates that game designers should have technical proficiency and creative storytelling skills in order to design successful entertainment games and other interactive experiences. 

Much has been said (and debated) about the “active” and “passive” nature of gaming and game design. Certainly, relative to storytelling in films and documentaries, the gamer takes an active role in the story outcome. But the game comes with a premise, characters, landscape and overall structure baked in. This then makes the gamer a willing participant in a scenario that is fully given to him or her from the game designer, who clearly works with a full cupboard of creativity.

Which brings us to the importance that storytelling bears in game design. The ability to construct a creative narrative needs to be at the core of a game designer’s skill set. Just as important, that creativity has to come from the knowledge and life experiences of the designer.

As an advisor to game design schools that include the New York Film Academy and formerly with the University of Southern California and co-author of Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games (Fullerton, Swain, Hoffman, 2004), I believe that successful students and ultimately professionals in game design have to be both technically proficient and creators.

Most people who enter a game design program know they want to be game designers. But they have to have both the technical aptitude and an artistic bent. I prefer to describe the vocation as a craft, but one that should be independent of the platform. The game should be something that can be applied to a board game. What they create should be very free form.

From my perspective and experience, it isn’t all about simple entertainment. I co-founded the EA Game Innovation Lab at USC, where students explore uses of interactive media, including games. The work of the lab includes broadening conventional wisdom about what games are and can be – work that has taken some surprisingly interesting turns.

An example of how a game/learning tool can work is The Redistricting Game  that I designed. The game explains the process of U.S. congressional district map drawing. While that may draw yawns from people who pay little attention to politics, there are many who claim the greatest power in America lies with the way congressional districts are defined. 

The process can influence which party ends up with the most seats in the House of Representatives. Each state is allowed to redraw its lines every ten years following the decennial U.S. Census, which determines where populations have changed. Each district represents a set number of people (the U.S. population divided by 435 House seats, roughly), so when a state loses or gains population it can eliminate or add a congressional district, requiring that the state be chopped up differently. What The Redistricting Game does is it allows the powers that be in a state (usually, the current governor or state legislature) take into account factors of population ethnicity, political affiliation and whether political friends or foes represent an area. The redistricting is done to the political advantage of those who hold power in the aftermath of the Census, however a handful of states allow this to be handled by an independent, non-partisan panel.

It may not be as sexy as Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. But if a reluctant student of government were given The Redistricting Game to play as a learning tool, it beats reading simple, dry text. The Redistricting Game illustrates the very nature of governmental politics: it’s a game to be won or lost. This is not unlike how things work in social and community groups and in workplaces. The lines between play and reality become blurred, as they have in many other parts of our culture in the digital, interactive age.

And it’s clearly why the business of storytelling is taking on greater importance in game design. Technical proficiency and knowledge is half of it. To be a creative and a storyteller, someone who can envision actions, reactions and consequences, intended or not, completes the equation. It’s a powerful combination.

Chris Swain is a leader in the games design and development industry, with two decades experience that includes building the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. His tenure at USC includes serving as an adjunct, assistant and research professor in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division, where he developed award-winning interactive games developed for AT&T, the BBC and PBS television networks, The Discovery Channel, Disney, Intel, IBM and Microsoft.  He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.


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