Level 1: Overview / What is a Game?

Welcome to Game Design Concepts! I am Ian Schreiber, and I will be your guide through this whole experiment. I’ve heard a lot of excitement throughout all of the registration process these last few months, and be assured that I am just as excited (and intimidated) at this whole process as anyone else. So let me say that I appreciate your time, and will do my best to make the time you spend on this worthwhile.

Course Announcements

Before we begin, I’d like to get a few quick administrative things out of the way:

  • Registration. As I’m writing this, there is a large backlog of registrations sent in at the last minute. So, if you sent an email and have not yet received a reply, check your inbox in the next day or two. If you still haven’t received a response by Wednesday, it means I did not receive your email and you should find your previous one and forward it. Double-check the email address: gamedesignconcepts@yahoo.com
  • On that subject, keep in mind there are over a thousand people actively participating here. I value all of your feedback and contributions, but if you send an email directly to me, understand that I may receive a lot and it may take some time to get back to you.
  • I’ve set up two resources for this course, a wiki and a blog.
  • The wiki is at http://gamedesignconcepts.pbworks.comand is intended for two things: as a resource for group collaboration (for those of you who are taking this course with friends), and as an area for people to post translations of this blog into other languages (as some of you have offered). If you think of other uses, feel free! Right now it is a closed wiki and requires an email address and password. If you registered, expect to receive an email in the next few days giving you login information.
  • The discussion board is at http://gamedesignconcepts.aceboard.com and is the primary place for interactive discussion. I’ve created separate discussion areas by interest group (such as: an area for college students, another for professional educators, another for professional video game designers, and so on). I will create forums by geographic region soon, to allow you to find others in your area and arrange to meet in person, if you’d like. This is also where you’ll be able to post the work you do for this course, and give and receive peer review (these will become available as they are assigned). Lastly, there is a forum at the top called Meta Discussion, which is discussion for the course itself — what is working and what is not, in terms of using blog, wiki, forum and so on in order to communicate. You will have to create an account and then wait for the moderator to add you. This process may take a couple of days, so please be patient.
  • If you twitter, use the tag #GDCU for any course-related tweets.
  • If you have something to say about the course content itself, feel free to leave it as a comment here on this blog.

And with all of that out of the way, let’s talk about game design!

Course Overview

Most fields of study have been around for thousands of years. Game design has been studied for not much more than ten. We do not have a vast body of work to draw upon, compared to those in most other arts and sciences.

On the other hand, we are lucky. Within the past few years, we have finally reached what I see as a critical mass of conceptual writing, formal analysis, and theoretical and practical understanding to be able to fill a college curriculum… or at least, in this case, a ten-week course.

Okay, that isn’t entirely fair. There is actually a huge body of material in the field of game design, and many books (with more being released at an alarming rate). But the vast majority of it is either useless, or it is such dense reading that no one in the field bothers to read it. The readings we’ll have in this course are those that have, for whatever reason, pervaded the industry; many professional designers are already familiar with them.

This course will be divided, roughly, into two parts. The first half of the course will focus on the theories and concepts of game design. We will learn what a game is, how to break the concept of a game down into its component parts, and what makes one game better or worse than another. In the second half of the course, the main focus is the practical aspect of how to create a good game out of nothing, and the processes that are involved in creating your own games. Throughout all of the course, there will be a number of opportunities to make your own games (all non-digital, no computer programming required), so that you can see how the theory actually works in practice.

What is a game?

Those of you who have read a little into the Challenges text may think this is obvious. My preferred definition is a play activity with rules that involves conflict. But the question “what is a game?” is actually more complicated than that:

  • For one thing, that’s my definition. Sure, it was adopted by the IGDA Education SIG (mostly because no one argued with me about it). There are many other definitions that disagree with mine. Many of those other definitions were proposed by people with more game design experience than me. So, you can’t take this definition (or anything else) for granted, just because Ian Says So.
  • For another, that definition tells us nothing about how to design games, so we’ll be talking about what a game is in terms of its component parts: rules, resources, actions, story, and so on. I call these things “formal elements” of games, for reasons that will be discussed later.

Also, it’s important to make distinctions between different games. Consider the game of Three to Fifteen. Most of you have probably never heard of or played this game. It has a very simple set of rules:

  • Players: 2
  • Objective: to collect a set of exactly three numbers that add up to 15.
  • Setup: start by writing the numbers 1 through 9 on a sheet of paper. Choose a player to go first.
  • Progression of Play: on your turn, choose a number that has not been chosen by either player. You now control that number. Cross it off the list of numbers, and write the number on your side of the paper to show that it is now yours.
  • Resolution: if either player collects a set of exactly three numbers that add up to exactly 15, the game ends, and that player wins. If all nine numbers are collected and neither player has won, the game is a draw.

Go ahead and play this game, either against yourself or against another player. Do you recognize it now?

The numbers 1 through 9 can be arranged in a 3×3 grid known as a “magic square” where every row, column and diagonal adds up to exactly 15:

6 7 2
1 5 9
8 3 4

 Now you may recognize it. It is the game of Tic-Tac-Toe (or Noughts and Crosses or several other names, depending on where you live). So, is Tic-Tac-Toe the same game as Three-to-Fifteen, or are they different games? (The answer is, it depends on what you mean… which is why it is important to define what a “game” is!)

Working towards a Critical Vocabulary

When I say “vocabulary” what I mean is, a set of words that allows us to talk about games. The word “critical” in this case does not mean that we are being critical (i.e. finding fault with a game), but rather that we are able to analyze games critically (as in, being able to analyze them carefully by considering all of their parts and how they fit together, and looking at both the good and the bad).

Vocabulary might not be as fascinating as that game you want to design with robot laser ninjas, but it is important, because it gives us the means to talk about games. Otherwise we’ll be stuck gesturing and grunting, and it becomes very hard to learn anything if we can’t communicate.

One of the most common ways to talk about games is to describe them in terms of other games. “It’s like Grand Theft Auto meets The Sims meets World of Warcraft.” But this has two limitations. First, if I haven’t played World of Warcraft, then I won’t know what you mean; it requires us to both have played the same games. Second, and more importantly, it does not cover the case of a game that is very different. How would you describe Katamari Damacy in terms of other games?

Another option, often chosen by those who write textbooks on game design, is to invent terminology as needed and then use it consistently within the text. I could do this, and we could at least communicate with each other about fundamental game design concepts. The problem here is what happens after this course is over; the jargon from this course would become useless when you were talking to anyone else. I cannot force or mandate that the game industry adopt my terminology.

One might wonder, if having the words to discuss games is such an important thing, why hasn’t it been done already? Why hasn’t the game industry settled on a list of terms? The answer is that it is doing so, but it is a slow process. We’ll see plenty of this emerging in the readings, and it is a theme we will return to many times during the first half of this course.

Games and Play

There are many kinds of play: tossing a ball around, playing make-believe, and of course games. So, you can think of games as one type of play.

Games are made of many parts, including the rules, story, physical components, and so on. Play is just one aspect of games. Therefore, you can also think of play as one part of games.

How can two things both be a subset the other? It seems like a paradox, and it’s something you are welcome to think about on your own. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter — the point here is that games and play are concepts that are related.

So, what is a game, anyway?

You might have noticed I never answered the earlier question of what a game is. This is because the concept is very difficult to define, at least in a way that doesn’t either leave things out that are obviously games (so the definition is too narrow), or accept things that are clearly not games (making the definition too broad)… or sometimes both.

