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On Design Research and Game Design
"Design" is an immaterial system, like a spirit, that is difficult to feel and create
My post-graduate degree program was called, "design research, writing, and criticism." But this can be simplified as just "design research."
This is how Wikipedia defines it:
“Design research was originally constituted as primarily research into the process of design, developing from work in design methods, but the concept has been expanded to include research embedded within the process of design, including work concerned with the context of designing and research-based design practice. The concept retains a sense of generality, aimed at understanding and improving design processes and practices quite broadly, rather than developing domain-specific knowledge within any professional field of design.”
Now the purpose of “Design” (capital D) is "to create purpose, a plan, or intention that exists or thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object." It could also be the procedures, techniques, aids, or tools for designing. “Designing” is to decide upon the look and functioning of the object and the system, with or without a specific purpose or intention in mind.
What could exactly be the methods of design? We must ask how vague the definition of "design" is.
“Is design art?”
“Is all art a form of design?”
This is a paradox and conundrum that follows "labor is the source of all value." And if so, art must also be labor, and therefore "everything is art."
I despise this statement made by fellow art students and teachers, as I believe there is a limit to our understanding and our definitions of art. We must pay respect to the semantics, language, and logic that must follow.
And so, “art” is not design! But design itself can be an art.
I strongly advocate that design is immaterial. It is rather something taking place in our minds and being executed into our reality.
About three years ago, I made similar arguments about game design in a series of YouTube videos. If design is immaterial, it is also impossible to display “design” in a museum. You can have TVs displaying video games, and board games on top of pedestals, but we human beings cannot see that spiritual design in front of them, especially in game design. Only the gamer can feel the “ludo-textual” experience of design and criticize it.
The design does not have a physical presence. Therefore, design has nothing to do with its aesthetics or political ideology attached to it (How can it?). Rather, design is like a machine, or a computer, that follows an algorithm of sorts. Design, I argue, should also belong in the analytical canon of Western art and philosophy.
My focus in graduate school was on tabletop game design. As much as I hate the word "tabletop," I prefer the classic "board" game design. (That genealogy of the word “tabletop” deserves its essay). "Game design" has become a vague notion since the dominant medium for games relies on the virtual and digital. Those who want to be game designers have great misconceptions about this vagueness. A bunch of so-called “game designers” actually want to program video games, be an art director, or be the producer, rather than to create a design for the game itself.
A game is a system of play that has unpredictable outcomes and uncertainty about who wins or loses. If the said game didn't have a win-or-lose condition, it's rather a toy. And if a game had an ultimate solution to its system, it’s rather a puzzle. (And most video games these days are puzzles with animated commercials).
I could go on with a digression about the definition of games, but I would like to make clear, is that I am interested in designing games as a system. Meaning, I don’t want to focus on aesthetics or ideology. To put it humorously, 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact. Those who argue for 2 + 2 = 5, is something that our neoliberal capitalist regime is advocating. “Design” for them means “advancing minorities and colored people to operate nonwhite businesses through game design.”
I am also quite aware that the game design scene and subculture of "gamers" have tainted the discipline of game design in a very bad way. Of course, everyone enjoys games, but gamers often only desire a certain subcultural consumption and ideology that follows. I disassociate with gamer culture and anything to do with soy boy nu males. In fact, by just taking a look at how corrupt the gaming journalist business is, so-called “game designers” and the subservient “gamer” class are in an echo chamber, not knowing what design is.
I see myself as an avant-garde artist, belonging to an analytical philosophical tradition that criticizes art and which associates myself with high-minded people who not only play games, but also read books, exercise, and who are politically incorrect.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe Gamergate was a real, controversial event. But I dissociated myself from video gamers and of video games. The true purpose of video games is to provide a program, a computer, of a game that could be played in reality, or something that cannot be done in the real or the physical. Video games today are animated cartoons bent on Asian-brainwashing for the masses.
