The Secret Books of Game Design

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I am building a list of the “secret” books on game design. These are books that are not explicitly written about games, but which any game designer who reads them just knows that they are really about games. At the moment I have two:

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud

McCloud does for comics what every game designer would love to do for games: he writes a compelling argument for why the medium is more than the message. He shows that comics can be much more than escapist superhero fantasy, and he makes a cogent analysis of the mechanisms of comic book construction — mechanisms that readers are intimately familiar with yet may never have considered in isolation. And he does it all in the medium he describes! Could a game designer do the same?

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, by Christopher Alexander

I know that computer scientists are wild on the whole design pattern idea, but there is something about Alexander’s original book that isn’t there in the software-pattern community, or even in Bjork and Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design. I just recently realised why.

Alexander is teaching that architecture, like game design, is essentially about interaction. It is the Mechanic – Dynamic – Aesthetic paradigm all over again. It’s easy to focus on the mechanics, in this case the structures that you build, and think that they are the source of the aesthetics (beautiful and usable environments). Alexander’s patterns, while they may name certain mechanics, are really about the dynamics — how do people interact with the mechanics and what are the aesthetic outcomes. It is only through understanding these dynamics that the link between mechanics and aesthetics can be properly made.

There are other books that I strongly recommend to game developers — The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman is one that springs immediately to mind — but these two feel more intimately about games. Are there others?

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  • Brian Moriarty

    James P. Carse’s FINITE AND INFINITE GAMES has a special place on my bookshelf. So does THE GLASS BEAD GAME by Herman Hesse.

  • JoeTortuga

    I wouldn’t stop with “The Design of Everyday Things”, I’d also include Norman’s “Emotional Design”, just because I think we’re realizing that game design is about inducing emotions in the hearts/minds of gamers (whether it’s fiero or love or joy or whatever)

  • Rayna

    I totally agree with you on Understanding Comics. I just can’t look at sequential art the same way anymore! I end up deconstructing it, and it all just makes so much more sense. Deisgn on everyday things is actually next on my to-read pile, after my bookclub book.

    I’d also recommend Killing Monsters, because you look at the escapism and informal education of playing in a completely different way.

    I wish I could remember off the top of my head more of the books that have inspired me!

  • Malcolm

    I never managed to finish the Glass Bead Game. I was attracted by the concept but it just got too weird and arbitrary for me. I’ll keep an eye out for the Carse book.

    Emotional Design is definitely on my wish list. Since reading DOET I haven’t been able to look at a doorknob the same way again.

    I’ve been trying to work out how to design a game that does for game design even a small fraction of what UC does for comics.

    I envisage a ‘SimGame’ game – like SimCity, but in which the player is a level designer for a 1st person shooter and the AI plays the part of the player(s). You’d have a limited budget to spent on monsters, power-ups, cut-scenes, cool lighting effects, etc.

    The aim would be for the designer add and arrange elements of the level to optimise the AI’s ‘fun’. The problem is it would be very tricky to write an AI for this.

  • Brian Shurtleff

    Try checking out “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

    Although he does mention games a bit, it’s about enjoyment in general: a study of what activities make people achieve the “flow” state, and how to make you achieve that state more in your life (i.e. enjoy life more.)

    The trick, it seems, is to make everything you do into a game. The checklist for what is required for an activity to provide flow is notably similar to what makes a game, and especially a GOOD game.

  • EricKaltman

    I don’t know if you are going to delve into books regarding the meaning of play. But I’m always confronted with Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. Don’t know how secret those are, but definitely foundational. Also, On the Emotions by Richard Wollheim.

  • Justin

    Having read all three (well, not A Pattern Language, you don’t really sit down and read that unless you’re really committed or bored) I’d wholeheartedly agree.

    Some I may recommend:
    Flow – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
    – Has a game based on its concepts already.

    Universal Principles of Design – William Lidwell, et al.
    – A good reference of the most important general design concepts.

    The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
    – Famous for George Lucas’ love for it; how to make compelling plots/characters.

    Marketing Metaphoria – Gerald Zaltman
    – Although this may seem like a marketing book, it’s actually about how to effectively touch people. Something game designers should maybe know?

    Anyway, I haven’t read all of these, but they’re on my “to read” list!

  • Adam

    “Understanding Comics” and “The Design of Everyday Things” were core books for designers at Westwood Studios and for a while at EALA.