Here are some definitions from various sources:

  • A game has “ends and means”: an objective, an outcome, and a set of rules to get there. (David Parlett)
  • A game is an activity involving player decisions, seeking objectives within a “limiting context” [i.e. rules]. (Clark C. Abt)
  • A game has six properties: it is “free” (playing is optional and not obligatory), “separate” (fixed in space and time, in advance), has an uncertain outcome, is “unproductive” (in the sense of creating neither goods nor wealth — note that wagering transferswealth between players but does not create it), is governed by rules, and is “make believe” (accompanied by an awareness that the game is not Real Life, but is some kind of shared separate “reality”). (Roger Callois)
  • A game is a “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” This is a favorite among my classroom students. It sounds a bit different, but includes a lot of concepts of former definitions: it is voluntary, it has goals and rules. The bit about “unnecessary obstacles” implies an inefficiency caused by the rules on purpose — for example, if the object of Tic Tac Toe is to get three symbols across, down or diagonally, the easiest way to do that is to simply write three symbols in a row on your first turn while keeping the paper away from your opponent. But you don’t do that, because the rules get in the way… and it is from those rules that the play emerges. (Bernard Suits)
  • Games have four properties. They are a “closed, formal system” (this is a fancy way of saying that they have rules; “formal” in this case means that it can be defined, not that it involves wearing a suit and tie); they involve interaction; they involve conflict; and they offer safety… at least compared to what they represent (for example, American Football is certainly not what one would call perfectly safe — injuries are common — but as a game it is an abstract representation of warfare, and it is certainly more safe than being a soldier in the middle of combat). (Chris Crawford)
  • Games are a “form of art in which the participants, termed Players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” This definition includes a number of concepts not seen in earlier definitions: games are art, they involve decisions and resource management, and they have “tokens” (objects within the game). There is also the familiar concept of goals. (Greg Costikyan)
  • Games are a “system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (“quantifiable” here just means, for example, that there is a concept of “winning” and “losing”). This definition is from the book Rules of Playby Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. That book also lists the other definitions given above, and I thank the authors for putting them all in one place for easy reference.

By examining these definitions, we now have a starting point for discussing games. Some of the elements mentioned that seem to be common to many (if not all) games include:

  • Games are an activity.
  • Games have rules.
  • Games have conflict.
  • Games have goals.
  • Games involve decision making.
  • Games are artificial, they are safe, and they are outside ordinary life. This is sometimes referred to as the players stepping into the “Magic Circle” or sharing a “lusory attitude”.
  • Games involve no material gain on the part of the players.
  • Games are voluntary. If you are held at gunpoint and forced into an activity that would normally be considered a game, some would say that it is no longer a game for you. (Something to think about: if you accept this, then an activity that is voluntary for some players and compulsory for others may or may not be a game… depending on whose point of view you are looking at.)
  • Games have an uncertain outcome.
  • Games are a representation or simulation of something real, but they are themselves make believe.
  • Games are inefficient. The rules impose obstacles that prevent the player from reaching their goal through the most efficient means.
  • Games have systems. Usually, it is a closed system, meaning that resources and information do not flow between the game and the outside world.
  • Games are a form of art.

Weaknesses of Definitions

Which of the earlier definitions is correct?

None of them are perfect. If you try to come up with your own definition, it will likely be imperfect as well. Here are a few common edge cases that commonly cause problems with definitions:

  • Puzzles, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Rubik’s Cube, or logic puzzles. Are these games? It depends on the definition. Salen & Zimmerman say they are a subset of games where there is a set of correct answers. Costikyan says they are not games, although they may be contained within a game.
  • Role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. They have the word “game” right in the title, yet they are often not considered games (for example, because they often have no final outcome or resolution, no winning or losing).
  • Choose-your-own-adventure books. These are not generally thought of as games; you say you are “reading” a book, not “playing” it. And yet, it fits most of the criteria for most definitions of a game. To make things even more confusing, if you take one of these books, add a tear-out “character sheet” with some numeric stats, include “skill checks” on some pages where you roll a die against a stat, and call it an “adventure module” instead of a “choose-your-own-adventure book,” we would now call it a game!
  • Stories. Are games stories? On the one hand, most stories are linear, while games tend to be more dynamic. On the other hand, most games have some kind of story or narrative in them; we even have professional story writers that work on multi-million-dollar video game projects. And even beyond that, a player can tell a story about their game experience (“let me tell you about this Chess game I played last night, it was awesome”). For now, keep in mind that the concepts of story and game are related in many ways, and we’ll explore this more thoroughly later in the course.

Let’s Make a Game

You might be wondering how all of this is going to help you make games. It isn’t, directly… but we need to at least take some steps towards a shared vocabulary so that we can talk about games in a meaningful way.

Here’s a thing about games. I hear a lot from students that they’re afraid they won’t be able to make a game. They don’t have the creativity, or the skills, or whatever. This is nonsense, and it is time to get that out of our systems now.

If you have never made a game before, it is time to get over your fear. You are going to make a game now. Take out a pencil and paper (or load up a drawing program like Microsoft Paint). This will take all of 15 minutes and it will be fun and painless, I promise.

I mean it, get ready. Okay?

We are going to make what is referred to as a race-to-the-end board game. You have probably played a lot of these; the object is to get your token from one area of a game board to another. Common examples include Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, and Parcheesi. They are the easiest kind of game to design, and you’re going to make one now.

First, draw some kind of path. It can be straight or curved. All it takes is drawing a line. Now divide the path into spaces. You have now completed the first step out of four. See how easy this is?

Second, come up with a theme or objective. The players need to get from one end of the path to the other; why? You are either running towards something or running away from something. What are the players represented as in the game? What is their goal? In the design of many games, it is often helpful to start by asking what the objective is, and a lot of rules will fall into place just from that. You should be able to come up with something (even if it is extremely silly) in just a few minutes. You’re now half way done!

Third, you need a set of rules to allow the players to travel from space to space. How do you move? The simplest way, which you’re probably familiar with, is to roll a die on your turn and move that many spaces forward. You also need to decide exactly how the game ends: do you have to land on the final space by exact count, or does the game end as soon as a player reaches or passes it?

You now have something that has all the elements of a game, although it is missing one element common to many games: conflict. Games tend to be more interesting if you can affect your opponents, either by helping them or harming them. Think of ways to interact with your opponents. Does something happen when you land on the same space as them? Are there spaces you land on that let you do things to your opponents, such as move them forward or back? Can you move your opponents through other means on your turn (such as if you roll a certain result on the die)? Add at least one way to modify the standing of your opponents when it is your turn.

Congratulations! You have now made a game. It may not be a particularly good game (as that is something we will cover later in this course), but it is a functional game that can be played, and you made it in just a few minutes, with no tools other than a simple pencil and paper.

Credit for developing this exercise goes to my friend and co-author, Brenda Brathwaite, who noticed that there is this invisible barrier between a lot of people and game design, and created this as a way to get her students over their initial fear that they might not be able to design anything.

Lessons Learned

If you take away nothing else from this little activity, realize that you can have a playable game in minutes. It does not take programming skill. It does not require a great deal of creativity. It does not require lots of money, resources, or special materials. It does not take months or years of time. Making a good game may require some or all of these things, but the process of just starting out with a simple idea is something that can be done in a very short period of time with nothing more than a few slips of paper.

Remember this as we move forward in this course. When we talk about iteration and rapid prototyping, many people are afraid to commit to a design, to actually build their idea. They are afraid it will take too long, or that the idea will not turn out to be as good as it seems in their head. Part of the process involves killing weak ideas and making them stronger, by actually making and playing your game. The faster you can have something up and running, and the more times that you can play it, the better a game you can make. If it takes you more than a few minutes to make your first prototype of a new idea, it is taking too long.


Some classes assign “homework problems.” I’m not sure what is less fun: the concept of work at home, or having problems. So, I call everything a “homeplay” because I want these to be fun and interesting.

Before this Thursday, read the following:

  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 1 (Basics). This is just a short introduction to the text.
  • I Have No Words and I Must Design, by Greg Costikyan. To me (and I’m sure others will disagree), this essay is the turning point when game design started to become its own field of study. Since it all started here, for me at least, I think it only fitting to introduce it at the start of this course. (There is a newer version here[PDF] if you are interested, but I prefer the original for its historical importance.)
  • Understanding Games 1, Understanding Games 2, Understanding Games 3, Understanding Games 4. These are not readings, but playings. They are a series of short Flash games that attempt to explain some basic concepts of games in the form of a game. The name is a reference to Understanding Comics, a comic book that explains about comic books. Each one takes about five minutes.

130 Responses to “Level 1: Overview / What is a Game?”

  1. Seth Says:

    At last it begins! I’m looking forward to the discussion as the class progresses. Thanks again for this great free resource.

  2. Raphael Aleixo Says:

    Thanks, Ian.
    Good luck with this course, and we look foward to keep in touch with everything.

  3. Joshua Says:

    In Homeplay, does “Game Design Concepts, Chapter 1 (Basics)”, refer to “Challenges for Game Designers” Chapter 1? Not trying to be critical here just trying to see if I missed something, as I don’t see where anything in the listed texts that refer to “Game Design Concepts.”

    • ai864 Says:

      @Joshua: You are correct, I meant “Challenges for Game Designers”. Modified the post accordingly. Thanks for keeping me honest!

