A blog-letter to Paul Gestwicki as part of the Republic of Bloggers.
Thank you for your blog-letter, Teaching Game Design with Player Practices. This is an interesting question, and one that I have had cause to ponder for quite a while since you first mentioned this to me. What makes it especially difficult to answer is the provision that this would be an introduction, rather than say, an entire course incorporating player practices into its framework. But it seems to me that if the player practices approach is viable at all, it would also be viable to teach as part of an introduction. So how might we do it?
Before I discuss a possible answer, I want to state my support for introducing game design to people using boardgames (analogue games, as game studies has branded them, according to its ongoing obsession with the digital). I can create a boardgame in three hours, albeit with years of prior experience to draw upon, and although the systems-thinking that goes into such designs is not applicable to all kinds of videogames, it cannot be avoided that teaching an introduction to game design with a digital tool would end up up with most of the time spent on debugging etc. and not enough iteration. The sheer pace of boardgame development makes it an ideal teaching tool.
But the benefit of thinking in terms of player practices is that it transforms the context of what is going on, and thus avoids a number of conceptual blocks that have beset game studies and game development for decades. The first of these is a personal bugbear of mine: assuming that 'the player' is merely a surrogate for 'me'. Too many otherwise-talented indie developers spread this pernicious propaganda: just make a game for yourself and then the players will find you! This is either a lie, or a gross error. It only works if you happen to possess play styles and tastes that align with a significant proportion of the audience and manage to get traction among the games press. Since the successful indies have already passed both hurdles, they erroneously assume that their strategy will work for everyone. It doesn't. But the 'file drawer' problem means that the hundreds of failures are invisible and thus ignored, creating an illusion where 'the player is me' is good professional game design practice, rather than a vast risk factor in commercial failure. Of course, when you make a pet project, you're absolutely entitled to make whatever you want! But the games industry today includes a rather desolate wasteland of failed game projects that were made 'for themselves'... browse the hinterlands of Steam and anyone will see exactly what I mean.
To think about game design in terms of player practices is to break out of the assumption that 'the player is me' and replace it with the idea that 'I am a player, there are other players' and (relatedly) 'the same game can be played in many different ways'. Yet how challenging this transition can be for us nerdy folks who thrive on systems thinking and prefer to ignore the complexity of actual human behaviour! A subtle part of the problem is that most of us have picked up a rather misleading view of the sciences that has been distorted by the fact that physics was a comparatively simple research field, while (say) medicine is an extremely complex one. We tend to elevate physics to the top of the science totem pole because it happened to be an area where mathematics could do a great deal of the heavy lifting... Einstein's work, for instance, was never experimental, but always 'merely' a matter of manipulating the algebra. The point being: those of us drawn to game design have learned to think about knowledge in a way conditioned by the formula-driven field of physics, which was 'easier' precisely because it's about 'things'. As you say, Computer Science students tend to be focused on 'things'. But games are not things. Games are what we play with things. So to get really good at designing games is to get really good at thinking about people, which is almost always much 'harder' than understanding things.
It follows that if the problem is to get folks more familiar with things-and-their-systems to think about people-and-their-practices, we need a system to scaffold the transition. In this regard, any player model will suffice as long as it captures some aspects of the diversity of play - so anything from Bartle’s types for MMOs to Lazzaro’s Four Fun Keys will do the job. My personal preference, unsurprisingly, is my own most recent model - 10 player motives - which was summarised in The Aesthetic Motives of Play, and is pictured above. A great introductory exercise is to have a test (sych as our legacy model BrainHex) that ‘types’ (i.e. badly approximates) students' play styles, and then allows the class to have a discussion about different elements of the play experience. This not only reinforces the remarkable differences in play styles and motivations for play, it helps students to see that everyone expresses multiple different motives and approaches in connection with the games they play. Once a system for appreciating player diversity is ‘installed’, the way is cleared to understand games from the perspective of their practices.
You then have a wide variety of options for how to proceed. I personally like to come at player practices from a historical perspective, via key moments such as the practice of using arrow keys for movement, as established by Dungeon Keeper and preserved in early id games like SHOUTY ALL CAPS DOOM, and the transition to ASWD as a result of Quake’s mouselook options and then Half-Life establishing it as the standard controls for FPS. I can fill twelve hours of lectures with this sort of stuff, but most students only connect to the material when it entails games they have actually played. That being so, a viable alternative is to pick a major AAA game franchise most students will know and identify the different ways the same game can be played differently. It is not even necessary for everyone to have played the franchise (or whatever you end up picking) to do this - those that have not can be given the role of 'researcher' to catalogue all the ways of playing they can find by interviewing those that have played. It may even be gainful to break up one of these games into its designed systems (which would help clear the way for a later boardgame exercise) and consider which of the different play styles connect with which of the component systems.
