On the Secret books thread I asked the question whether it would be possible to create a game which does for games what “Understanding Comics” does for comics. That is, a game which taught some of the history and design theory for games. Two readers pointed me towards “Understanding Games” a series of four short Flash games (#1 pictured above) by pixelate.
While I admire the effort that has gone into this, I think these games miss the point a little. They are more like a short lecture in game design, interspersed with fairly simple examples, than an actual game that teaches you about design. If anything, I found the gameplay itself to be a rather annoying obstacle to reaching the next piece of text. They don’t really use the medium to its greatest effect.
The value of games as educational tools is that they provide the opportunity for “learning by doing”. A good educational game allows the player to gain insight into a process by taking part in it, making choices and observing their results. To my mind, therefore, a game that taught about game design would actually need to allow the player to practice game design, making rule decisions and seeing how they affect the play.
To some extent, then, any game with a level editor is a “game design game”. It allows the player to experiment with some elements of gameplay and evaluate them, with community rating of your maps or mods as your ‘score’. Indeed, this is a good learning experience for new designers, but is a lot less structured than the lessons offered by pixelate. This kind of exercise is at the other end of the scale of didacticism: it carries no educational structure at all. A key aspect of education is providing concepts piece by piece so that they can be recognised and understood in isolation before being used in context. The ‘level editor’ game throws many of the concepts of game design at the player at once.
There is room somewhere in between for a game that allows the player to experiment with game design while providing enough structure to make it easy for the player to identify the theoretical concepts. I’m just not quite sure yet how that would work.