  4. Federico Fasce Says:

    I’ve just finished to read the first chapter of the book.
    I have two questions (which maybe will be addressed in the next lessons):

    – The book said that there are two outlines for both a concept and a proposal document. I followed the web address, but I couldn’t find anything. Is there a way to get them? They could be really useful.

    – In the book there is a brief explanation of the design document. It says that when using agile development, no game design document is needed. I thought that design would be something like a Wiki document even when doing agile. Are there resources on agile development for games? How does it work?

    • T. Carl Kwoh Says:

      it really depends on the crew you’re working with. In agile its usually much more of an idea of a “living” doc that is more notes as to decisions made through iteration. Though even still there is usually a doc somewhere that is the overall idea of the game that you started out using.

      Its just way way way less formalized than “here is the mighty bible of this game”.

  5. Trevel Says:

    To make things even more confusing, if you take one of these books, add a tear-out “character sheet” with some numeric stats, include “skill checks” on some pages where you roll a die against a stat, and call it an “adventure module” instead of a “choose-your-own-adventure book,” we would now call it a game!

    They’ve done that, actually — well, the sheet isn’t tear out, the RNG is a page with random numbers on it that you close your eyes and poke with a pencil, and they called it a “solo game”… but, well, it is what it is. Turn to page 3 if you agree, page 7 if you disagree.

    • Robert Polzin Says:

      I’ve made several “choose your own adventure” online stories for classes back in college as part of an experimental storytelling class.
      It is amazing how fast you can quickly turn one of these stories into a game. You simply have to change it from all narration into a slightly interactive flash environment with choices for the player to make. Similar to a mix of games like Dungeon Master, and early MUDs.

      At the end of one particular project we had to give presentations to the class. I worked mine into a group experience where it was decided on a consensus which direction or choice should be made for each room. It was interesting to see how people were enjoying the experience and really getting into it. It was the first time I ever really got to see a bunch of people’s reactions to my work upon their first time playing with it and it was a great feeling.

  6. Raphael Aleixo Says:

    In Portuguese, we get a little extra trouble when trying to achieve what you said about “Games and Play”. We have a specific verbs “to play a game” and “to play” – “brincar” e “jogar”. Even in Spanish (which have many simmilarities to Portuguese), uses “jugar” for both activities.

    • George Dorn Says:

      Is ‘jogar’ more sports-oriented? It is used frequently to refer to ‘playing’ capoeira, even though that is a ‘game’ in the sports sense.

      There’s even a song with part of the refrain:
      Jogar Capoeira de Angola / Não é brincadeira
      (To play Angola Capoeira / is no “joke”).

      To go off on a tangent, are martial arts ‘games’? Some of these definitions fit at least some styles, and it is interesting to see which definitions fit which styles. In a ‘game’ of capoeira, for example, there is rarely a winning condition, but in a Tae Kwon Do or fencing match, there certainly is.

      But in the big list of features of a game, it seems the majority of conditions are satisfied by martial arts ‘games’ (or bouts or whatever):

      They’re activities with rules (assuming you aren’t allowed to, say, bring a gun), they certainly feature conflict, most have goals and all have split-second decisions to be made. They also have uncertain outcome, are voluntary (almost always), are inefficient (again, no guns) and are forms of art. That’s the easy list.

      But what about the rest? Are martial arts artificial, safe, and outside ordinary life? Yes, and this illustrates these points clearly: you spar with someone as a game; you do not spar with someone to kill them, take their property or hear the lamentations of their women. Likewise with the ‘representation/simulation’ and safety questions – martial arts are (most of the time) a simulation of a fight with arbitrary rules aimed at challenging the players and keeping the participants relatively safe.

      That just leaves the statement ‘games have systems’. I’m unclear how to apply this concept to martial arts. Most have sets of conventions, moves to counter moves and ritual behaviors, but these are not the same as a system that regulates the flow of money chits in a board game.

    • xeoncat Says:

      better yet, read Sage post down there (Sage Says: June 29, 2009 at 4:45), I think the Tris reply nails it down. There is the act of playing something (“brincar”) and there is the act of playing a game (“jogar”). The things actually get easier for us Portuguese than in those languages where there is only one word for both things.

      • Hélder Says:

        Play, and the german Spiel, have a bizarrely huge broad definition, and it has no translation to portuguese, spanish and some other roman languages…

        Here we use “jogar” to “play a game”, “brincar” to play with a toy (this in fact results that altough you always “play’ simcity and doom, you can only “brincar” with simcity and “jogar” doom), “tocar” to play a musical instrument or machine (ie: like you “play” a video, here it is “tocar” a video), and so on…

        This allow some powerfull constructions in relation to “play” in languages that has direct translation (like german), but in portuguese the things are clearly more separated, altough people here discuss to what is a game and what is not a game, this discussion is not even that widespread for that reason, here the diffrence in words make your intentions clear, if you say that you “joga” simcity, it is clear that you believe htat simcity is a game, not a toy or puzzle. (btw: the word for puzzles in portuguese is quebra-cabeça, that is also the translation of jigsaw, since here all puzzles are named “jigsaw” because of this, the word used when you play with a puzzle is “montar” that translates to “build”, not play)

  7. Federico Fasce Says:

    Ian, it appears that the link pointing to the PDF version of “I have no words and I must design” is broken. It adds to the actual URL the root address of this blog.

  8. wmioch Says:

    Awesome! Great start, can’t wait to get into the discussion board and wiki. I’m actually pretty happy with my 60 board game!

  9. xeoncat Says:

    really liked this first lesson, especially the relaxed tone.

    @Raphael Aleixo, since I’m also Portuguese, I think that “brincar” is more related to the fun part of a game and “jogar” is more related to the actual working of a game (and maybe related to competition) and “jogar” is what is mentioned in “Games and Play” section.

  10. Michel Carroll Says:

    Good solid introduction. I like your concise way of writting. No psychobabble; just what I find important.

    Looking forward to the next course.

  11. Joshua Says:

    The URL of the PDF version of “I Have No Words & I Must Design” is:

    Click to access nowords2002.pdf

  12. Danthor The Red Says:

    Good lesson! I’m fascinated to see what other design opportunities await.

  13. Robert Polzin Says:

    An interesting and enjoyable lesson introduction. One thing I think you really touched upon here is that a game isn’t a game when you are forced to do it. A lot of the aspects we see within a game are common with jobs in the real world!

    My personal definition of a game is that it is: “An activity with a set of rules and goals that may or may not change depending on the game’s progression that one or more people participate in for the sake of their entertainment and enjoyment.” Conflict may or may not be involved. In some games you often find yourself working together with other people in order to achieve these goals. A great example of that is LittleBIGPlanet where some levels require you to team up with other players to unlock all the bonuses and secrets. Even in this situation at the end of each level there is a score sheet that lets you compare to other players and see who reigned top in score… It is interesting how conflict can be such a driving source of entertainment! Although I feel it is not always necessary for a game, it can play a big role in increasing longevity.

    • ai864 Says:

      “It is interesting how conflict can be such a driving source of entertainment! Although I feel it is not always necessary for a game, it can play a big role in increasing longevity.”

      Just saw a tweet about this, debating whether conflict is necessary for games. I suppose it depends on your definition of “conflict”… and I define conflict very broadly.

      Is there conflict in a solitaire game (such as Minesweeper or Free Cell)? Sure there is — the conflict is you against the board. Even in a mostly luck-based solitaire game like Klondike, there is conflict between the player and the random systems. In a sim game like The Sims, there is conflict between the player and their sims (when you try to get them to do something and they refuse, for example). In a purely cooperative game, there is conflict between the team of human players and the game itself. I gladly invite people to challenge me on this — but give examples so the rest of us can debate it 🙂

      • Robert Polzin Says:

        I just got done looking at the four flash games and I think I have to agree that there is always a form of conflict within a game. I am actually trying to think of any game where there isn’t any kind of conflict within a broad definition. I agree that there is always a challenge and obstacles that seem to get in your way with games.

