[-empyre-] game design: empowerment through constructed reality

Mark Chen markdangerchen at gmail.com
Fri Mar 28 01:44:10 EST 2014

Thank you Sandra for inviting me to participate and for all the other
posters for a very insightful month. I'm honored, of course, yet I find
myself wishing I could be half as cogent and mind blowing as everyone else
has been!

I've been thinking about what I'd say for a while now, hoping desperately
for some epiphanic moment of clarity. I write now not because something
intelligent occurred to me but because I feel like I just need to say
*something.* And yet! It occurs to me *right now* that I can treat the act
of writing an email missive the same way I treat game design and, as I
think about it, the same as I treat writing an academic article or making
illustrations or painting. That is, to just start with a fragment and build
up from there, to just write (or just start sketching game ideas or just
start gesture drawing) and see what emerges, and to iterate and build up or

When I think about people playing games, I think about empowerment through
understanding, whether that's building an understanding of rule systems
(aka systems thinking) or understanding different points of view (aka
empathy). And when I think about game design, I think the potential to be
critical of these understandings become sharper or better realized. But
like playing games, designing games is a lot of trial and error, getting
feedback, building up meaning iteratively until something starts to click.
Just start somewhere and see what emerges through iteration.

So, yeah, the concept of game sketches is pretty great. I hadn't really
linked the process of game design to the process of making art
(traditional) or writing explicitly like that before, but now I think about
it, it makes a lot of sense.

I am continually amazed when I see funded projects for learning games that
completely misunderstand the nature of games and gaming culture. (Something
I see a lot since my academic background is in games for learning.) Games
have the potential to build empathy by providing people with meaningful
interactions that lead to memorable experiences. They're not about content
(which seems to be how educators assess the value of a game, probably
spurred on by standardized testing); they're about processes and enacted
experiences. These processes are inherently subversive, asking players to
continually push at the boundaries of the rule space. The resulting
experience for a player is potentially imbricated with multiple layers of
meaning and understanding.

And game design that's meant to convey something of the self is tricky such
that the act of creation can help the designer understand him or herself
better, too. Actually, it can go further than just exposing previously
tacit awareness of self. Creating something transforms the creator,
providing additional layers of self reflection and meaning making. (Much
like how writing an ethnography transforms the researcher and becomes part
of their identity and position in the world.)

But there's a paradox: If a designer is honest and is making a game meant
to convey lived experience or some sort of expression, there will
inevitably be a striving towards "unplayable" games and "undesignable"
games. How crazy is it to think for one second that we can get others to
feel how we feel, to experience what we do? They're takeaways will be
different because they're human and bring with them different layers of

Okay this is getting really long, so I should probably end this post, and I
apologize for its lack of clarity. :)

Mark Chen, PhD | @mcdanger | markdangerchen.net
Indie Game Designer, Ed Tech Researcher, Consultant, Adjunct Prof at
Pepperdine, UW Bothell, and UOIT, Accidental Hero and Layabout
This was sent from a PC with a full-size keyboard; misspellings and brevity
are entirely my fault.
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