    I’d also add “The User Illusion” and “The Natural Way”, although both get a bit metaphysical after a while.

    Robert McKee’s “Story” was also applicable for the structure parts of game design.

    Time to find “A Pattern Language”…

  • The Quill

    I’d suggest a Theory of Fun by Raph Koster for your book list, it breaks down the mechanics of video games and their appeal to players.

    Also, you have great taste in blog themes, if I may say so. 😉

  • Jason Booth

    Emergence, by Steven Johnson is one of my favorites for non-game design game design books.

    And if you happen to be in MMO customer support, ‘If you give a mouse a cookie’ comes to mind..

    @Malcom – that was basically the premise for Raph’s book on game design – do an understanding comics for games. It wasn’t, however, a game itself, which would have been very interesting but perhaps hard to pull off.

  • Thomas Truong

    I recommend a book called
    FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

    It’s a psychology book on how people get into a sense of “flow” causing time to pass by quickly, total effortless control and concentration, and forgetting about everything else on their mind.
    A game that puts you in a state of “flow” is the aim of many game designers.

    Link below for copy/paste ease:

  • Kim Pallister

    McCloud’s a genius, and while I’d agree that Understanding Comics definitely is pertinent to game design, I’d add that his Reinventing Comics has much to say about the games *industry* and as such is a must read.

    Another good add to your list is “Our Band Could Be Your Life” about the indie punk rock scene of the early 90’s, and I’d say is a blue print for indie game development.

  • Malcolm

    Phew! This list should keep me going well past Christmas.
    Thanks everyone for your suggestions.

  • Steve Swink

    I would recommend Csikszentmihalyi’s Beyond Boredom and Anxiety over the later book. It’s where he first identified and named “flow.” The later Flow book folks are mentioning above is a bit watered down for my tastes. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety has a deeper more fulfilling explanation of everything and is supported by research in-text. Plus, it’s just as readable as
    Csikszentmihalyi’s bemused, flowing (badump-chishhh) style is still there :).

  • Steve Swink

    Also, nice to see you building a list like this. I agree that stuff like Norman and McCloud is super topical for game designers :).

    I would also recommend “A Whack to the Side of the Head” by Roger Von Oech and “Basic Economics” by Thomas Sowell. Ooh, ooh, and “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan for anyone who’s designing, playing, or thinking of designing any kind of war game. It’s exquisite all around.

  • Sam

    What about The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, thats an absolute necessity.

    Every game designer MUST know about of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and its power and magnificence. Its a science fiction tail about the creation and use of the ultimate video game. One that can successfully raise and educate any child to a fuller extent than any human parent possibly could.

    Of course it’s not really explicitly spelled out, and thats a realization that I didn’t really reach for a while. But every game designer really has to know what video games could achieve and strive to reach out in that direction.

  • Nick Halme

    I’d recommend checking out some of Ben Cousin’s references, which includes some more of Christopher Alexander’s work:

  • insider

    Ways of Seeing – John Berger

    Mirrors in Mind – R.L. Gregory

    The Selfish Gene – Matt Ridley

    Universal Principles of Design – Jill Butler, Kritina Holden, and Will Lidwell

  • Curlyjim

    Understanding comics, except for games, eh…

    Although it’s not as good as Understanding Comics, it’s an attempt, right?

  • Jorn Barger

    Polti’s “36 Dramatic Situations”, Roget’s Thesaurus, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, EO Wilson’s Sociobiology

  • Mark Reid

    Herbet Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial has sections discussing how humans deal with complex environments.

  • Gillian Crampton Smith

    Elementary Pascal Learning To Program Your Computer In Pascal With Sherlock Holmes – Henry and Singer, Andrew Ledgard

    This isn’t exactly a game, but it shows how you can make a game to teach something very practical. Each chapter uses an aspect of Pascal to solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Sadly, it’s out of print.

  • Rob Harrap

    A few to add…

    The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell
    101 things I learned in architecture school by matt frederick
    but the real winner for me is…
    Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter (written in 1991 but WOW, totally about immersive online worlds)

    (note that if I were to list 10 others they would be ones already listed above – Pattern Language, DOET, UC, TOFun, Flow, ….)

    Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
    True Names by Vernor Vinge
    Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams
    Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

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