That Ball Game – A Game for Teaching Game Design

[This is the full text of a paper I presented at FDG 2013. A PDF copy can be downloaded here.]

For the past six years I have been teaching a game design class to a diverse group of programmers, artists, media theorists and designers. I have found that traditional academic model of teaching, as the handing down of established knowledge from expert to novice, fail badly in such a young and dynamic discipline. Instead I have embraced a more interactive model of learning, accepting students as fellow knowledge-creators and working together to find the ideas to help us better understand our design practice.

In this paper I present a ball game I use as an opener in the very first class. I describe the rules of the game in full and discuss how I employ as a teaching tool. I have used it every year and it has grown in importance as a way to break down the barriers between lecturer and student and between students of different backgrounds. It also serves as an thought-provoking example to help students think more carefully about some of the most obvious and yet troublesome ideas in the field: ‘fun’, ‘rules’, ‘play’ and ‘game’.

Published in: on September 25, 2012 at 5:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Book: Evolutionary Games and Replicator Dynamics

Evolutionary Games and Population Dynamics, by Josef Hofbauer and Karl Sigmund.

I won’t lie to you. This is a dense mathematical work full of theorems, proofs and exercises. I only understood about a third of it. After the first seven chapters I got lost and could only scan page after page of formulae. But what little I understood was very interesting and work sharing.

Published in: on July 24, 2012 at 1:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ira Glass on Storytelling

Talking about creativity, you’ve probably already seen this doing the rounds, but there is a lovely quote from Ira Glass on the difficulty one faces as a new artist, when your taste exceeds your capacity to create:


Published in: on July 20, 2012 at 6:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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Books: Steal Like an Artist

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist is a must-read for any aspiring creative, whether in writing, music, visual arts or game design. It contains a brief but profound manifesto:


Published in: on July 20, 2012 at 6:09 am  Comments (1)  

Books: Danger

Danger: Our Quest for Excitement
by Michael J. Apter.

Why do people enjoy dangerous sports like mountaineering or running with the bulls? Why do civillians enjoy playing soldiers and why do ex-soldiers sometimes talk about the dangers and even the suffering of war with nostalgia? Why do we enjoy other’s suffering in stories or movies or the evening news?

Published in: on July 18, 2012 at 7:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Emergence and Game Based Learning

In game design there is a commonly made distinction between “emergence” and “scripting”, but the distinction is often poorly explained. Emergence is often treated as some kind of ‘magic’ that just happens (or fails to happen) when a system is complicated enough. Or else is just a term used to explain anything unexpected in a game or unintended by the designer. We are only beginning to understand reliable ways to engineer emergence deliberately, with specific goals in mind.

Rather than speak of ’emergence’, I see a more useful distinction between ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’ variables in economics. The exogenous variables are those whose value is imposed from outside the system, while the ‘endogenous’ variables arise from the system itself. So, for example, in an economics problem the supply and demand curves are often exogenous (externally imposed) but the price is endogenous (the outcome of balancing supply and demand).

Published in: on January 23, 2012 at 5:40 am  Comments (3)  

Books: 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick.

This is undoubtably another title to add to my “Secret Books of Game Design” list, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice it. There is a lot of general purpose design wisdom in this book that applies well beyond architecture, and it is presented in delightfully plain and pithy language. The topics range from the profoundly aesthetic (Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition that to the elements themselves) to the immediately practical (Roll your drawings for transport or storage with the image side facing out).

Published in: on December 14, 2011 at 5:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Games as Hill-climbing

Yesterday I read Brett Gilbert’s article Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory and it helped me crystalise an idea I’ve had for a while.

As Brett explains, there are always a large number of ways of playing any game. The rules place some boundaries on that space but we still need some freedom to provide room for play (“play is the free movement within a more rigid structure” as Salen and Zimmerman have it). So there is a space of play-possibilities fenced off by the rules. Brett draws this as a cicle but I prefer to think of it as a countryside.

Typically that countryside is hilly. Some places (ways of playing) are higher (more fun) than others. The player usually does not come to the game knowing where the peaks are but they can experiment and explore. Starting at any one place in the country they can explore the neighbouring areas to see which way the ground is sloping and start climbing uphill to greater levels of fun.

As anyone with a background in AI or optimisation knows, there are several kinds of problems with this approach. The first is the problem of local maxima. If I am standing at the top of a hill every direction I can travel leads downwards. If I cannot see the higher hills and mountains in the distance, I will not be inclined to move from that spot. If my hill is only a low one, this may mean that I will have a mediocre experience when I could have had a great one.

A second problem is when I find myself in the middle of a flat plane. No matter which way I go, everything is at the same height, so I wander aimlessly and have an unrewarding experience. I might even walk straight past a mountain and not notice it.

A third problem is when there are competing measures of optimality. If a game has a “win” condition then this creates an alternative slope for the player to follow. Some styles of play will be more “winning” than others. Oftentimes the “win” slope will point in a different direction to the “fun” slope and players will sacrifice their enjoyment of the game in order to play more efficiently. This leads to behaviours like grinding which are effective but dull.

The answer is to design your game to always provide a slope for the player to follow and to make every slope lead to the most fun parts of the play-space.

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 6:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

[NOTE: This is the full text of a paper we submitted to FDG’11. It was rejected for being too subjective and not citing enough other work. Fair enough. But poorly referenced subjective rants are just what blogs are for, right? So here it is.]

Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

By Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan


How do we create engaging ethical scenarios in games? This question has been taken up with seriousness by many designers, wanting to see their work grow beyond pure action and address deeper aspects of our lives. We are making progress, but existing designs are still too simplistic. They neither engage us as strategic gameplay nor as meaningful stories. To answer the question we must look deeper into moral reasoning itself to learn the skills it involves and how to engage them. In this paper we investigate the Four Component model of moral psychology to see what light it can shine on the problem. The result is a pattern for a holistic system of ethical gameplay, incorporating ethical identity, investigation, choices and challenges.

Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 8:17 am  Comments (21)  

Books: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.

As others before me have said, games designers need to know how to write. They don’t need to be master storytellers (although they should definitely consider employing good writers if their game is going to involve narrative or dialog) but they do need to know how to express their ideas clearly and they also need to understand the rudiments of narrative structure. Paul Callaghan opened my eyes to this in a guest lecture for my games class. I thought I understood the basics of writing: Setting, Character and Plot; but he got us thinking about deeper issues such as Theme, Subtext and Symbolism, and how they applied to our work as game designers. A game may not involve any “writing” per se, but can still benefit from the application of these ideas. They are the meat and drink of serious writing and for our games to earn the same level of artistic merit, they need to be our food as well.

Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 7:11 am  Leave a Comment  

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