        Originally when I posted that I was thinking along the terms of against other players. After watching the flash lessons I would definitely have to agree conflict is a much broader term. Player on player conflicts aren’t always necessary. but it sure are fun! But yes I do have to agree that it would be hard to find a game without some form of game vs player conflict. Solitaire is a good example of this as when I get down to only several cards left I find myself often trying not to cheap and finish it 🙂

        I am not sure if conflicts is the best term for everything related to game and player relations. The old flight simulator games for example isn’t trying to crash your plane into the ground its just that you have to maintain control of the ship otherwise it would go haywire. So in some sense you’re fighting with the game to maintain control of the airplane so you don’t crash…

        So in that sense, its pretty hard to escape from conflicts…

      • Federico Fasce Says:

        A few months ago I was studying Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of play, and I was thinking about how apply game design to online community design. The idea was thinking the web app as a space of possibility.

        There I realized that conflict is actually one of the things that make people participate in a social environment, and, quite paradocxically, is a great collaboration booster.

        Maybe my definition of conflict is even broader than Ian’s, but think Flickr. It is a great photo site, with a lot of picture of excellent quality. And I think that the mild conflict raised by features such as the interesting pool or the favorite system, or even the comments can push people to improve their photographic skills and then the overall quality of the community.

      • Jason Tam Says:

        How about electro plankton? Is there any conflict involved in that game? I mean I think the creator (can remember who) call a toy rather than a game.

      • Larry Liang Says:

        Never heard of Electroplankton so I looked it up. It seems to be more in the toy category, just a more interactive synthesizer.

      • Hélder Says:

        I consider myself minesweeper and free cell puzzles, not games, because they have no conflict (the same apply to single-player tetris).

        some people said to me this is absurd, because it should result in some time trial games to be puzzles too, then I respond that if they have someone else (or even a ghostcar) to compare, it is a game, but otherwise it is a puzzle too, even if it does not look like one.

  14. Greg Berry Says:

    Well done intro session to this class.

    The topic of “what is the definition of a game?” was interesting to me. After thinking about it for a while Ian’s definition rang most true to me of those he provided though I do have a quibble with a the fact that Ian is attempting to make a sweeping definition for the word “game” and saying that the field of study has only been formalized for about 10 years. Game theory and game design as relates to that science has been a branch of mathematics/psychology/economics rather longer than 10 years.

    I believe what Ian has come up with is a pretty good definition for a subset of games, specifically “recreational/teaching intellect focused games.” The use of the word “play” in Ian’s definition of what a “game” is points to the “recreational/teaching” subset nature of the definition. The rest of his article points at games that have a strong focus on decision making, instead of games that focus on “athletic achievement,” thus giving rise to my supposition of Ian further intending to subset his definition of game to fit “intellect based” games.

    I don’t believe any one taking this class is planning on it helping them create the rule-set for the next rugby or golf (except perhaps as an intellectualized representation of such a sport.)

    Just some thought.s

    • ai864 Says:

      Greg: I’ll get into this on Thursday, but game design is very different from Game Theory. The latter is the study of human decision-making that has been around for quite awhile, I agree… but most Game Theory games are not the kind of thing that you would play for entertainment.

      As for decision making, we will actually touch on sports and other “twitch” games later on (if you want to read ahead, see Chapter 7 in the text on that subject). You could say that decisions are being made in athletic games, and that there are several such decisions being made every second of play.

      • Greg Berry Says:

        Ian, I agree that most game theory games you would never play for fun. My only point in quibbling about definition, for whatever value it might have, is that the course started out saying how important it was to define terms and then the proffered definition for one of the primary terms for the course, “game”, was, in my opinion, neither specific or general enough. I believe the challenge in defining the term “game” was to make it clear, specific and relevant.

        Perhaps the term “game” is too broad for what you are covering here. You are covering a sub-set of games and not games in general. I think If the point is to develop a common vocabulary then it would be better if the word(s) for what we are designing was more specific than just “game” or “game design.” “Game” is just too general to be of much use.

        Decisions are definitely being made in athletic contests. My point was that decisions are on a continuum of importance in regard to game play (from almost not important at all to almost the whole point of the game) and what this course seems to me to cover (or at least what I hoped it would cover) games where decisions are closer to being most important rather than least. Please correct me if I am way off base and this course is going to focus at least equally on twitch and/or large muscle based decision games rather intellectual decision based games.

      • ai864 Says:


        Great point, and something that I don’t think any of my classroom students have ever called me on. I do indeed say critical vocabulary is important on the one hand, and that defining games is impossible on the other.

        If it helps, what I will say is that the vocabulary that is REALLY important refers to the individual parts of games and not the term “game” itself.

      • David Hampton Says:

        Possibly true, however from the sum of the reading I have done on game theory there are powerful forces at work in groups which can be harnessed by the game designer. Tit-for-tat is almost always the most common game play style.

        Aside from that generalization, an understanding of game theory can allow a game designer to anticipate or test for his game being “solved” or “solvable”. Perhaps this appears more readily in play testing than is worth going to the trouble to create decision trees for.

  15. Bonifacio Segundo Says:

    I’m having lots of fun with the homeplay.

    Really excited about the course.

    The Level 1 was fascinating.

  16. Robert Polzin Says:

    Sorry for the poor grammar above. I accidentally hit submit without rechecking my revisions. It has been a non-caffeinated day for me.

    • Larry Liang Says:

      It’s the Internet. Compared to a lot of the stuff you see posted online these days, your post was error-free 😉

      • Robert Polzin Says:

        Well having a degree in Creative Writing I would like to think I know better… Oh well, lI got my point across. 🙂

  17. joshg Says:

    This lesson was a great mix of intro theory/definitions and in-your-face, quick and dirty hands on exercise. Great start! I surprised myself and made a track-race game that I think I actually want to play and tweak. 🙂

  18. Andrejs Klavins Says:

    But what would be the difference between athletic and intellectual games, if we define the game as something with internal rules, goal, struggle (decision making to reach some goal)? Well, you could argue that in some sports games (say a game “who of us two will make more push-ups in 100 seconds”) might not involve much more decision making than “I must push harder”, still it conforms to the definition. However we have rendered it somewhat useless with so broad interpretation.

    I’d probably want to stress “entertainment” as the key word when defining a game. In other words, it has been designed (can we assume that all games are designed by human beings?) with the idea of serving as entertainment (being a sports exercise or a ritual of maturity would be of secondary nature).

  19. Halo Girl Says:

    I really enjoyed this lesson. Taken notes so I can always refer back to this lesson. Points out the very basics of what a game is, and it reminds us that games are not always about video games, which many people do fall into thinking. There is much more to games than just video games. I know as a child I loved playing board games. And still do, just got influenced into playing video games more then my thinking became wrapped around video games being the only form of game… well not quite.

    But still cannot wait till Thursday now. 🙂

  20. Mark Sumerix Says:

    I define game conflict as: A goal the player must achieve in order to meet the victory condition(s). While the player has not yet met that goal, there is conflict that they have not yet achieved what is necessary for meeting the victory condition(s) but they want to..

    • David Hampton Says:

      I like this, I noticed the use of the word conflict in the definitions above and my eye twitched. I re-thought it to myself as, “some form of rule-caused opposition in meeting the goals” broad enough to deal with sports (the rules allow the players to oppose you in some ways and not in others) and other games. We voluntary accept these limitations probably in a way which pleasures us to affect a solution – in spite of the rules or player sourced opposition.

  21. Jason Smith Says:

    I thought the essay by Greg Costikyan was a great read.

    The flash games were were great. I can’t wait to get home and show them to my wife LOL. Maybe she’ll finally understand.

  22. skynes Says:

    Very nice first lesson.

    In the creating your own board game bit, when you mentioned either “running to” or “running away” it brought to mind that old RPG joke about when being chased by a dragon, you only need to outrun your slowest comrade. Which then had the gears turning for a race board game where the goal is to not get eaten by the dragon!

    Going to think on it more… it has potential…

    • xeoncat Says:

      hahah! I like that one. You need a big board with checkpoints, when someone passes a checkpoint it is evaluated who is the last, which in turn gets eaten by the dragon. Then there could be a special place where someone hits and activates a contraption killing the dragon or imprisoning him, letting all the surviving players win. there’s actually two levels of conflict here. you run both against the other players and the dragon.

      much potential for that one indeed.

  23. Sage Says:

    “How can two things both be a subset the other?”

    By being the same set would be the mathematical answer. A can be a subset of B and B can be a subset of A, but they cannot be a strict subset of each other.

    Probably a mathematical tangent, but it does suggest an answer: can all play be considered games and can all games be considered play? If we take conflict and rules to be fairly general ideas, it seems like it might be, but I’m sure we’ll get into this more.

