Thursday, July 20, 2006

Game Path

I have always loved games, anyone from my family can attest to that. As far back as I can remember I have been playing, finding, creating, and sharing games with anyone that comes in close contact with me. I don’t know if there is a definitive moment that games became more important than anything else, they were always just there. If anything, it feels more like a series of events, spread over a number of years, which has led me to where I am now. Another epiphany may yet alter my course further. For this month’s Round Table I’d like to share some of these first steps with you.

Elementary Gamer

The first two clearly game related memories that I have are from Elementary School (grades 1-6 for those of you playing against different systems). The first is of creating a game. It was the final project for a book report; you know the kind I’m sure. You read a chapter or two a week, answering questions after each. At the end of it you have to do some form of final craft-related project, usually the infamous Shoebox Diorama. I made a board game. Yeah, I had to be different. It was a simple follow-the-path game using events from the book as jumps and hinders. But it did have multiple paths you could select, and cards that altered your progress based on decision making factors. And I understood that you had to space and balance the game (I always hated playing board games, especially cheap ones, that would have you skip 3 spaces only to land on a lose a turn, or some such).

The second memory is of rescuing a fantastic game from the obscurity and ruin of the Lunch Room Game Cart. Brought out on days too rainy or cold to be let outside, the game cart held games, toys, and other things in various states of childhood destruction. Lost and forlorn at the bottom of the cart was a marvelous game called Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone (note: that is not me in the picture). How it got there I’ll never know. It is a game of mental challenges and puzzle solving. I could never get anyone to play with me. Not really surprising if you knew me back in elementary school. I did, however, convince the lunch ladies to relinquish the unplayed and unloved game to me. I still have it, and I still find the game intriguing. It was my first step to collecting great and rare games.

Digital Gamer

While elementary school held some computers and edutainment related games (such as Oregon Trail, and Math Blasters), it never held much for me. When they upgraded from Apple II’s to a lab of stylish Mac’s, they removed all the fun from the computers via a program interface called AtEase. It wasn’t until I moved on to Junior High (grades 7-9) that I truly began gaming on computer. With a school full of Macintosh computers (we are talking a library full, a couple of labs, and several hall areas with computers too), gaming was inevitable.

It was my first introduction to networked play. We’d play Bolo over the Appletalk network, and try to hide the games from our teachers. It was also the first time I created a digital game. I made a couple of attempts at point and click adventures using HyperStudio. My artistic skill were simple, but I had non-linearity, small puzzles, persistent items (across hypercards), and cheesy story. It was bad, but it was fun to create.

Principled Gamer

Since those early years, I’ve played dozens of games. I’ve even completed a few of them. I’ve tried to learn something from each one, and the more I play the more I can see the choices the designers made, and why they work the way they do. The more I understand the framework, the more I want to create something of my own. More than that, I want to create worlds – places of character and depth and story. I want the things in my head to be in front of me, and everyone, to play and explore.

It has been a long journey to this conclusion. Part of this realization is the firm knowledge that I have a long way to go before I can do that. There are still many things I have to learn about games, gameplay, design, programming, business, life, philosophy, literature, music, economics… the list, perhaps, is endless. I am comforted by the fact that I am young, and have resources available to me that will allow me to pursue this knowledge.

But there is one last formative step that stands out. I started with an obsession for trivia. I love it, especially obscure and funny trivia. After playing You Don’t Know Jack, I was hooked. It was hilarious and irreverent, packed full of odds and ends. But most impressive about the game was its ability to draw you in and make you feel as if there is another person, just the other side of the monitor, asking the questions. Sometimes there is a whole cast of people, ready to jump into your computer room.

I’ve followed the work of only a few game studios closely over the years. Jellyvision has the (dubious?) distinction of being one of them. They have a track record of creating these interactive, and immersive, games and sites and concepts. They have also conveniently boiled down their wisdom into something they call the Jack Principles. It is a set of guidelines to writing and delivering interactive experiences. I wish more designers would read these guidelines before setting out to design a conversational interface. They aren’t easy, not a one, but they are crucial to creating a dialog that seems natural and fluid.

In finding and incorporating these principles into my Gameview (like a Worldview, but narrower… and virtual) I’m slowly understanding where a lot of immersion breaks down and why. It has helped me to analyze games. It has also begun to change the way I think about the stories I want to tell. The Principles don’t apply to all situations, but they do help to shape certain aspects of play. Learning these things has also led me to seeking out understanding of other game design concepts, fostering yet more learning.


I see myself as on a path littered with games. They are everywhere I look. They occupy spare thoughts and lost dreams. I want to play games. I want to share games with others. Most of all, I want to create games. I want others to share my games, my stories, my visions. Each step I take along this path teaches me something new, each new direction leads to deeper understanding. In my mind, that makes this a worthy path to travel.

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