I’m going to be building in this article off of an excellent video by my friends over at Extra Credits. I can recommend their videos highly in general, but this one in particular. This one made me jump out of my chair and say “YES. That’s what I’ve been saying!” Except they communicated this one more clearly than I had managed to in years, and communication is what being a game designer is about. So while they certainly win that round, I want to examine one aspect of the topic in more detail. Having a lot of varied life experiences makes you a better game designer. I want to talk about why it does. (As you will see, this introduction is in fact a perfect example of why it’s true. So very meta!)
Language is important. Language allows us to apply systems to thought, in order to express those thoughts in a way that others can understand. Nothing makes this more obvious to me than interacting with my five-month-old son. It is abundantly clear that there are thoughts going on in that little head of his. Big thoughts. But what we lack is a common medium of expression that lets us engage over those big thoughts. I can’t read his mind, and he can’t use words to communicate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate at all.
Instead, we just have a very limited vocabulary. We’ve got it covered when we want to communicate “I am tired,” or “I am hungry,” or “I need to pee.” (As an aside, we’ve been doing infant potty training, and it’s really cool how much information we’re able to communicate back and forth. He’s got a specific grunt that he does that means “put me on the potty”, and in return, he’ll hold it until I do so. Kind of amazing, really.) But beyond that, we just can’t do much with concepts that require any abstract noun, or any thoughts about the future or past. We don’t have the ability to systemize those experiences so that they can be expressed.
The French have a fantastic phrase. L’esprit d’escalier. Literally, “the spirit of the staircase.” What it means is that feeling you get when you realize that clever thing you should have said after you’ve already left the party. Now, we have the means to express this concept in English. But the French can go one step better; they have this phrase, this noun to describe the sensation. It’s a thing. It’s part of their system of language. The ability to think about it systemically makes it something that is easy to analyze or discuss. And now, whether or not you had that noun to work with before, you do now. You’ve almost certainly had the sensation. But now you have the context in which to talk about that sensation and that idea. You can communicate that sensation better.
The world is full of these. Language is a great example for this, because it’s so blatant. When trying to take a concept from one language to another, sometimes you’re just confronted with the fact that it really doesn’t translate. But we encounter this all the time within our own language.
Imagine you’re trying to explain a concept to someone, let’s make it a game system to keep us ostensibly on topic, and they don’t get it. What’s the first thing you try? Almost everyone at that point will try to explain by analogy, or try a different phrasing. “Let me put that another way.” “It’s sort of like when…”
Maybe you’re trying to explain a story concept, or a character hook. Again, we try to connect with another person over a shared experience. “Have you seen Jaws? It’s kind of like that.” If you’ve both seen Jaws, then the movie becomes a unit of language for you and that person. But if one of you hasn’t seen Jaws, then Jaws doesn’t do you any good.
At the basic level, this is how life experiences make you a better designer. The primary job of the designer is to communicate, and the more experience you have, the more concepts you have at your disposal, the more likely it is that you will be able to find concepts in common with whoever you are trying to communicate with. Complicated concepts, like “L’esprit d’escalier” really benefit from linguistic shorthand!
There’s a second level, however, and it’s even more important than the first. The more systems you understand, the more connections between unrelated systems you are able to make. I worked with a great designer with a background in advanced biology. He had a thorough understanding of genetics, something that I understood on a much more cursory level. He designed a game system that was based in large part on how genes actually combine and mutate over generations – he was able to take this information that he had systemized, and turn it into an experience that he could share with others. Players didn’t need to have the same understanding of genetics to enjoy the system. But they could get a sense through play that something was going on that made sense, and it felt internally consistent.
That’s not a system I could have designed. More accurately, it’s a system that I could have designed after I did the research, but it’s a system that I wouldn’t have designed, because like a language that lacks l’esprit d’escalier, I wouldn’t have made the connection between that system and a game system that was well suited to it.
I had a member of my team approach me with a problem, and to help him look at the problem differently, I asked him to consider the issue from three perspectives, the concept of timing, reach, and audience access. Now, we used this lens and applied it to software projects, and we reached a satisfactory conclusion. But this origin of this particular trinity of ideas doesn’t come from my game development experience, it comes from kenjutsu! The concepts of timing, effective range, and center line form the basics of sword strategy. If you didn’t have an understanding of the system of sword strategy, you could still apply those principles. But you wouldn’t. You’d lack the language.
Understand a system, and it becomes language. And once a concept is an element of language, you can use that concept, like a word in a sentence, in an infinite number of ways.
Returning to the example at the top of the article – since we’ve both watched the same video, that video becomes a shared concept. By reading what I’ve written, we now share a system. The next time we talk about games, or language, or basically anything at all, it’s going to be that much better for both of us. Game designers, go out and live – as widely and impressively and as deeply as you can. Along the way, you’ll make better games.