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  • On Meaningful Play: Design Thinking X Game Design

    - Mars Ashton

  • To clarify, Design Thinking is:

    • Iteration Heavy

    • Driven by Research

    • Solving Problems

    • Creating Ideas through Diversification of Thought

    • User-Focused Prototyping

    All of these components relate to the development of making a good game in a formalized way. How do I begin? What do I create first? How do I plan ahead, fix this, fix that, and what is the ultimate goal of the project?

    After teaching for over a decade I've observed that students typically work in one of two ways when starting a game project from scratch:

    1. DIVERGENCE. They write idea after idea on a whiteboard, list off pages of notes, draw from images, video and references of other games and precedents and brainstorm a plan. After spending a fair amount of time to do so, they then execute to work toward achieving their goal.

    2. CONVERGENCE. Inspired by an initial concept, they rush into executing a prototype before anything else. Piecing it together bit by bit, eventually they are lead to a stage of progress that can be tested to validate their design choices and iterate upon the original concept, effectively producing an off-the-cuff plan through this process.

    These two approaches are a large part of Design Thinking as a formalized methodology and represent each facet of itself handled in different, non-linear ways. While there is no "correct" way of going about your project and my observation shouldn't be considered a judgment on an individual's quality of development, considering where you personally fit into these categories can provide some interesting insight into how you function as a maker. This mindfulness can lead to increased productivity, communication and implementation of you goals as a maker.

    Above all else, Divergence and Convergence represent Design Thinking's concept and Ideation phase. While you may eventually work under the context of one or the other, they are both effective ways to explore potential game ideas, core mechanics and the dynamic ways your mechanics can interact with one another. Understanding these two methods can help to validate and justify your decisions as a designer. There is value in both the discussion and focusing on making the concept tangible.

    1. Concept 2. Plan 3. Make

    In the article, "Less Talk, More Rock" by Superbrothers, the way we communicate through our media is examined. They question why we hold hands, push our own interpretations of concepts on others, and had (at the time) stopped putting so much faith in the player's own ability to figure out the right path, how to do things or discover meaningful elements of your game. They establish a problem and through their development create a solution by utilizing stylized objects that, while representative of a particular style and imply certain details appropriate for a their theme, still leave much to the player's imagination. This lets the player fill in the gaps and complete the puzzle that is their perception of the game as a space.

    Now we see games, small and large, taking this on in spirit. Utilizing what we can surmise from Design Thinking's methodology (or just making a good game, duh) the developers of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took what made the original The Legend of Zelda so special and solved a problem that was becoming apparent in the way they planned and executed the other games in the franchise in the past. They made it open, gave the player trust in the form of a chemistry engine that allowed them to solve problems in numerous ways, and left so much more to the player's own devices as far as the story, the world and even where it fits into the grand timeline revealed in the Hyrule Historia.

    In many ways Breath of the Wild is a game that allows players to use Design Thinking as an actual game mechanic.

    Mind blown?

    1. Concept 2. Make 3. Plan

    What Superbrothers suggests is the idea of skipping around this sequence of 1, 2, 3, done. It emphasizes prototyping to explore and plan, using the success of the experience itself to dictate a project's direction. It encourages the use of Design Thinking without mentioning Design Thinking, indirectly drawing from the established production protocol of industries that have been around for centuries. In a natural way the studio has discovered a vital lesson. One that acts as a good example of how much Design Thinking has to do with the basic, fundamental aspects of game development and production.

    This concept was assumed by the students I co-teach at Lawrence Tech a couple years ago for their end-of-the-year Thesis Exhibition. Combining Game ArtGraphic Design and Interaction Design students, this year-long sequence tasks students with discovering problems within the industry and beyond that can shape one or many projects they will take on. Much of this experience follows Design Thinking, enforcing iteration through regular critiques and discussions that challenge student design decisions and task them with reinforcing what they do and why. In their exhibition titled "1, 3, 2" they branded themselves as a group of creatives that thought by making, coined by my colleague and co-teacher for the course, Lilian Crum.

    Lilian Crum, Assistant Professor and Director of Graphic Design, donning a helmet made by Interaction Design student Karly Gallis that explores immersion, light and isolation.

    Inspired by Lawrence Tech's College of Architecture and Design's focus on Design, this fusion of Fine Arts, Design Thinking and Game Art within a collaborative environment is unique. While students are building games throughout the rest of the 4 year degree, they close off their undergraduate degree with a graduate-like exploration that students have reported to be a "penultimate moment of growth as a professional and an individual". Often, students of one discipline begin to cross over into others. Graphic Designers begin making games and utilize their perspective and technical skillset. Game Art students tackle branding, promotional material and even introduce traditional Studio Art sculptures, painting and fabrication.


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