In the last post I was wondering where the sense of urgency was for creating meaningful games. It even sparked some interesting discussion on whether or not one should reduce the solution to a formula. I don’t think we’re in a race, but I think there seems to be a disconnect between the number of people willing to play/calling for games that are more deeply meaningful and the number of people doing something about it.
Several developers have asked “What does a meaningful game even mean?” This is a very fair question. Here is my own attempt at a definition of “meaningful game.”
Meaningful game: a game that has significance or provides purpose for how one lives life.
Games that are meaningful try to reach outside of themselves. They are about more then their own consumption. Maybe they give players deeper empathy, or sympathy, or comfort, or inspire an action outside of the game world. They are meant to transform, even if it’s just a little bit. A game that’s “only fun” might be nostalgic by referring to past 8-bit games, while a “meaningful game” might be nostalgic by referring to a child-parent relationship.
Earlier I linked to a video of Brandon Boyer’s GDC talk. He mentions the 3 artists he keeps praising whenever he meets people. His reason for continuing to share them was because their art was meaningful to him in this same way. Their art affected how he lived.
There are some games out there that create this effect…as a secondary, often temporary point that serves some other goal. But very few games are completely dedicated to this, and there are even fewer resources for how to make more games like that.
So why the disconnect? Part of the reason is that when a designer sits down to try to create meaningful gameplay, it’s simply hard to know where to begin. It’s easier to start designing a competitive fighting game dedicated to gaining coordination skills, or an RPG dedicated to managing stats well or character development in an armor-building or combative sense.
But what about a fighting game that explores the philosophy of fighting? What about an RPG dedicated to character development in an emotional or psychological sense? Let’s get real here. Do we even know it’s possible to dedicate a sizable game to something like that?
There just isn’t that much out there to build on, even for smaller games.
A Possible Solution
Therefore, we need some baby steps. We should hold game jams fully dedicated to meaningful gameplay. It’s a chance for designers to help each other learn how to make more meaningful game experiences and to explore the potential for games to affect peoples’ lives.
What happens at a meaningful gameplay game jam? We each explore a game mechanic or other non-mechanic game element using prototyping tools. That means the intention is not to create an entire game, but to explore an element of a game from multiple perspectives. The challenge is for a developer to pick a mechanic or element that would result in meaningful gameplay and (1) develop several prototypes of it in the first 36-40 hours or so. The last 8-12 hours would be dedicated to (2) writing a critical analysis of the resulting prototypes in a text document and then having a (3) show & tell to share the prototypes and analysis. Then the analysis and feedback would be (4) posted on a website dedicated to meaningful gameplay to share with the game development community. That way we are providing resources for making all these meaningful games that everyone was asking for at this year’s GDC!
An Example Result
When I explain the idea to people, I keep going back to Jordan Magnuson’s Loneliness as a perfect example of this. If loneliness as a mechanic was explored at a meaningful gameplay game jam, you’d have 4 or 5 different versions of where he put his “message” or different versions of how the boxes moved around, followed by an analysis of how he thought the concept was communicated in each version.
Then later, as a developer who wanted to create a game that explored the concept of loneliness, you could go to the website, play through the prototypes, read the analysis of what the developer thought, and then start prototyping your own, maybe completely different, take on loneliness. The resources help you keep in mind something that did or did not work, or otherwise they just give you food for thought.
The collection of prototypes and analyses acts as a scientific journal of sorts for game design that other designers can then use. So you’d have something that’s not only useful for the creators, but also something useful for the game development community at large. That’s a good thing because you will then rely on that community in the future to help you improve.
A more informal version of this is already happening at sites like Experimental Gameplay Project. It’s just that there’s usually less analysis since developers are rushing to finish a game for a competition.
But What About Art?
Some developers have suggested that this sounds like meaningful experience is being reduced to something easily quantifiable, like a mathematical formula. I am very grateful to see this, because as a person who enjoys good debate, I would probably be presenting the other side as well. But that is not my intention.
It would be hard to disagree that there are (at least) two sides to the process of making games: the artistic side and the design side. This is a problem with the design side of games, not the artistic side. I think great progress can be made in game design through more experimentation, critical analysis, and building off of each others’ discoveries, as evidenced by science as a whole for the last 1000 years or so.
When it comes to the artistic side of games, Keita Takahashi seems to have it right when he says that progress can made in games through game developers living a rich and varied life and taking in inspiration from many things outside of the field of games. So let’s assume that a game developer who wants to create meaningful games will fulfill artistic needs in a more personal way, or at least in a way that’s less relevant to a quantifiable design process. Most of us have the life experience needed to at least take games a step deeper, either through trying to communicate our own experience or through creating a “space for searching.”
In the end, this is meant to improve the craftsmanship of design and its process. Its the ability to take what needs to be communicated by the artist and successfully express it through the medium of games, or the ability to build the space for searching. That ability is something we’ll need in order to create more meaningful games, and this kind of game jam could help develop it.
Special thanks to Jerry Shkavritko for suggesting I take the meaningful gameplay analysis idea and match it with a game jam!
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