I've also given up many times on the board game culture in America. Its target demographic seems to be neckbeard families who remember the good old days of the 1980s To also mention, Tom Vasel is a hideous consumer of sorts that reflects the decline of the American person. True Grognards and esoteric European game designers are one in a million in this scene. In the American scene, the only true game designer we tend to worship is Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering. But in my criticism, he comes off as a repressed Asiansexual, and as an arrogant rich kid who has a lot of time on his hands.
“Game design” is a recent phenomenon that has happened in the last four decades. There's a lot to go over on what game design is compared to “design,” but I'd rather like to focus on my interests and definitions of design instead. I see game design as nothing more than games revolving around the discipline of design. So rather, we should examine the art of design.
“Design research,” if you were to follow a strict definition, means new approaches to crafty innovations and problem-solving. This in turn could create new interfaces where the audience appreciates the designer's contribution. It's kind of like those who enjoy and appreciate architectural design, naming every idol and technique in the scene. The game designer is like a programmer, creating an immaterial system or interface, where the audience can use the system to interact with each other. Simple design mechanics found in Tinder, a smartphone, or exploring the virtual world of Minecraft, all contribute to technology and the arts.
However, most normative people see aesthetics as the main point of art and not the immaterial system behind it. Conceptual art, the Oulipo movement, and math teachers have all tried to force design appreciation through their studies. There is still no luck with the simple pleasures of the public. It is quite difficult to tell the normal person that they could enjoy something they cannot see. Only a few designers, programmers, mathematicians, and analytical philosophers enjoy the immaterial and appreciate its beauty and sophistication.
Most postmodern professors will try and tell you that there is no such thing as beauty, and that beauty is ultimately fascistic. I just nod my head and say, “I am a fascist. I love beauty.” As another example found in philosophy, there is much more student interest in the continental school than in the analytical, because of how difficult and stiff logic and language can be. A sad continental philosopher just has to say something ridiculous as "power structures exist in a patriarchy" without any connection towards a verified system of it, and then all the teenagers flock to such popularity games. Richard Rorty once said that the main problem of the political left was its deep interest in the continental and its ignorance towards the analytical. I believe in this same Rortyism in the discipline of design research and game design.
Chances are, most people are uneducated about what is design and how to create designs. The truth may be, just like board game design, most people jump into game design and create mimesis art of their favorite game and thus a subculture around it.
“Design studies” is mainly an English discipline, and you are less likely to see it in America. It is a common trope to see a copy of The Design of Everyday Things on top of their bookshelf, or at least the word “design” being attached to any existing book. The pathetic Design Researcher is kind of like a Satin Bowerbird that only collects blue things for the rest of its life. Why? It’s just in its supposed nature. Because of this incredible boredom, the design teacher has, one is likely to shift towards something irrelevant and claim it has something to do with design. Just think about it, there are many disciplines like Marxism, feminism, colonialism, and all that stuff you get with a classic postmodern education. But design is ultimately isolated from such material ideologies. Only then to start hearing paranoid topics like “the design of paranoid suicide bombers” or “the design of colonialism oppressing Latino people at my local museum.”
Inside game design, there are two different schools, Ludology and Narratology. I see myself as a Ludologist, as someone who sees the analytical, logical system behind all the superficial aesthetics and product marketing. And on the opposite end, you have the Narratologist, who believes games are vessels, or machines, to be novels. It is ironic because the Narratology could have just become a novelist instead, but assumes now that games are tricky fads that are forcefully going to tell their arrogant novel for the unwilling participant, who could have just picked up a book instead! The Ludologist understands that games are systems of play, where interactivity happens between two or more human beings, not from an AI or puzzle that has yet to be solved. This is where games are unpredictable, and are outside the realm of puzzles and toys.
With this knowledge, It is difficult to design such a game that the Ludologist admires. I have my biases and I have my desires, but I would rather create a new board game design similar to those “post-elegant” (or pre-elegant) designs I grew up around and actively still play. It’s just that good game design is something rare to come across and not something found by discovery.
On the opposite end of celebrating design, I have my concern that design can also be a form of social control. This is also ironic, because how can an immaterial system become politically ideological? Well, smartphones indeed started with a proposed design, but now we are constantly addicted and glued to the screens of these devices. The design world celebrates such decadence as an accomplishment! In other words, the design brought the smartphone into existence, and the celebration of this kind of negative design is infecting and influencing the way we are thinking about the future of design.
