Designing Video Games

Faculty Picks: 5 great books on video game design – selected by Choice reviewer Elena Bertozzi

Designing and developing what are called “applied” games or “games with a purpose” differs from creating games that seek purely to please or compel the player. Games that aim to educate players and possibly change their attitudes or behaviors are similar to the kinds of games other mammals use to train their young to develop real-world skills. Understanding why we play, how to communicate through multiple channels, the process of building games collaboratively, and the intersections between play and power is fundamental to authoring effective games. This collection of books from disparate perspectives is very useful to both understanding the evolving phenomena of digital play and providing a nuanced background for the ethical and effective design of new games.

Birth of the Chess Queen, by Marilyn Yalom. HarperCollins, 2004.
Yalom traces the history of chess from its origins to present day and parallels the game’s evolution over time to the emergence of female monarchs throughout Europe. Young royalty who might ascend a throne need training in the acquisition, disposition, and possible loss of power. Playing a game that requires thinking many steps ahead was one means of preparing for this future. Yalom examines both the representation of a female in the game—the original game did not include a queen—and changing ideas of who is allowed to play chess and expected to excel in it. The book allows us to see how our conflicted attitudes towards powerful women have changed over time and can be changed again through play.

Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Kitchen Sink Press, 1993
Using comics, McCloud decodes the myriad ways that we can communicate thoughts, feelings, moods, and facts through sequential drawings. Starting with cave walls, humans have long told stories and passed on important knowledge through line drawings. Acquiring this skill is essential to good game design because we are simply shifting the medium on which we are writing from the cave wall or the paper page to the phone or computer screen. Understanding how to use the space – box – or frame around a vignette, how to use the gutter in between vignettes, and the ways that we can communicate the passage of time through spacing are useful skills both for the paper prototyping of games in the design phase and the execution of games in analog and digital media.

Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture by Patrick Crogan, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Learning how to share, cooperate, and be social is vital to successful human development. We also have to learn how and when to be aggressive, fight, and defend ourselves from attack. Crogan’s book examines the history of using computers for playing games and finds that from the very beginning, digital game players were interested in practicing and testing the use of force in play. Computers are intrinsically good at vector calculations, so movements of objects along vectors, collisions, and keeping track of scores were the mechanics for the first games developed for computers. This thoughtful book looks at how digital play, war, and violence are connected and how those connections continue to be reinforced through ever more advanced uses of technology.

Co-creating Videogames, by John Banks. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Computer games have created the opportunity for large numbers of people, geographically distributed all over the world, to collaborate on pro-social tasks. This book looks at how online player communities donate their time and effort to find bugs and flaws, generate vast quantities of auxiliary content, and author entirely new sections of games. Banks examines the motivations behind this activity, considers whether it is a form of exploitation, and encourages readers to think about ways this kind of activity can be harnessed for other purposes.

Resonant Games: Design Principles for Learning Games that Connect Hearts, Minds, and the Everyday, by Eric Klopfer, Jason Haas, Scot Osterweil, Louisa Rosenheck. MIT Press, 2018.
Klopfer and his team have worked on a wide range of digital learning games. This volume guides readers through the process of working with a client who wants to educate a particular audience, understanding the motivations and needs of the audience, and designing and developing a game to achieve the desired goals. Many game developers make claims about the potential of games for learning that are unsubstantiated by facts or data. Klopfer is one of the standard-bearers for rigorous outcomes assessment based in good game development practice. Effective games are developed iteratively through a process of constant testing and tweaking because the game and the players of the game evolve. Using games that the team has developed at the MIT Media Lab as examples, the authors provide a useful road map to emotionally compelling and intellectually challenging learning games.