A brief note on the formalism discussion

After having read ‘Parley’ by Frank Lantz, I wanted to write down a couple of thoughts about the discussion on formalism that has been going on recently, even though I haven’t followed every part of it, and can barely spell ‘Deleuzian’.

First of all, Parley is great on several levels. It is well written, well argued, and a nice summary of the debate so far.

Second, I am very glad that Frank explains why he felt that:

folks who are aren’t as interested in theme and narrative see an emphasis on theme and narrative everywhere, so they are baffled by the claim that attention to theme and narrative is being crowded out or dominated by attention to rules and structure.

Because I sure don’t feel that way, which is why I must admit that despite my great respect for Frank I felt a hint of annoyance when I read his “we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe” line. (A line which for most people failed to make the point he wanted to make, as he explains in Parley.)

I now completely understand why he feels that way, and that has been enlightening.

But here is what it looks like from where I am sitting, looking more at the design side than the criticism side:

I’ve led a workshop on narrative design last year, and am about to do another one in two weeks. And to prepare for that, I have reviewed my book shelves to look at what other people have been doing.

My books on writing: check. Some good stuff there, and I kinda know how to adapt and integrate that. (You can find some of those books here.)

My books on storytelling in games: sure. Lee Sheldon’s Character Development And Storytelling For Games. Katherine Isbister’s Better Game Characters by Design. I know there’s a couple more, but I’m not really doing a workshop on writing, I’m doing one on narrative design.

So what about my two shelves with books on game design? Meager. Very meager. Here is what I find when I take some books off the shelf and riffle through the table of contents and the index:

  • Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: 10 pages out of 638.
  • Schell’s Art of Game Design: 4 chapters out of 33. Better than most.
  • Bates’ Game Design: 1 chapter out of 14. And Bob is a writer and adventure game designer.
  • Fullerton, Swain & Hoffman’s Game Design Workshop: 1 chapter out of 16.
  • Brathwaite & Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers: 1 chapter out of 21.
  • Fields & Cotton’s Social Game Design: nothing.
  • Trefry’s Casual Game Design: 6 lines.

Chris Crawford’s later books are the only ones dedicated to what one could call narrative design. Maybe The Game Narrative Toolbox will be good – I won’t know until June.


Here’s another fun example. Please allow me to unfairly pick on Stone Librande, someone whose talks I’ve enjoyed and who I’m sure is a perfectly nice gentleman. Here is the syllabus for the Game Design Fundamentals course he teaches at CMU. And here is part 12, out of 15:


While a game can be abstract, adding a theme can help draw players into your game world. This week’s lecture will examine how the “flavor” of a game can enhance the game player’s experience.

Workshop: Thematic Decisions

Design a character that could appear in a low-budget zombie movie. Create a set of options that describe how that character would move and attack if trapped in a room filled with zombies. Make sure that all the options are thematically appropriate. For instance, a Sheriff would be expected to carry a gun, but a Priest would not.


Work on your final project. Focus on elements that will add atmosphere to your game such as colors, fonts, characters and story. 


Flavor. Theme. Atmosphere. Elements such as colors, fonts, characters and story.


That’s what things look like from where I’m sitting. The people teaching, writing, and speaking about designing games, the ones who shape the debate, are primarily focused on the mechanical side of game design, and not on the fictional side or the integration of those two. (I am primarily looking at designers, not critics, although of course there is some overlap.)

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the mechanical side – we should, and I find that aspect fascinating, and important. And different people like different things about games, and have different approaches to games. That’s all fine.

It also doesn’t mean every game needs a “story”. But most games have a fictional side, a world in which they take place. For me, the mechanical and the fictional are two aspects of the same thing, and I find the best way to approach designing them is in an integrated manner, and this goes for most games, all the way down to ostensibly abstract games like Tetris (see here).

And that is exactly what I will be talking about during my talk at the GDC narrative summit this year, so this formalism kerfuffle better have died down or I can see I will have to add some slides to my talk.

