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  • On Meaningful Play: Design Thinking X Game Design

    - Mars Ashton
  • [In this series of articles, Mars Ashton does a deep dive into a number of topics related to submitted papers, talks and games found at this year's Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University. For this article, Mars discusses the role Design Thinking has as a universal go-to for making good games that aligns (eerily) with common modern game development methodologies proposed by academics, industry vets and popular YouTube content creators.]

    Game Development is a relatively young industry if you were to consider industries that involve similar practices and methodologies. While it can be difficult at first glance to compare making games and making a building via Architectural practice, there are a number of similarities that drive the two towards finding solutions to the problems that are presented by the very process of making in general. While the output is obviously different, the way in which both of these disciplines conceptualize, ideate, research and develop are fundamentally the same and require the same understanding and competencies of user-centric, empathetic, and iterative-focused development.

    "Before we can look at the systematic methods of designers, we must know what we mean by ‘design'. An Architect preparing plans for a house is clearly designing. So is a typographer preparing a layout for a page of print. But a sculptor shaping a figure is not. What is the difference?" L. Bruce Archer

    Leonard Bruce Archer, a mechanical engineer and later Professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art, pioneered and championed the possibility of Design as a discipline of study. At the time of this quote, one would imagine the landscape of industries like Architecture and the Studio Arts was perceived in a very different way than they are today. While we still push back against the legitimacy of an art degree over, say, becoming a doctor or a lawyer, there is the ubiquity of Design as an element of course competencies throughout the world's college programs focused on relevant fields. We see value in a person crafting an advertisement and provide them with the aptly appropriate "Graphic Designer" title. We walk through large-scale malls and atriums with brilliantly crafted sculptures, spheres floating on water, and marvel at them as we stand in line at the Chick-fil-A.

    We appreciate these things that have been created, at times intended for an aesthetic effect and other times representing a practical solution to a problem you might have in a given situation. There is an app for that, to some degree, in the collective ethos of modern society that approves of Design as a reality and that someone, somewhere, had the idea and made it happen. So what made this happen? How did we find ourselves appreciating these works when, just a few decades ago, we considered them frivolous? In the same spirit, how is it that we are defining game development as a legitimate practice, one that goes beyond the nuances of making millions with a great mobile game idea, by the established independently published successes of Night in the Woods or Braid and the iresputable cultural impact of AAA franchises like Call of Duty?

    Design Thinking.

    If you consider the way that Apple as a brand, not necessarily a company, has evolved over the last two decades you will discover an emphasis on product design driven by the user themselves. Their ideas focus on innovation through problem solving. They find ways to make processes easier, invisible even, for the user, to ensure that the core feature and purpose of a particular app or a function of the hardware is exceptionally easy, fun and engaging to use. This consideration utilizing Design Thinking defines Apple products and has secured a dedicated fanbase for their brand.

    To define Design Thinking, we typically discuss 5 steps that make up a practical approach to solving problems, making dope stuff (I usually refer to something else when I say this but let's keep this appropriate), and executing a plan or objective that is user-centric, considerate and impactful.

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    This is not a new concept. Many companies have adopted Design Thinking, what is now a buzz word, as the end-all-be-all of design methodology and the way they do business. This is not surprising. As we teach each generation the skills needed to persevere in an industry we strive to formalize concepts, make things efficient and easier to understand through processes and multi-step guidelines to follow. For Game Design, the presence of Agile development models that emphasize regular meetings, prioritizing tasks and maintaining communication are very common.

    In fact, every aspect of Design Thinking equates to the very essence of what makes a game...good. It describes the same process developers have found to follow that produces engaging narratives, powerful moments blending gameplay and meaning, and catapults some games to success compared to other games of its ilk or in a similar genre. These games have put the time in to find the right game feel, accompanied by that ever-present-must-have in every game we create: fun. Organically many of these developers stick to prototyping as early as possible. Small-scale, large-scale, the best experiences are ones that have been refined and revised after being exposed to the public or a select (or random) selection of testers.


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