Pokémon is ideal for such an exercise. Those players for whom Pokémon is primarily a competitive battling game are executing wildly different player practices from those who are trying to fill up the Pokedex like a stamp collection (or, more accurately given the player practices that led to it, the toys from a gacha capsule machine). A good resource for examining the differences in played experiences here would be to look at the individual Pokémon guides maintained by a community like Smogon that has developed its own style of play using the exact same resources that Game Freak put into these games (supplemented in this case with their own tool for playing out those battles externally to an 'official' Nintendo game context). If we expand our view to the level of the media franchise (not just the flagship AAA games) we can also consider the role of the cartoon, the trading card game, and indeed Pokémon GO, in sustaining a set of absolutely central imaginative practices (the contents of the Pokedex in toto) that every instance participates with versus those practices (going to specific locations in the real world, breeding, trading monsters both online or face-to-face etc.) that are specific to each instance.
Many other such examples could be constructed - but note that we do not, alas, have the option here of looking at obscure and interesting titles. It is the big titles that sustain the key player practices, while the small titles are largely parasitic upon these practices by 'borrowing' them - and indeed subverting them for more interesting purposes (The Stanley Parable, for instance, relies upon AAA game narrative practices for the entirety of its player experience). In order that such an education in player practices does not merely suck up to the media corporations, it would be extremely helpful to follow the above exercise with another that looks at the diaspora of player practices that expand outwards from the big, anchoring franchises. Personally, I would do this historically by using (say) Counter-Strike as an example of corporate-sustained practices (FPS controls) nucleating new player experiences in the hands of creative individuals. Of course, in this case (as in many others) the small team responsible for the subverting title is invited into the media conglomerate, so alternative cases like Dear Esther, which more than anything else subverted FPS control practices in the most unexpected fashion by removing the guns, are also worth discussing.
Ultimately, you need some practical exercises in game design, and this is where the boardgames might come in. It could be interesting to link the examination of player practices in the preceding exercises to a practical spell with cards, dice, and pawns - for instance, by challenging the neophyte game designers to choose a player practice in a digital game and find a way to spin it into a viable tabletop game. The Pokedex, naturally, is a fine resource for system-building in other styles, and the turn-based combat of Pokémon can be easily returned to the table because its battle practices descend directly from Dragon Quest, which acquired them originally from Dungeons & Dragons, and before that, from Avalon Hill games. There are videogames without a player practice lineage tracking back to the table... but the vast majority of titles today do, in spite of the fact that those practices descended directly from the arcade largely do not.
The same point can be explored ahistorically, or by focusing solely on recent history (and hence, upon those games that the students will know) but I would personally go to great lengths to stress how far back these practices flow, that videogames did not come into existence ex nihilo, but develop as a continuation of practices coming from carnivals, gambling, storytelling, divination, and more besides. When I lecture Masters students on this topic, I take it back to 4,000 BC, and at my keynote for the Brazilian games industry I took it back to 540 million years ago just for the fun of it! You would undoubtedly have your own sense of how best to address this topic in order to keep your audience engaged - despite the contemporary obsession with so-called 'quality' in teaching, the vast majority of successful teaching practices entail forms of intellectual entertainment, since an engaged student is the only one who is actually going to retain anything being taught.
This is only a sketch, but I think this a plausible way of incorporating player practices into an introductory class on game design.
I offer my grateful thanks for your writing to me about this, not only because it is an excuse for me to talk about my own academic work (and I do not actually get as many of these as I should like), but also because it is an honour to have my work in player practices taken seriously. I went down a rabbit hole with this, discovered Wonderland, and of course have had to come back and write about it. But I am acutely aware that game studies holds me somewhat at arms length when it comes to my use of non-analytic philosophy to understand games and play. Perhaps when I am gone there will be some effort made to proverbially pat me on the back for my work, but of course, by then it will be too late then for me to appreciate it!
Also, I asked people to write to me and you actually did so. That means far more to me than I can say.
Hoping that every student you teach will both listen and hear you,
Further replies and comments always welcome.