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  • Daniel J. King

Dissertation Blog #27

Citation of the Day

Zubek, Robert. Elements of Game Design. MIT Press, 2020.


Zubeck takes a descriptivist approach to defining games, saying that "games are what people who play games, who talk about games, who make games, and who enjoy games say they are. They may have some traits in common. They usually lack real-life consequences. They can incorporate pretend-play. They might make use of competition, goals, or observable outcomes, and so on--but these traits are not all necessary. The gamelike traits may be present but do not all have to be, and if the thing under consideration is similar enough to other things we call games, we will happily call it a game." (p. xx)


This book in particular looks at games as machines, in that they are "systems of rules and interactions that players operate and which in turn react to players' actions." (p. 13)


Zubeck's basic vocabulary of game design (p. 13):

  • Mechanics: individual pieces that make up the game

  • Gameplay: the dynamic process of players interacting with the game and each other

  • Player experience: the subjective experience that comes from participating in gameplay

The author distinguishes between top-down game design and bottom-up game design.

  • In top-down design, you identify the desired player experience and figure out what gameplay and then what game mechanics will bring it about.

  • In bottom-up design, you start with experimental game mechanics and figure out how to produce desirable gameplay and then a desirable player experience.

Zubeck observes, "Pure top-down design is difficult, because we are trying to design dynamic systems, and it is hard to predict how these will actually work when we put them in front of players. Similarly, with the purely bottom-up approach, it is highly experimental, but unless these experiments are guided by some vision of the player experience they may never converge into a coherent design. The solution is to take a hybrid and iterative approach, working from both ends, creating a lot of top-down plans as well as bottom-up experiments, and, most importantly, building prototypes early and often to test these design ideas and try to get them to converge." (p. 7)


The author also points out that "the player experiences not what the designer intended, but what the designer implemented. All that the player knows is what it feels like to play the game in front of them, with the pieces, rules, enemies or challenges they were given. Designer's intentions are immaterial, save for how they turned out in the implementation." (p. 8)


Zubeck cites Yee (2016)'s research on correlations between personality and gamer motivations to argue that, rather than being mere escapist fantasies, "games let us more fully express ourselves as we already are." (p. 34)


The book also offers a definition of gameplay loops, as "activities in which players engage repeatedly." The core loop is "the smallest loop that is meaningfully enjoyable to the player," and games often use "layers of loops with different speeds to keep the player engrossed by having to juggle decision making at different time scales." (p. 147)


Design and Mechanics

This reading prompts me to reflect on top-down versus bottom-up design in my Field of Cures project so far.


Before I began my PhD work and turned this game concept into a serious game project, my game idea was called CureAnt and I was designing it from the bottom up, starting with experimental cross-breeding mechanics and pondering how I could create enjoyable gameplay with them.


When I reimagined the project as a serious game, I began to design it from the top down, first defining the values and content of the game and then trying to determine what type of gameplay would best convey them.


When I finished the version 0.3 demo, I realized the great disadvantage of top-down design: though the game was very conscientiously designed, the core game loop was not fun.


Now I am proceeding with the hybrid model of iterative design that Zubeck promotes. At the bottom level, I will be experimenting with core game loop mechanics that will still be inspired by the science of cross-breeding but will primarily exist to produce enjoyable gameplay. At the top level, I am sharpening the activist focus of the game to ensure it can be persuasive without overburdening the gameplay with serious content.


Current Events

On Saturday, while we were celebrating Elly's birthday at Epcot, Biden was declared the president-elect by the Associated Press and most of the other media. This past weekend was the best weekend I've had in a long time -- it's probably the first weekend in four years that I haven't been carrying a sense of crippling anxiety everywhere with me. It's a long journey back into the light from here, but the night is not as dark as it was.


I'm going into news rehab: I'm reducing the number of newsletters I receive, and I am not going to go looking for news to read beyond that. It's time to ramp back up on my school work anyway. I'm also discovering how to use Instagram to consume social media in a non-toxic way.


Things at work are still crazy, but apparently the situation is not dire enough for the company's leadership to put any kind of damper on our growing holiday spirit (nor the plentiful amount of vacation days that people have scheduled).


Car ownership and home ownership have been expensively lately. I'd sure like to see another federal stimulus package with direct payments come our way!


Pao, Elly, and I are all safe and healthy. We're together, and we're all on our feet. We have strong friendships and familial bonds. Thank God for everything.

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