Understanding Games

Understanding Games episodes 1 & 2

Understanding Games is an interesting effort modeled after Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics— it’s a game on the subject of how games work. It’s a 4-part series, but only two parts have been posted so far. Here are the links:

Episode 1

Episode 2

I have mixed feelings about this overall (though they are mostly positive). I think it’s a great idea to do a project like this. At the same time, I feel like it’s too early to try to make an Understanding Games, because I don’t feel that we as artists have yet reached the core of what games are about. We’re getting close, but we’re just not there yet. So I feel like this effort really only gets at the surface aspects of games, not the deep stuff. But it’s much better to do that than not do anything, so hooray for the author, Andreas (here is his seldom-updated game design blog, in German).

Episode 2 reminds me somewhat of the kind of discussion we had at the Nuances of Design session — taking one example of a game that is simple, and building on it. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing.

(First saw this over at Raph’s site.)

5 thoughts on “Understanding Games”

  1. One of the things that makes Understanding Comics so great is that it uses the core elements of the medium to do the teaching. This project is sort of saying, “Here’s a game as an example, and then we’re going to use cutscenes to teach you things.” If Understanding Comics had been a textbook interspersed with examples of comics, it wouldn’t nearly be the classic that it is today.

    This is why I think making a true Understanding Games is a really, really hard project. Gameplay is good at teaching systems, but not necessarily principles. Rod Humble’s “The Marriage” is a great example of a game that teaches people about the systems of interaction between spouses. However, it teaches the systems, from which people make inferences about the “rules” behind marriage. This would be really hard to do with game design. What system could you show people that would help them infer the rules behind design itself?

    That said, I encourage the author of these games to continue working and iterating on them.

  2. Yeah, this is what I think too, and was one of my reactions to this project — it does a lot of talking and not very much communicating via design. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of the post criticizing it, since hey, it’s not like I’ve seen better.

    I think doing this the Right Way is possible, and maybe even not that hard once we as an industry/art form get better at the gameplay thing, but right now we just don’t have enough perspective to do it well.

  3. I’ve long wanted to do an Understanding Interactivity (or Games), and I definitely think it can be done better. There are a bunch of things you should probably do, especially if you’re going to have a cartoon character standing there lecturing.

    1. Navigation — less cutscene-y, and more like a book; users should be able to seek anywhere in the material at any time. (Note that this leverages interactivity.)

    2. If you’re going to have a cartoon character standing in for the author, almost immediately introduce a player avatar too.

    3. Illustrate principles by letting the user interact–e.g. have an ‘interaction window’ next to the ‘lecturing cartoon character’ that lets you constantly, continously interact. (E.g. put your avatar there.)

    4. Really leverage interactivity and computers by letting the user try out _creating_ interactive things. For example, you might have a game like chromatron (but much simpler), some AI players, and let the user create levels and “playtest” them, while talking about things like “train & test”, MDA, or other game design principles. (C.f. SimGolf.)

  4. Hello.

    Thanks for posting Understanding Games in your blog and for the extensive comments so far!

    I don’t really think it’s too early to try to do something like this. During the last years a lot of great books about computer games were published (like “Rules of play”, “Half-Real” or “What Video Games Have to Teach Us…”). While reading them I wondered why no one had tried to do this in a game, because it seemed somehow obvious to me to do it. So that’s basically why I decided to choose it as my diploma thesis project.

    As for Understanding Comics, some people say it’s not really a comic itself, but rather uses elements from comics to show and tell something about comics. With Understanding Games, a lot of Kongregate users first said: “Well, this is interesting, but it’s not really a game, so does it really belong here?” The reason for why Understanding Games is not a ‘real game’ is that you’ll want to show and highlight some certain aspects of computer games, and therefore you will have to LEAVE OUT a lot of the stuff that usually has to be in a real game. You can see this mechanism pretty well in Episode 2, where key elements for the player’s motivation are first missing, and then added step-by-step, so the player can understand why a certain element is so important for the gameplay.

    I know that you could try to make something like Understanding Games with less narration and linearity, and more possibilities to design gameplay yourself instead. But I don’t think that this is inevitably a ‘better’ approach, rather it is a totally different approach. Something like this would be great way for understanding how to DESIGN games. (Btw: Sony’s LittleBigPlanet will be pretty awesome for that.) However, Understanding Games is not only targeted at Game Designers, but also at people who have little or no experience with computer games yet.

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