As a comparative example, it's just like how negative, or bad, board game designs become fashionable every so decade. When Dominion came out in 2008, all of a sudden, every professional game designer wanted to design a "deck-building game." So everyone made a clone card game similar to Dominion where players constantly gather resource cards and shuffle their decks, constantly. The design was redundant and silly, and its celebration was worse than the Beanie Baby fad. To this day, Eurogames are still cloning each other, creating one puzzle after another with no end in sight. The zeitgeist is often a reflection of the culture that consumes said products, followed by their ethics and morality. Again, this eventually leads outside the discipline of design and into that of philosophy. Profit-driven motivation ruins art as a whole.
Name a Eurogamer who is an expert in Baruch Spinoza. I guarantee you will not find it. I still see all these bad Eurogames, or “hybrid” games coming out, advocating the decadence of board game culture, where all victory conditions are based upon the highest score, where the action point allowance system dictates a false sense of freedom, and ultimately games are nothing more than edible puzzles, never to be played again once it is solved. Let the dust cover the game on its shelf.
I also have strong criticisms of the word and concept of “elegance” brought upon by Dieter Rams. This is an arrogant assumption that the complicated and sophisticated should be trimmed down for the stupid masses. Again, this is where design is being used as a method of social control. Apple iPhones and the B.F. Skinner boxes destroy the discipline of Design research, as design becomes a puzzle that is solved. And so too game design is having less “interaction” between humans. We don't even have a correct definition of interaction anymore, and it’s rather that “interaction” becomes a skewed definition of interaction between a human and artificial intelligence. Chris Crawford wrote a few amazing books about interactivity and game design, and still celebrities like Eric Zimmerman seem to think interactivity is a verb and not something exclusive between two or more organic human beings.
The semantic games get worse for these design nerds. Now there are silly spin-offs like “design thinking,” where someone at a white-collar board meeting pushes the “design” that may be "black feminism will benefit through this board game based upon safe sex and where abortion clinics are available." Ultimately, this reeks of Tim Cook-CEO-talk of pitching ways to socially control people. Just like how capitalism works, everything exists within supply and demand cycles, where there are only hypothetical fads and trends, where design research tries to capture such fleeting popularity contests to make a profit.
I'm willing to argue here that great game designers, like Sid Sackson, Leo Colovini, Wolfgang Kramer, and even Andy Looney all have contributed to the way we think about games and design, where each character can fully express their artistic individualism inside a logical system of play. There are only a few people like me who appreciate this immaterialism of the mind rather than aesthetics or political ideology.
The best way one can feel, enjoy, and desire design, is through physical board games and/or reading role-playing game rulebooks. Think for a second about the concept of chess notation. Chess requires a board and its figures to play the game. But it is also possible that two human beings can play chess, through their mind, by speaking of game commands only. There might not be a physical board in front of them, but in their minds, they can record and track what is happening. The immaterial design is being executed by humans. When someone buys a new board game, and reads the rules for the first time, that the design is being executed during play. Design in board games can only be read, felt, and criticized through what Paul Booth calls the “ludo-textual.”
I challenge my fellow artists to think about design as this immaterial spirit and try to think of, or even create, designs that can change the way we think about ourselves and the arts.
Games are great ways for us to be social, and to interact with one another, and to express ourselves as individuals and artists. It is only possible by celebrating those designs and the people who created them.
Design can be fun.
For example, here is a recorded game notation of a previously played game of Homeworlds, designed by the eccentric Andy Looney. This immaterial system is a beautiful design. Even this game record shows how sophisticated Homeworlds can be.
Do some research on the game, and see if you can figure out what is going on. This is a full game with a start and conclusion between two players. All of it, without the physical, could be played in mind, only by speaking these commands.
Just read it, and learn:
I have also reviewed over 198 board games that share similarities in innovative design against the ideas of “story telling” and narrative ideology. You can read the list, here.