Rules, Play, Magic: Evaluating Games as Design
Games haven’t been considered as design for very long. In fact, what was considered a game is still regularly debated. The term “game design” was reportedly first used by Redmond A. Simonsen, a graphic designer working for the wargame company SPI in the late 1960s.(1) Simonsen was primarily working with James Dunnigan on games simulating actual war scenarios and historical recreations. While Dunnigan was working to make games as historically accurate, Simonsen was interested in making sure the games were understandable and cohesive. This reflects a value that game design is about usability and form over complete accuracy of simulation.
Around the same time, Sid Sackson, creator of the board game Acquire, was about to work full-time as a freelancer in the game industry. He was debating what he should put on his business card. He wrote in his 1967 diary in February: “Thinking of what to pub on business cards. Decided on:—Specialist in Games—creation—development—evaluation—research.”(2) Throughout Sackson’s other diaries, he refers to himself “inventing” new games, which was the more common term for game creation. As an invention, people would regularly file patents for new systems of interaction for board games.
Today, the term for the creation of games is still largely questioned. At the first Game Developers Conference (then called the Computer Game Developers Conference) in 1992, creator Chris Crawford chose the term “developer” in order to not specify that the event wasn’t exclusively for people working on the visual qualities of the game, but for anyone working in the game industry. The term “design,” for Crawford, implies aesthetic creation rather than systems design or programming.(3)
The term “game design” and “game designer” have become the most common terms for describing people who make games. But this brief history of the term brings up the question about the values of games being design. What does it mean for a game to be designed? Design has a long history discussing aesthetics and spatial creation, which games require. Playing a game usually needs some sort of physical component, be it tokens or cards, or a controller to manipulate objects on a video screen. But the physical objects don’t exclusively speak to game’s design. A person could play checkers with chess pieces and the complete and total meaning of the piece would adapt accordingly.
A game is a toy if it doesn’t have rules or systems to guide users through the work’s intentions. Games have rules, (whether implicit or explicit) about how the game to be played. These rules are traditionally created by a game designer, but the player’s relationship with these rules is often in flux. With board games, the player is expected to understand the way the game system works in order to play. With video games, players are regularly learning and adapting to new rules as they play. Regardless of platform, however, a game is play where the play is pushed upon. Limitations are set by the rules and the player, acting in accordance with the rules, is required to act. How they react, however, emerges from the agreed upon style of play, which is informed by the design.
1 James Dunnigan, The Wargamer’s Handbook Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial Professional Wargames, iUniverse Press, 1980.
2 Sid Sackson, Diary Entry, 19 February 1967. Strong Museum of Play archives, Rochester, New York.
3 Chris Crawford, “The Dragon Speech,” 1992, accessed via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_04PLBdhqZ4.