Games as Research

As I continue work on GuruQuest (latest graphical state visible in the screenshot to the left, with proper clouds!), I’ve been trying to think about what I’m actually doing with it. I have this vision of it that revolves around a virtual contemplative space, and the ability of a computer to tirelessly generate a world and a person for you to talk to, and the idea that you get out what you put in – there’s no reason you can’t have a meaningful experience with the virtual guru, to my mind, you’d just have to want to.

Anyway, this gets toward thinking in the world of design concerning design “as” research versus design “for” research. The distinction being, at base, whether you make your design and then look at it afterwards and try to learn something; or whether you go into your designing with a kind of project in mind. It seems like the former makes pretty good sense, while the latter could pretty obvious compromise the over design process in various ways, and so could be flawed.

But in a sense all design (including game design) could be seen as “for” research in the sense that we’re usually exploring something while we’re designing/making. There are certain qualities we’re interested in, and as we make the thing we’re making, we learn about them.

So, by making GuruQuest I’m able to actively experiment with these ideas of a generated “natural” world and a person who behaves like a guru, and so on – and I can ask the central question “what’s it like?” because I can actually make the experience personally. Obviously it might turn out that it feels like “not much”, but the ability to ask the question is kind of miraculous in itself.

On the other hand, there’s something about games in this regard that’s a bit painful. Specifically, games require so much effort to produce. Just to make something as simple as GuruQuest has taken me a significant amount of effort. I’m not the world’s greatest programmer by any stretch, but being a better programmer would only help a bit – the fact is that making a game is just a major undertaking. And that, it seems to be, is kind of inherently opposed to the idea we could experiment with and explore ideas and experiences with games. It seems to me that, at least for me personally, you can’t just make a game as a throw-away experiment with an idea, just to see what happens.

Or rather, more importantly, you can’t make lots of games in that manner, to find out a lot of information about what games (your games) do. Unless you’re Cactus, obviously.

In addition to the “making one game is hard work” conundrum, there’s perhaps a larger oddity, which is that I think games themselves are kind of hard to “play around with” in the sense of design. Because they’re generally quite complex systems of relationships, variables, parameters, graphics, sounds, and on and on, it can become quite difficult to tweak and mess with your game in a meaningful way. Either you change something tiny and get a tiny effect, or you tweak something larger and generally break everything – because the game is the system itself, and the system (unlike its parameters, individual rules, etc.) is somewhat resistant to change.

Which makes it all sound hopeless in a way, but it isn’t. The main thing is for more people to make games, particularly those of us who probably wouldn’t otherwise. We might do something new! We might do something stupid and new!


21 March 2011
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