Comments 4

  1. Daniel Cook wrote:

    Perhaps the thousands of books and decades (centuries!) of work on writing narratives plays, and movies might be some small solace. :-)

    In comparison, games have existed for millennium, and that handful of systems and philosophy leaning books are all we’ve got.

    The more general issue is that writing on game craft is remarkably limited. There are almost zero institutions that promote it (academia seems focused on explicitly non-craft criticism and game studies) and in 30+ years, our theoretical and institutional knowledge of our craft remains anemic.

    Perhaps that is the actual issue? We fight over scraps instead of asking why we don’t have a banquet.

    Posted 02 Feb 2015 at 20:38
  2. Jurie wrote:

    Hi Dan, thanks for leaving a comment.

    The reason I said “I am primarily looking at designers, not critics” was because of this general tendency for designers to focus on how to make things, while critics and people in academia tend to… not focus on that.

    (More on this, from 2004: http://www.intelligent-artifice.com/2004/12/on_academia.html )

    These are very rough tendencies of course, and I by no means mean to say that either academics or critics are “useless”. Some of my best friends are academics!

    I can imagine some systemic explanations for why these tendencies exist, but, well.

    From the point of view of someone who was desperate to read *anything* in the 90s, I find today offers a cornucopia of reading on game craft. Too much for me to take in! I’ve not even read all of the books I’ve listed above, but then I’m difficult about reading game design books. They make me want to write…

    Considering games having existed for millennia: may I offer the mischievous suggestion that, to make your blues go away, simply pretend games started in 1971? Suddenly we are in the early days of a better art form! What glorious wonders await us? I am not even joking about this actually. Ask me for my kittens vs caveman rant :)

    Could you describe the kind of writing you’d like to see about games? The equivalent of which book from some other field would you love to have exist for games?

    Posted 02 Feb 2015 at 21:16
  3. Daniel Cook wrote:

    I personally would be quite interested in the equivalent of game design books on:
    – Economics (A couple books, lots of folk knowledge)
    – Governance (Almost nothing exists
    – Group psychology (almost nothing exists)
    – Math (I can think of only a handful to essays or talks here)
    – Algorithms (Joris Dormans has a start down this path)

    The more I look into ‘games starting in 1971’ the less it seems true. Many of the structures have been functioning far longer. It seems a pleasant lie, like imagining the earth is the center of the universe.

    There are certainly unique design aspects that arise from the inclusion of technology. We aren’t really talking much theory about those either. At best we get purely technical discussions on ‘how’ and very few predictive models.

    Posted 02 Feb 2015 at 22:12
  4. Jurie wrote:

    Interesting list. So you want books about economics in games, say?

    >>The more I look into ‘games starting in 1971′ the less it seems true. Many of the structures have been functioning far longer. It seems a pleasant lie, like imagining the earth is the center of the universe.< < Well! :) The reason I suggest it is that I've seen people talk about when games began for a long time, and I've never quite seen the point of it, beyond the political. It started in 71. No the 50s. No wait, Greg Costikyan says it started in 1759. No wait we found games from the Neolithic era. (And that's more or less when storytelling started as Lee Sheldon points out.) Chris Crawford beats them all by pointing out animals play - games are pre-human. That must mean games are the worthiest and most important medium of all! I have immense respect for these people and I see the points they are trying to make, but the year when games started has not had a major influence on what I think about as a designer. And I doubt I would feel less fascinated by games if they had been invented yesterday. If you mention a pleasant lie, dare I suggest - in the spirit of friendly discussion, of course :) - that needing to have games be older than 1971 could be a crutch? But to be honest, I don't even see this as a matter of truth, but of perspective. I am fascinated by board games, and I think about them a lot, as an inspiration for my computer game design work. But is it wrong to think of them as being to computer games what theater is to cinema? Something worth studying and analyzing but ultimately with different forms which lead to significantly different techniques? I say this as someone who wants computer games to be more like board games. But also as someone, as I described in my post, who thinks focusing too much on the commonalities between board games (or other older game forms) and computer games can lead to ignoring the unique possibilities of computer games.

    Posted 02 Feb 2015 at 23:01