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Level 15 Moment of Doubt

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

As the eldest son of a mother with numerous successful Chinese friends, I’ve had to justify my decision to major in English on numerous occasions. The first and most obvious question I’d get all the time was, “So… you want to become a writer?” If it wasn’t that, the topic of discussion would inevitably turn towards prospective careers in education and academia, of which I had no interest in. “Well,” I’d offer, “majoring in English is a great stepping stone towards building a fruitful career in law or business.” Many of my classmates, I explained,” although this statement would often blow up in my face, as the parent I was talking to would ask, “So… you want to become a lawyer?” to which I would sheepishly reply, “I’m not sure.” I’d look up furtively, appearing to be in deep thought. “No. No, I don’t.”

“I can’t stand it,” I’d moan to my friends or whoever was willing to listen at the time. “I can’t stand how all of these people depend on these neatly-packaged prescribed life choices so as to lend more meaning to their meaningless lives.” And then, once all of that was out of my system, I’d start to panic.

English? ENGLISH? What the f– what am I doing?

What I’m going through now doesn’t reek of the same degree of loathsome self-doubt and insecurity that plagued my remaining quarters at college. And yet, I’m still hit with those same undertones of deja-vu every now and then.

The fact that I’m willing to describe myself as a game designer is liberating, but there’s still a lingering degree of not so much insecurity, so much as self-consciousness, made all the more significant due to the fact that I am currently, and some might argue willfully, unemployed. Namely, I’m having a hard time describing what my skills actually are.

Since my return, I’ve come across the same parents that unmaliciously sprinkled those doses of doubt into my brain, and I’m still coming up empty. “So, you write programs?” Nope. I can do very basic scripts, but that’s it. “Oh. So you create the graphics?” Nope. I have artistic ability, but none of it’s digital. “Oh. I see.” An awkward silence inevitably ensues before they follow up with, “So, what exactly do you do, then?”

That’s an excellent question. I guess I could say that my job is to make sure the game is fun, but that’s a loaded statement. “Fun” in the sense I’m using to describe games is a collaborative effort, as bugs and crappy art do the opposite of contributing to fun. I could say that I establish the rules and setting, but it’s not really my say, either. We had a lead design and project director for that. When confronted with this question, I’ve stammered out a list of things I’ve done befitting my job description: I have created characters, their attributes, and the various pieces of gear that augment their performance. I’ve created playing fields for these characters to do what they do best. Order out of chaos, I’ve then created rules and logic for programmers to create a sustainable environment, a social contract of sorts for my characters to ensure that what my characters do best also elicits some type of positive reaction from the end-user. And finally, if and when everything falls apart, I’m one of the guys that has to come up with ways to fix and then improve things without pissing away months spent on art assets, environments, code, and not to mention my metagame design. Please, don’t ask me what “metagame” is. It’s for the best, really.

While I do appreciate it and respect it on a profound level, I want to have little, if anything to do with the “intellectual” theorizing about what games have, can, and should be. Not because I don’t agree with what theorists say, because I really do, but simply because I’m hard-pressed to see the point. I’ve been biding my time by reading Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, and it’s been, echoing what the numerous positive reviews on amazon say, an absolute joy to read. I can’t say I’ve spent too much time analyzing documents that contain buzzwords like “emergent gameplay” or treatises that refer to game design as “Ludology” (my spell checker just registered that as a typo; make of that what you will), but Koster’s book essentially streamlines and then distills everything I’ve ever asked for in a quasi-intelligent ┬ádiscourse on games as both a measured art form and as an educational device. Koster’s book has been a quiet revelation for me, as I’m finding more and more of what I’m creating to be broader, more expressive, and to be of a more primal level, as well as parsing what I’ve been experiencing when playing games on multiple levels of thought at once (while also having fun, natch). I can’t say whether the quality of my work and observations is any good, but for me, it’s significant, because it’s progress.

Another altogether humbling and ultimately gratifying book I’ve been following closely and clinging onto is Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers, which offers exactly what the title of the book states: non-digital challenges meant to test, push the limits of, as well as call into question the methodology and output of one’s skill in game design. When I interviewed for the first time at my old company, Possibility Space, I was asked, “Why do you think you’d be a good designer?”, to which I responded, “because I love to play games” without a hint of irony. Granted, a love of experiencing games of all forms and genres is undoubtedly important, but it’s not enough. Smash cut to a year later, I was the person in the meeting room raising an eyebrow at the poor, idealistic individual sitting in front of me, saying, “That’s really awesome and I definitely think it’s an important passion to have! But I need you to tell me more about your skills and qualities. What is it about YOU that is suited towards making games?”

I guess, to answer my own question, it’s what separates good teachers from bad teachers, or effective, observant parenting from ineffective, doting parenting. It’s being able to analyze a specific type of person and determine how to best challenge them, hook them into this device you’ve concocted for them, and keep them coming back to your creation without frustrating them. Honestly, without sounding too idealistically utopian, I think the core tenets of game design surround our everyday lives. While making my rounds slowly but surely through Challenges for Game Designers, I’ve hit dead-ends on numerous occasions and I’ve banged my head against the wall past my fifth dead-end in rhythmic percussion: “WHY-AM-I-SO-FUCK-ING-DENSE” And you know what? It feels great.

Great in the sense that I’m starting to get an idea of what my skills are, regardless of whether or not they jump off the page and throttle the reader’s attention. I have an appreciation for prescribed systems that allow freedom, and illusions that are actuated in a person’s mind. And if there’s one thing that gets under my skin, it’s self-conscious design that lacks confidence, as evidenced by my previous ramblings. I’m not one to talk at the moment, but my greatest wish is that someday, I will be.

Have I told you about my design for a 4-player competitive card game centered around assassinating other players in a cooperative game setting? No? Well good. It’s an absolute piece of shit. But, believe me, I’m working on it. And I’m having a blast.

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