    • ai864 Says:

      Sage: I should say mathematically that games and play are each a PROPER subset of the other. Not all play is a game (for example, “playing make-believe” is play but not a game). Not all parts of games are play (the written rules and the physical components are part of a game, but they are not the play of the game). So I don’t think that the two are equivalent, but they are certainly strongly linked.

    • Tris Says:

      By being actually three things, not two, in this case.

      It’s because play is being used to mean two slightly different things:

      1) The Activity of playing anything at all – a game, with a ball etc
      2) The Activity of playing a game.

      So if you call these Play1 and Play2 then what’s being said is:

      Games are a part of Play1
      Play2 is a part of Games.

      and any paradox you imagined disappears.

  24. Jason Smith Says:

    I’m curious what other people think about one of the comments made in Understanding Games 4. In particular where it was stated that more abstract characters appeal to a larger base of people.

    Character customization is very popular any many games. Just look at any wrestling game, or MMO’s. The level of detail and choices for say, lip appearance alone can be enourmous. I would say less abstract and more detail is not only more appealing but expected by players now. Players want to be able to customize the appearance of their character. Although the created character may look nothing like the player, the creation of the character by the player creates an identity for the player to accept as his own.

    • ai864 Says:

      If you want to look at more detail in terms of why more abstract/iconic characters appeal to a larger base of people, read “Understanding Comics” Chapter 2 (p. 24 – 59, but especially p. 30-31).

      • SnakeNuts Says:

        At first that didn’t gel with me either, but after reading the chapters Ian mentioned above and doing some soul searching, it’s actually amazing how much more I identify with games where the ‘protagonist’ is either very generic or even unseen. (I’d say being unseen is the ultimate ‘abstraction’ in this case).

        It made me realise why Altair in Assassin’s Creed has his hood up all the time for example.

      • Sage Says:

        Good point. Thinking over famous game characters, the ones that most stand out are all abstract in some way. Mario’s personality is all in his accent, and yet he’s probably one of the most recognizable characters. Pac Man is literally just a shape, but might be the most recognizable.

      • Dirk Says:

        @sage: Lara Croft? Duke Nukem? ..strong personalities also have an appeal to play as them.

        But it’s still “you” on the screen. If Lara dies in the game because the player made a mistake, he or she will most likely still say: “I died” although she is explicedly “someone different” than the player.

    • Federico Fasce Says:

      Well, I think the meaning of all this lies in the Understanding Comics chapter that Ian suggested.
      Iconic characters stand for a generic human. They don’t have traits you can connect to yourself. The more the character is detailed, the more it assumes the characteristics of a chosen individual.
      So, Little Big Planet Sackboy is just an iconic charcater representing all players. But when you start to choose the fabric, the dresses and the object he has, you are putting in it your values, and making it “you” in a way.

    • Larry Liang Says:

      Like you pointed out, the reason for characters is for an identity the player can accept. An abstracted character is an Everyman, much easier to identify with than say the Sorceress/Amazoness/etc. in Diablo 2 if you are male or the Paladin/Barbarian/etc. if you are female (I am speaking in generalities, speaking as a player who has created female characters on purpose in games that allowed a choice of gender). Suppose we were able to customize the clothing/features of these characters but not the gender. While this increases the abstraction, I believe it is not enough to satisfy the Everyman condition.

      One could argue that being able to create your own character is the ultimate abstraction because the character doesn’t “exist” until you start. In this case, the non-existent character IS the Everyman, since he/she can be anyone until you decide.

  25. Sage Says:

    “They have the word “game” right in the title, yet they are often not considered games (for example, because they often have no final outcome or resolution, no winning or losing).”

    Very interesting point here. Not having a final outcome is certainly not true of all RPGs, and is arguably only true of games that are abandoned by the players. I understand that you’re just repeating a common argument, but I’d never run into it before, and it certainly doesn’t strike me as true.

    Several great RPGs have built-in conclusions. My Life With Master is always a favorite reference here, but it’s certainly not the only one. There’s definitely a sub-genre of RPGs with very definite endings.

    In MLWM for example, the ending is inevitable and to some degree pre-written, but the positions of the players going into the ending is where gameplay comes in, and why it makes for such an amazing experience.

    I’d also say that in general any RPG that sets out to tell a story has at least a theoretical ending. Even D&D has an ending if the group is willing to stop at the logical conclusion of the game. So much of how D&D is actually played is all in the social contract around the table, but the fact that the game lets you determine when to stop playing is not the same as not having an end.

    I’d argue that by just about any of the definitions discussed most RPGs could be considered games (but I’d love for someone to tell me why that isn’t so).

  26. Jorge Padua Says:

    Excellent work I´ve been around for a while as a game design aficionado and I teach C++ in the university using games as the projects for the class. I´ll be commenting on different points of the course based on my personal experience, thanks for this great effort and congratulations!!!!

  27. James&Abby Says:

    We found the definition of a “game” very interesting, but debatable.
    Games are activities, they have rules, conflicts, goals, safety, but not all (sad to say) have decision-making. The card game “War,” for example, has no discernable decision-making.
    Not all games are representations of real life concepts; solitaire and rummy, as far as we can tell, are not representational of anything. We’ve also made card games that don’t represent anything, or else weren’t made to. Many games do represent things, but I don’t think a game MUST represent something to be a game.
    Games, for the most part, are outside of real-life, but that could also be debateable. Getting into the Matrix, what is considered real? If a professional football player could lose his job over a football “game,” is that no longer considered real or a game? In any case, you can build skill through games. Doesn’t this, however indirectly, influence real-life? I think that “games” are more a mind-set for approaching activities/situations. Anything could be a game, but it’s the mentality of the person that determines if something is a game. In many ways, life could be approached as a game, just like chess or Parcheesi. There’s rules, a conflict (or many conflicts), and a goal.
    A game could be voluntary to be fun, but doesn’t need to be voluntary to be a game, or fun. A game doesn’t change it’s identity if a person is voluntarily participating in it or not, that just means it may not be fun for them. On a similar note, a game doesn’t need to be voluntary to be fun. I am forced to go to school, but I rather enjoy it (I know – nerds unite!). Chess will be a game whether I’m in the mood for it or not, it just may not be enjoyable to me at the time. Whether an activity is voluntary or not, it is affected by how a person looks at it. So, a game could be affected by a person’s perspective.
    We think this definition as a whole is for good games, but not all games.

    Very nicely written, we’re looking forward to more! 🙂

    • ai864 Says:

      Great point. I listed some common edge conditions in the original post, but you bring up a couple of others.

      One edge condition would be those children’s games and gambling games which have no decision-making and (absent all human influence) will play themselves: War, Chutes & Ladders, slot machines, and so on. We call these “games” and yet many definitions would say otherwise.

      ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) play with the boundaries between game and real life. Movies like “The Game” and “Cube” depict fictional scenarios that are game-like but not voluntary. Are these games? We may call them so, but many definitions would disqualify them.

      As to the comment on games-as-simulations, some games are certainly more abstract than others. Chess and Football are both supposedly simulations of war (albeit very abstract). I don’t know the origins of Rummy, but it contains elements of collection and set-building, both of which appear in many circumstances in the world, so I would not be surprised if it was originally meant to be an abstract simulation of something.

      • Kevin O'Gorman Says:

        Sometimes I read so much material it’s hard to remember where I saw things, so if anyone recognizes this please speak up: I recently read an article that traced the commonalities of games to very proto-human behaviors. As mentioned here, our hunter side comes out in chess, athletics, Risk, etc. Rummy, Pokemon, Bridge, et al, reveal our gatherer side. So, in effect Rummy is a simulation of picking berries. : )

      • Ian Schreiber Says:

        Kevin: This is skipping ahead a bit because we will address that very topic when we start talking about different kinds of fun 🙂

      • Andy Van Zandt Says:

        I don’t believe I’ve read that particular article, but it reminds me of the “MUD players as card suits” article: http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

      • ai864 Says:

        Incidentally, we’ll touch on Bartle’s player types later in this course, so that article is getting a bit ahead of things 🙂

  28. Unknown Says:

    Better than the intro I was given at the start of my actual course. I completely agree with your views on use of game terminology. I have to write essays using such specific definitions, and I can’t help but wonder when I’m ever going to be using all these words that I almost never hear actual game designers and directors using, but mainly academics.

    The exercise really helped. I’ve been dreading my final major project (one option is to design and build a game), but this little process makes it so simple.

