The Designer’s Triangle

(Source: Pexels.com — Lalesh Aldarwish)

If you’ve been reading my weekly articles since the beginning, then you already know that I am a (relatively recent) graduate. My studies were in philosophy and game design. This will come as no surprise as I will now wax philosophic about a concept I touched on my undergrad thesis. that concept is… well, you read the title: “The Designer’s Triangle” (If you’re a big nerd too, you can look at that essay here, too).

This is going to be a bit of a longer dryer read, so if you came from my gushing at Game Jams or a whimsical tweet, I’m afraid this talk about art will be more science of art as opposed to art of science of art.

See? I’m already being difficult. If you’re still on board, let’s get going on The Designer’s Triangle.

Here it is!

Oh, wait… that’s not exactly right. It needs a little clarification.

Here we go.

For more detailed information, don’t hesitate to look at Chapter 3 of the design essay. Otherwise, here’s a brief summary and metaphor for the designer’s triangle.

The act of making, distributing and playing games, to me, is an elaborate mechanism for cultivating a relationship with a broader audience. In this way, you could loosely say that a game designer is a serial dater that not only finds people to have nice evenings and conversation with… but someone who creates the restaurant, constructs the theater, writes the movie and orchestrates the stage where the date takes place. Considering all the work that happens to make the “date” possible, it is very understandable that after they construct the theater they want to use it again with another person. So it’s a better venue if it’s able to appeal to a LOT of people. If it was really good for only a few people then the time taken to construct the venues would probably feel wasted (This is a SERIAL dated after all. Not exactly a hardcore monogamist).

There could have easily been a different sort of even used in the metaphor but I think that specifying that the designer is crafting “dates” specifically highlights just how intimate the feeling of playing games can be.

In the triangle, the designer is making the venue for these “dates” to occur via the games. And when everything goes well, the player on the other side of the triangle is happy. And when the player is happy, the designer is (usually happy).

There are other motivations and methods for designing games but my motivation and my research into designers I admire leads to the conclusion that proficient game designers have high emotional and empathetic intelligence. Not necessarily social intelligence (I’m a pretty awkward person myself) but an ability to cultivate a particular range of feelings in others.

Many people have wonderful memories, friendships and personal revelations in the games they play. Game makers are sometimes described as creators of experiences. I would caveat that what we really build are scaffoldings. In a myriad of systems, pixels, buttons, and reactions there’s no limit to the possibilities that occur in video games. Because of this, emotional and empathetic intelligence is the only real way to approach cultivating experiences. Trying to solely “logic” your way to well-cultivated games without emotional considerations is simply a less efficient method of controlling the possibility space of phenomenological experiences.

There’s a bit of overlap with this topic and my article on macro-empathy. As this empathetic work requires empathizing with groups and communities as opposed to individuals. You can read more about that here. Otherwise, you simply need to know that being able to empathize with lots of people, almost as if they were one or a small number of individuals.

When I was at the PixelPop festival this summer, I got a lot of feedback and made sure to get as much feedback as possible.

In a relatively recently released interview with Josh Boykin of Intelligames, I was asked about the design of Chroma. While talking about the design direction or the my dedication to minimalistic design, I broached a topic that seemed was apparently unususual to hear from developers. During that interview, Boykin was pleasantly surprised at my dedication to being receptive to critical feedback. This isn’t to say that developers go out of their way to ignore player feedback. That idea is very far from reality. I feel that my response to player feedback is very inwardly directed in order to improve the resulting game. Some games aren’t for some people but if my games are not engaging on some level to enough people, I can’t interpret that as testing for the wrong market. I have to conclude that I’ve failed to construct the experience that I’ve set out to make. During my time at my booth at the festival, if a player was having too much trouble or falling into an issue that hadn’t foreseen, the fault was mine and I made sure to vocalize that to the player sitting across from me (In spite of this, everyone enjoyed Chroma, so I’m glad for that).

I like that this outlook lets me stand out a little from other designers… but I really think this is a kind of philosophy that needs to be more pervasive. Whether or not you think gaming is as intimate an experience as a date, all games made for people need to have those people in mind.

Being empathetic and emotionally receptive to those people is simply the next logical step.