What Makes a Good Game Designer?

I’m between jobs right now, looking for the right fit. Consequently I’ve been taking a few design tests. On the last test I took there was a section devoted to game design philosophy. Questions like,  “What is game design?” or “Where does design fit in a game development pipeline?” so on and so forth. One of my favorites was, “What makes a good game designer?” Now there are some obvious answers here: some knowledge of other disciplines, the ability to problem solve, the ability to communicate effectively, etc. However, in my opinion one thing is often overlooked: experience.

“Oh that’s obvious Martin!” you say dismissively. But I’m not talking about 5+ years of industry experience and two shipped titles. Trust me I’ve met people with more industry experience than that who didn’t have enough life experience to identify with the outsourcers from Germany that they had to work with on a deliverable. Life experience is crucial, and has nothing to do with brainstorming, understanding best practices, or sitting behind a desk writing documentation. What I’m talking about is having done “things and stuff.” Having connected with people from other cultures, having lived abroad, having tried to navigate a waterfront cave system; that sort of thing.

A while back I watched a video called Humans Need Not Apply. If you haven’t watched this film you probably should. This short talks extensively about how humans are being replaced in the workforce. Much like the emergence of the automobile put horses out of work, humans are being replaced at a rapid pace by new technology. It gets pretty scary talking about how low-skill, white -collar workers, and professionals are all in danger of being replaced by machines (of one sort or another). Yes, even doctors. At one point in the film the narrator says “Perhaps you are un-phased because you’re a special creative snowflake.” He then goes on to say that human creativity is no big deal and bots can be taught to replicate it. The narrator gives the example of Emily Howell, a bot that composes music. But, Emily is no Mozart. I didn’t hear anything that actually “moved” me while listening to its music.

My point is that, to spite what the video claims, there are human emotions, experiences, an essential human condition which you must relate to in order to produce truly compelling creative work. If programmers used machine learning to try and create a Shakespeare bot, feeding it everything from how to construct prose in iambic pentameter, to what makes for a good plot line, to knowledge of every cultural nuance of the world of Elizabethan England; I still don’t think the bot would come up with anything as compelling as Othello or even All’s Well That Ends Well (my least favorite work by old Will Shakes). If we created a game design bot and told it to design an unique puzzle game using optical illusions, what do you think the chances are that it would come up with something as beautiful and with as much mystique as Monument Valley?

Did you ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)? If you haven’t, then for this reference you just need to know that there is a major protagonist named Data (seriously do you live under a rock), an Android, basically a sophisticated robot that appears human. One of the reoccurring themes of the show concerns Data’s efforts to become “more human.”  Data was created without emotions, and while he is superior to humans in many ways (like strength and his ability to do complex math in his head) he can never really be one with the species he was designed to emulate because of this lack. Often Data’s search to understand humanity takes the form of creative endeavors like painting or acting. While he might give an adequate performance of Ebenezer Scrooge ultimately it is derivative, stemming from his studies of  “every known acting master.” Data admits that he does not “effectively convey the fear called for in the story.” It is pointed out to him that he has never known fear, but he should be able to approximate it as an acute observer of human behavior. Data criticizes this idea because it isn’t an appropriate basis for an effective performance. Data says he is a proponent of method acting, a technique where actors, in themselves, cultivate the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The idea of Data as a method actor is oxymoronic.

A computer, even one that emulates emotions, does not understand emotions or have experiences and associated personal interpretations that makes a person’s creative endeavors unique while still compelling to others. For this reason I believe that, as creatives, game designers should have as much life experience as possible. Understanding the exhilaration one feels on the half pipe at a snow park will make you better able to design an enjoyable snowboarding game or even a racing game. But it goes beyond this. Life experience will make you better at working with others. If you’ve never spent time with Chinese or Indians then you probably know little of their cultures. When you have to work with people from these countries you may find it hard to communicate. Try referencing Alice in Wonderland and watch the blank looks propagate. Within any culture there are things we take for granted that “everybody knows.” We reinforce this belief through media. An American produced television show will typically depict the US as the center of the world, the same for British TV. Have you ever watched anime? What country is the world’s hub of culture, trade, and diplomatic clout in those shows? Japan. By immersing yourself in other cultures you become better able to understand people, not just your people.

If you never try to have life experiences. If you aren’t adventurous and tend to eat the same few meals you’re comfortable with, never tried yoga, never visited a foreign country, watch only reality television, and have never spent a night camping in the middle of a forest (sans RV), then you are missing out. You don’t have to do those things, exactly, but without life experience, ultimately, you aren’t much better than a creative computer program. All your knowledge and understanding of humanity is mostly theoretical or stems from a very narrow perception of the world. In the end we are designing for other people. The person who designs for themselves is lost, tending not to make great games. The more life experience you have the better you will be at understanding the needs and motivations of those you are designing for. While books on Game Design are great, I’d prefer to work with the designer who has never cracked one but who has spent three months working on a shipping vessel in the Atlantic. But, that’s just how I feel.