  29. Grétar Hannesson / Froztwolf Says:

    Off to a great start.
    I particularly enjoyed the ice-breaker of making a simple game in 4 steps. Give my cudos to Brenda Brathwaite for making it and to yourself for implementing it well 🙂

  30. Bryan Suchenski Says:

    Nice intro. I have to say, though, that one of the common game elements looks extremely suspect to me: “Games involve no material gain on the part of the players.”

    Between professional gamers, amateur tournaments with prizes, and winning cards (or pogs) at the end of a game, there seem to be too many exceptions to this rule for it to stand on its own. For that matter, players in any MMORPG are collecting in-game resources that have some exchange value for real-world currency (whether officially or via black market).

    It may be possible in most or all cases to take the real-world gain part out and still have an intact game, but we certainly can’t discount an activity as a game because players stand to gain from it.

    • ai864 Says:

      Great point. The question here becomes: is the material gain part of the game itself? In many cases the answer is no: the rules of Magic: the Gathering are the same whether you’re playing a friendly game or the Pro Tour championship. So it is not the game itself that is causing material gain here, but rather the circumstances surrounding the game. A subtle distinction, to be sure.

      • David Hampton Says:


      • Rikki Says:

        The course is looking great so far!

        I would just like to contest the definition: “Games involve no material gain on the part of the players.”

        As David says, Poker uses money as it’s primary tokens, and if money is not available, uses tokens (chips) to represent money. I think it is arguable that without the goal of winning money, poker might be played quite differently. Or would the goal just change to “who wins most hands”? Hmm, no even then the betting mechanism is deeply linked to money.

        Also, I think some serious games companies would like to think that there is potential to make a game that while played would be performing some money-making service. I’m not sure what yet! Maybe buying and selling on financial markets could be built into a game interface, in which case the goal becomes material gain.

        Where does playing for keeps fit in? I guess that’s just a gamble based on the outcome of the game, but if you lose a resource that affects your ability to play the next game, then does it become part of the meta-game?

      • ai864 Says:

        I think it’s important to separate the game from its surroundings in cases like this.

        Poker is a game. It has rules, and it can be played casually for chips or pennies or what not. If you take these rules and apply it to a situation where suddenly people are playing for huge sums of money… the money and prizes and real-world risks are not part of the game rules.

  31. Mark Sumerix Says:

    I disagreed with a lot of the subject of ‘I have no words and I must design.’ The author states that SimCity and other Sim products are games, even though Will Wright calls them ‘Software toys.’

    If that were true, then all simulations are ‘games with no explicit victory conditions’, which I disagree with. I prefer Will Wright’s definition for such products. As an example, when children play with action figures, there’s almost always no explicit rules, it falls under the ‘Let’s Pretend’ category, and thus, cannot really be a game because there’s no set structure, rule set, or order of play. Same with simulation.

    Sure there is a limited possibility space, but that’s because it’s trying to simulate some sort of model, whether a cognitive model or a concept model, but there are generally no explicit victory states, unless you’re trying to reach a specific goal, and then I think it can qualify as a game because that set goal can be interpreted as a ‘victory state.’

    • SnakeNuts Says:

      I think those ‘toys’ become games as soon as you say to yourself ‘let’s see if I can…’. Granted, they won’t be ‘formal’ rules, but you make it in to a game for yourself.

      I prefer the term ‘sandbox’ games myself (yes I know it’s a fashion-term at the moment and I despise it for that as much as anyone else) but more for the fact that when you were a kid, you’d have to make the rules for your own games (in the sandbox) all the time. Were they less enjoyable?

    • Ian Schreiber Says:

      As far as whether Sim City is a “game” or a “toy” — that is something that can be debated.

      Its creator calls it a software toy and not a game. But that alone does not make it so — just as I, as creator, can call my game the Best Game Ever but that will not make it so 🙂

      If you ask most people, they would probably identify it as a game. You would be more likely to see it in the Game section of a store and not the Toy section. So if nothing else, Sim City would fit the common use of the term “game” even if we cannot give explicit instructions as to why.

  32. Sam Says:

    I loved the quick design exercise of making a simple board game. It was a fun and creative activity with a very good point behind it. Looking forward to level 2 – Thanks!

  33. Grétar Hannesson / Froztwolf Says:

    “SimCity is a game – at least when a user plays it as a game;”
    I would paraphrase that to say “You can play a game with Simcity”. While I don’t see it as a game in itself, as soon as you set a goal then Simcity and that goal together become a game. (Assuming you can get feedback on whether you are approaching the goal and when you have reached it)

    • Sage Says:

      The same could be said about pen-and-paper RPGs (D&D), I think. In some ways the final elements of game-ness come from the decisions of the group playin (the goal, for example).

  34. Mark Sumerix Says:

    Now that, Gretar, I completely agree with. And that’s what I love about the Sims franchise, the ability to play your own games within it. As a systems designer, I am obsessed with possibility spaces and interlinked systems/mechanics.

    … I already love this class. xD

  35. Jeromie Walters Says:

    Great first lesson! I find it funny that some are debating the definition of “game”; you did mention it has multiple definitions and it seems each person will choose their own. I liked the analysis of common components across various definitions.

    I also REALLY liked the walkthrough of creating a simple game — hard to believe it can be that easy! I’m tempted to make my wife play my “rats running for the cheese” game with me 🙂

  36. Hakubak Says:

    Liking the course so far. I’m a bit concerned that it might be much more weighted toward electronic game design. I’m more interested in board and card games. Not complaining.

    Great content so far. The demos were eye-openning.

    Regarding controlling characters, this has always been my beef with the Final Fantasy series. I love so many things about them – the music, the art, the graphics and the worlds – but I like to design my own character. In FF, you get to stick your hand into the designers’ sock puppet for a while. Once in a while, they steal it back for a few minutes. You’re forced to say things that you might never think of saying. Very strange sensation for me.

    This can go too far the other way as well. I’ve played a bit of Elder Scrolls Oblivion on the 360. Holy carp… you can REALLY customize your character in that game. I took several evenings making, playing, tweaking, deleting, expirimenting with and refining several characters. That was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I am just a bit too colorblind to play the game. I was always missing color-cues. That got old very fast.

    Not as fast as Lego Indiana Jones. I got whupped in the first few minutes because I couldn’t see the swarms of bugs against the jungle background. Not fun.

  37. Grétar Hannesson / Froztwolf Says:

    “So one can argue that the Bloodforge hammer has ‘real world meaning,’ since I can transform it to hard US currency”

    I beg to differ. The hammer only has meaning within the game. However it has the same meaning to other players who may be willing to give you money for it. Thus, the hammer has value outside the game but no meaning.

  38. Jeane Bredemeyer Says:

    Off to a flying start! 🙂 One simple game and I’m trying to envision creating a game that works like the books where you write your own ending. I can tell my poor family is likely to become ‘guinea pigs’. Very good start. Thank you.

  39. Marcello Larcher Says:

    Me and some friends had an argument over how much of a puzzle a game can became after some time playing it. It was my argument that Checkers is a oversised game of Tic-Tac-Toe, since it had a “solution” after the programming of the Chinook.

    Only to point out that in some cases this argument led some people to discuss Chess as a type of puzzle, since it is almost impossible for a novice player to beat someone who read just Bobby Fischer.

    It is arguable, since only in games with luck as a main part can skill and training be beaten by firt time players. Fighting computer games and the complex multi-button special powers are a easy exemple, but they are games of skill.

    Well, does luck has any part in games definition, such as in these exemples? Certainly it’s different for computer games, but for board games the debate over chaos factor versus no-luck systems is very lively.


    Hello to everyone, and I’m also exited with this experience!

    • ai864 Says:

      If you want to read ahead, the “Challenges” text has a whole section with four chapters on the relationship between strategic skill, “twitch” skill, and luck.

  40. sloejack Says:

    The reading was a little tough to get through though I did enjoy the “create a game” exercise. I did it with my 5 and 2 year old and we created “Monster Chase.” We ended up with a path of 35 spaces (not intentionally, just the way it worked out) marked the the first spot start, and the last spot escape. I took 4 colored pegs from the “Trouble” game we had and a six sided die.

