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  • Writer's pictureDaniel J. King

Dissertation Blog #2

Citation of the Day

Flanagan, Mary. (2009). Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press.

Mary Flanagan's book Critical Play examines alternative games and uses them as models to propose a theory of avant-garde game design. A designer can use the critical play approach to create a platform of rules by which to examine a specific issue, offer novel possibilities, and critique the status quo. "Activist games" emphasize social issues, education, and intervention. Other terms that overlap with this meaning are "serious games," "games for change," and "social impact games."

"Games are frameworks that designers can use to model the complexity of the problems that face the world and make them easier for the players to comprehend. By creating a simulated environment, the player is able to step away and think critically about those problems." (Chapter 7)

"If a designer or artist can make safe spaces that allow the negotiation of real-world concepts, issues, and ideas, then a game can be successful in facilitating the exploration of innovative solutions for apparently intractable problems….Critical play is not about making experts, but about designing spaces where diverse minds feel comfortable enough to take part in the discovery of solutions." (Chapter 8)

In Chapter 8, Flanagan also describes the Critical Play Method for iterative game design:

  1. Set a design goal and values goals

  2. Develop rules and constraints that support values

  3. Design for many different play styles

  4. Develop a playable prototype

  5. Play-test with diverse audiences

  6. Verify values and revise goals

  7. Repeat

Design and Mechanics

I am currently designing version 0.4 of Field of Cures.

  • In version 0.1, I learned how to program flower objects that generate their phenotype based on their genotype, so they can be crossbred.

  • In version 0.2, I made my first attempt at creating a game which would procedurally generate new levels scaling up in complexity.

  • In version 0.3, I tried to improve on 0.2 by making tutorial levels to introduce mechanics gradually and enhancing the game aesthetics and user interface.

I learned much by creating the first three versions, but I also had to confront the fact that my game was tedious and repetitive at its core. My goal with version 0.4 is to introduce fun gameplay into my concept by riffing off the mechanics of the classic card game Memory.

If you looked back through the past few years' worth of my design notes for Field of Cures, you would observe that -- on paper -- the game design has been getting simpler and simpler. My vision began as a vast, byzantine simulation of chemotherapy clinical trials and health care economics that happened to have some flower crossbreeding at the center of it. But as I have slowly and painfully iterated my way through the "long version zero," I have had to confront two realities:

First, the more complex a game concept is, the farther it is beyond the reach of a lone amateur developer such as myself.

Second, designing enjoyable core gameplay is every bit as challenging as designing elaborate systems that critique real-world issues.

Current Events

The good news is that I got a raise at work yesterday. I joined my company almost four years ago, originally as a content writer. Last year, I moved into the role of project manager for my team. It is more difficult job, but also much more rewarding -- in terms of both positive feedback from my coworkers and upward economic mobility for my family.

I manage the schedules of 16 people, including writers, designers, developers, and internet marketing specialists. I often joke to people that the primary qualification for being a project manager is simply having the willingness to do it at all. I have an innate desire for plans and schedules to make sense and for communication between coworkers to be constructive. More than that, I have the conviction that plans and schedules can make sense, and that communication can be constructive. It's striking to realize that most people's first impulse is to feel helpless in the face of these challenges.

My project management skills may be my greatest asset as I embark on my dissertation quest. I am not an experienced designer or developer, nor am I a particularly well-read academic. But by Jove, I can get organized!

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