    The rules we came up with were simple. 3 players can play using either the red, blue, or yellow peg as their token. The green token is the monster. Starting with the youngest each player rolled the die and moved that many spaces. At the end of the second rotation the monster got to roll and move. The object of the game was to get to the escape square before you were captured by the monster or the monster got their first and blocked your escape. If one player landed in the same square that another player occupied the new player shoved the exist players peg back one space simulating pushing, pulling, scrambling to get away first. If the square behind was occupied, then the player got pushed back one to make room for the entering player. If the monster landed on the same square as a player, that player was captured.

    All had a good time and all total it took us maybe 5 minutes to draw up the board and agree on the rules. Much fun was had pushing and shoving for the exit. In the end the monster captured two of us almost at the end and one made it out.

  41. Tom McKendree Says:

    I recieved the books Friday. Someone on Amazon.com suggested reading _A Theory of Fun_ from front to back, just the comics, and then going back and reading the text. I read all the cartoon pages, and am now mostly through the main text, and can definitely recommend that as the way to read this book.

  42. Jason Tam Says:

    First off yay my first game designing lessons =]

    Very interesting session loved the challenge btw.

    The “what’s a game” section is some thought provoking stuff. I still can’t decide or create a definition for a game. But I think you should have like a parallel minded thinking and accept anything as a game. I mean can’t anything be game. Take Microsoft Word for example. Isn’t that as much as a game as Sim City. You start out with nothing and by the end you have created something. In Sim City you create cities. In MS word you create a novel or an essay. You are not forced to do it (even if it is for school), it’s fun (for some people just like different games), you have an uncertain outcome, goals, rules, decision making and I can list a heap more and they will still fit into all the definitions you provided. But that’s what I think IMHO =]. Am I right? Challenge me I dare you! (See this is even a game)
    Anyways look forward to the next lesson.

    And I’ve completed my “Homeplay” =]

  43. kirabug’s idea files » Blog Archive » Game design concepts: the course Says:

    […] linking to this blog not because I’m registered in the course, but because I definitely want to read along…. […]

  44. Ciro Continisio Says:

    I like the direct and humble tone of this lesson, compared to the one of a book I just read of two very famous authors which I can’t name… That book sounded like they knew the ultimate truth on games and most of the concepts are presented like commandaments.
    Good start here.

  45. wicak hidayat Says:

    Great homeplay.. but i’ve not yet received the book through Amazon so i can’t finish the first one yet.

    The second one i’ve done a couple of years ago. guess it’s time for a refresh.

    will be doing the third one soon.

  46. Jeff Meckley Says:

    Awesome start to a great course.

    I am a life learner and I certainly appreciate gaining more knowledge but I do have some comments concerning this quote from the Costikyan reading:

    “Indeed, if I had my way, a solid grounding in economics would be required of anyone seeking to learn game design.”

    As I have said, being a life learner, I can appreciate knowledge. BUT, isn’t there a point where you say to yourself “I have a hunch” or “my gut tells me” that this concept or this idea I have bouncing around in my head just might work.

    Is there anybody out there that feels design is part knowledge and part intuition. I spend countless hours studying hundreds of games and reading rules and observing comments and critiques and so on and so on. There is something to be said about keen observation.

    Any comments?

    • Larry Liang Says:

      I don’t see how you went from that quote to the next part of your commentary. Unless you took it completely out of context of what Greg Costikyan was saying. The solid grounding in economics is a foundation for seeing the myriad interactions and relationships between all of the entities participating in a system, which is definitely required for having a good game structure.

      • Larry Liang Says:

        Just a follow-up:

        As such, a solid grounding in any field that studies such complex interactions in a system can be switched with economics in that quote. For example, in the paragraph right above where the quote was taken, Greg also mentions ecosystems.

      • Jeff Meckley Says:

        Larry, thanks for the response.

        I am definitely gaining insight from Greg’s article. I do agree with you that an educational discipline is needed and should be pursued (such as this course) if someone is desiring to perfect their craft. I think there is a point, though, where a designer, artist, or “creative” must begin to trust their instincts in conjunction with or maybe in spite of what they have learned. For some, learning overload may be a stumbling block to a true sense of creative freedom.

        As far as the quote, I found it to be provocative and it lit a spark in me. I suppose a study of sociology, history, politics, and the like also can enhance ones arsenal of ideas.

        BTW, I don’t have any games published but I have a gut feeling….someday.

      • Larry Liang Says:

        I definitely agree with the “in spite of” part of your reply 🙂 For example: People who study music typically study for most of their lives, learning a lot of technique and music theory in perhaps the first half of the way (say about 10+ years). But the thing is, after all that is over and done with, no one holds your hand anymore. You’re free to do whatever you want with everything that you’ve learned. Not to say that musical discord is all music, but just take a look at the contemporary music out there 😉 Creative license running wild.

  47. Kevin Jackson-Mead Says:

    Great first class, Ian. Here’s the little game I made: http://gameshelf.jmac.org/2009/06/game-design-concepts-level-1.html

  48. Aiursrage Says:

    For the videos I copied the rules so you want have to watch them (especially found video 3 annoying with the 5 minute puzzles).

    Rules of the game define the possible actions of the players. Rules are unambiguous, intelligible and apply for all players.
    2)No game can be played without interaction from a player
    3)The outcome has to be uncertain otherwise it will lose its appeal
    4)Rules and representation of a game are not independent but interact with each other

    1)Players require clear and immediate feedback to understand the relationship between action and outcome
    2)Players require an immediate goal so they can preform meaningful actions within the game
    3)Conflict and competition are essential for the players motivation
    4)The challenges of the game should match the skills of the player. Neither too easy (boring), nor too hard (frustrating).

    1) Many games are playable without reading the manual, instead the player learns through trial and error
    2) the player preforms action in the game world and observe how these interactions change the state of the world

    1) The games theme has impact on how the game appeals to different kinds of players
    2) The more abstract a character the more players will be able to identify with a character
    3) The controls can be direct or indirect and have a relationship with the player and character

  49. Vee Uye Says:

    Hello Ian and Hello all!

    Really enjoyed the start to this course and the great board game exercise. I drag my feet at any type of learning exercise I’m placed in front off but this really demystified the basics of game design fundamentals whilst being quick and fun. For a beginner like me, it was most appreciated and I look forward to the next lessons.

    My game is called Kitchen Carnage and its up on the the workspace.

    Bye for now

  50. Kevin O'Gorman Says:

    OK, so here is the “definition” I’ve been using at the start of my Game Design and Gameplay class. it has served me well for a few years, but I’m open to tinkering:

    A game is a non-essential activity governed by specific rules in a specific space aimed at specific goals.

    It has that whole academic parallelism to it to make it easy to remember, but it seems to get the job done. Have at it . . .

  51. Julian Says:

    Hey Ian, I told you I’d be here! =]
    We talked a few months back about orchestrated things and the course in general.

    This was a great course, I really enjoyed it, and I already came up with a neat idea thanks to your exercise. Whether or not I’ll do anything with it depends on the methods you teach in the coming classes, since I do not know how to go about making a prototype and the likes.

    Thanks again for this awesome class!

  52. Dr. Mike Reddy Says:

    Interesting first lesson and activities: I used to use the 1-15 number game with my Knowledge Engineering students 20 years ago, so it must be something of a meme! One option to extend that metaphor, before jumping to the magic square is to play it as a card game first:

    Nine cards, numbered 1-9 and each player takes a turn choosinG cards until they have cards that add
    to 15; most will choose 8+7 at which point you can remind them it needs 3 cards, and ask them why 2 is too few (too quick) and 4 is too many (work out how many combinations of 4 cards = 15 as an exercise). Play against the students – All of them together as you get a lot of strategy discussion, usually because they REALLY want to beat Teach – Use the square as a handy reference if you need to. Then pick a student and give them the square and get the class to challenge him; at this point a few pwnings will get them really wanting to know what’s on the paper.

    I used this exercise with one other variant – pick three words from nine that have something in common (a common letter defined by words on the grid; e.g. Right hand column all have ‘e’s) – as a way to drive home the importance of representation of knowledge in a computer friendly format: tic-tac-toe allows a geographical solution that the card or number game doesn’t and the latter require more short term memory.

    As to the definition of Game, I’d be interested in fellow students’ interpretations of Toy and Sport. I’m a real fan of the Flash games referenced in the first lesson. Witty, well executed and an excellent example for the students. I can also recommend the DS homebrew Pong that uses both screens, so you’re playing two games at once, with powerUps! You’ll need an R4 card to get this on a DS, but it’s worth it!

  53. Tim Says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this course and am very glad that it started. There is only one small problem. My bookseller of choice keeps delaying the delivery because (so they say) the publisher isn’t able to deliver the book.

    It is not very easy to get my hands on a copy, here in the Netherlands, none of the bookshops in my town have it at the moment. Is there a ebook available for purchase somewhere?

  54. Zeitalter3 Entwicklerblog » Blog Archiv » GDCU: First Post Says:

    […] first post of the GDCU first deals with administrative stuff and explains Ians background again. Then it jumps […]

  55. Satya Says:

    sooo excited about this course, will read the chapters tonight!

  56. Peter Blom Says:

    With the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would once again like to point to the work done by Jesper Juul regarding the definition of a game. He spent a whole doctoral thesis on the subject, and came up with a working definition, based on prior studies by Callois, Huizinga and the rest of the gang. AFAIC it works, so why must we keep iterating on this subject? Let’s move on, for Pete’s sake!

    1. Fixed rules
    2. Variable and quantifiable outcome
    3. Valorization of the outcome
    4. Player effort
    5. Attachment of the player to the outcome
    6. Negotiable consequences

    Cross posted @ gamedesignconcepts


    • ai864 Says:

      Jesper is awesome, but even his definition is not 100% perfect.
      Fixed rules: see Nomic, a game where the rules change. Or Cosmic Encounter or Magic: the Gathering, where rules are broken by card abilities on a regular basis.
      Variable and quantifiable outcome: several listed edge conditions cause problems here. Dungeons & Dragons does not necessarily have an outcome, quantifiable or otherwise (nor does it have fixed rules, for that matter — GM fiat is allowed). Sim games like The Sims do not have an outcome, they just keep going forever.
      And so on…

      • Peter Says:

        ai864, thanks for your comments. I’ll try to adress them in a short format suitable for the context:

        1. Fixed Rules: Your comment is that rules can change etc… :
        The rule changes in Nomic are governed by rules. This changing of rules is the core gameplay. The new rules are then used for a session where this meta gameplay is suspended, according to the rules set out. I haven’t tried Cosmic Encounter (looks like fun though!) but from what I gather that system works just like in Magic – modifiers exist that grant a player a selection of unique moves. Nothing strange here, rules exist that define how these modifiers work. The point here is that the rules are unambigous. If one player suddenly decides that he has the power to throw the board game out the window, and then get a hundred dollars from all his opponents, this will likely not correlate with the rule set the other players have in mind. But, what they do have in mind is that all players are granted special abilities from within a range set up by the game’s rules, as available to read in the manual.

        * Variable & Quantifiable Outcome: You point to D&D and The Sims:
        First off, The Sims isn’t a game. I am fairly sure Will Wright himself has pushed this point at numerous occasions, calling it a “sandbox”. Looking at D&D, you need to look at each and every gaming session seperately, since the GM sets up rules specifically for a session. There is always a set outcome, even though many times the group fails to reach it as time runs out, it’s too difficult to get people together for sessions, etc. But, not reaching the outcome doesn’t mean that the game ceases to be a game – just because you never beat Donkey Kong doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an outcome. The definition of this outcome needs to be unambigous. A D&D session must have a variable outcome: All players *can* die, or they can all live. Without this factor, playing becomes dull as success isn’t contrasted towards the possibility of failure. Quantification is also very often a key aspect of role playing sessions. Reaching a point in the world, aquiring an object, killing a monster. But as you say, a GM might decide not to set up this quantification. When doing so, the session ceases to be a game, and is instead a social play act governed by rules.

        I’m happy to continue this discussion if anyone has further points to raise. I’d like to point to Juul’s book rather than just the paper I linked to in my previous post, as he is more apt than I at straightening out question marks.

  57. Steven the Blind Millipede Says:

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  58. GDCU Level 1 « twobitgames Says:

    […] a Comment Categories: gdcu The first Game Design Concepts lecture was published on Monday. It’s basically an introductory lecture with some basic vocabulary so that those […]

  59. Jason Hostutler Says:

    Besides the assigned readings I am a little confused on what is going on and what to do.

  60. Mark Danger Chen » Google Reader Digest for July 4th Says:

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  61. Level 3: Formal Elements of Games « Game Design Concepts Says:

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  62. Climb the Mountain « Dave Matney:Forward Says:

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  63. Naspolini Says:

    Very good. I liked this first lesson. My book “Challenges for Game Designers” is coming. I’m anxious. Hehehe.

    Let’s go for the next lesson. Congratulations! Bye!

  64. pbeauregard Says:

    It been long time coming. I’ve just read the first of many lavel’s, and let me says, “WOW”. An easy way to understand the basics of game desinning. Can’t wait to continue.

  65. batı Says:

    Hello there, i just completed reading this first chapter of amazing fun stuff.

    Great job and thanks.

  66. DuncanF Says:

    I’m woefully behind on this due to end of year degree work and a recent bout of viral labyrinthitis, but I’ve finally gotten around to tackling the 15 minute game challenge. I’ve posted my attempt – “Quick Draw” on my blog if anyone is interested, and I shall try to get it onto the wiki asap.


  67. Climb the Mountain | Dave Matney : Forward Says:

    […] the first lesson from Game Design Concepts, we were instructed to build a simple 15-minute game (an exercise developed by Brenda […]

  68. Jeremie. Says:

    This is very interesting work you’ve done, I was wondering if you would allow me to translate it to French (I will of course link back to your website and state that you are the original author) ? I am part of a french game creating community and some of our users would like to read this in our language.

    Anyway thanks for the great work,


    • ai864 Says:

      By all means. If you look on the course wiki, you’ll see that a number of translation projects were started, although few were completed due to the fact that it’s a pretty huge amount of writing. But if you feel up to it, by all means go ahead. The content here is released under Creative Commons, so you don’t even need my permission… just give me attribution.

  69. Carthestian Says:

    Your energy and effort is greatly appreciated. The information your course has provided to me from only the volume perspective (ignoring insights, revelations, epiphanies, understanding, depth, and other more valuable aids) are truly invaluable.

    About one month ago I decided I wanted to do something interesting and find other people that were interesting… something that is difficult to achieve in a community college at times. Creating a board game made sense. Since then, I’ve gathered up quite a few people I would not have otherwise known, and have spent hours combing the Internet so that I could fully appreciate the input of the (much more experienced) members of my group.

    All I can say is thanks and thanks… imitation & flattery and other phrases that are befitting withstanding.

    Are the discussion forum and your email (grammar is lethal) still available? It would be a tremendous favor to my endeavor if it were.

    • ai864 Says:

      Discussion forum is still there, but I’m not adding new people (if you initially registered, you should still have access). Wiki is publicly viewable. Twitter still exists but is probably not that useful unless you’re going through the course with a group at this point. My email from the course (the Yahoo email, gamedesignconcepts) does still work, although I only check it periodically so expect a slow response.

  70. “I just found this blog, what do I do?” « Game Design Concepts Says:

    […] when you are ready, move forward to June’s Level 1 post. This is the official start of the course. From there, move forward to the next post, and the […]

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  72. Miguel dos Santos Says:

    In your definition of a Game, you forgot its most important attribute.

    A game is anything that is fun.

    • ai864 Says:

      Nice try, but I left that out deliberately for a few reasons.

      First, as you’ll see as you keep reading in this course, “fun” is not a very well-defined concept. What is fun for me might not be fun for you. Since fun is subjective, it’s hard to include in a rigorous definition.

      Second, what about poorly designed games, or just games that are not to your personal taste? If I’m not having fun playing Halo, does that mean that Halo no longer fits the definition of a game? If so, what is it, if not a game?

      Third, many things that are not games are fun — unstructured play activities, for example.

      Fourth, some games have a purpose other than fun or entertainment; consider a game like Jason Rohrer’s “Passage” or Brenda Brathwaite’s “Train” which are meaningful experiences, strong artistic statements, but neither one is fun (nor are they meant to be).

    • PurpleCyanide Says:

      If I’m a serial killer, then killing people is fun… -_-
      Also, think about that again after reading Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”.

  73. Game Design Concepts – Level 1:Panorama/O que é um jogo? | XuTi Game Development Says:

    […] de Bruno Salvatore Drago (http://www.xuti.net) Original em https://gamedesignconcepts.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/level-1-overview-what-is-a-game/ (Acesso em […]

  74. link 01/10/2011 « Game Design Journey Says:

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