As I may have pointed out, I’m currently plowing through a bunch of my game design literature, primarily because these books have ended up in the “nice to have, I might use them as references but then end up never referencing them” part of my bookshelf.

Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design is such a book. I figured I’d make a few notes on it here in case someone would be interested in knowing if it is worth reading or not.

So far it has given me a resounding “maybe”.

The strenghts of the bookis that it goes over mechanics and some cognitive behavioural patterns in a clear and concise manner. A game designer that is just starting out in their career might find it useful as a reference and it is a good start if you want to build a vocabulary around games and understand the mechanics aspect of game design.

In some areas, however, it is woefully inadequate an in some cases even inaccurate or misleading.

It is obvious that Schell has landed firmly in the ludology camp of that ridiculous but unfortunately very influential feud that plagued game design and game development discourse during the 2000’s. Ludology stated that narrative was just a coat of paint on top of games and had no real impact. Instead, mechanics was what was important and what gave games their ineffable interactive quality, thus discounting every role-playing game ever made and also the criticism against the content – the narrative content – of games.

To a certain extent, this dismissal was a survival instinct. Just as D&D had come under fire for being a “demonic tool” that made players violent and – well – devil and demon worshippers, computer games came under attack for the violent content they contained.

The resort of many game developers was to divorce the content – the story – from the mechanics and dismiss the impact the content had on the player.

Schell does the same thing. He’s even being a bit elitist about it, stating that if you don’t understand how to separate content and mechanics, you’re not a good game critic.

I admit, I’m not all the way through the book yet, but Schell omitted to mention story, both in the meaningful choice part of the book and in the balancing part. There is nothing in the chapter on rewards either. To me, this signifies that Schell places no importance on narrative meaning, balancing or narrative as a reward.

So far, there has also been an absence of mechanics as a narrative aspect of games. As Brenda Romero so elegantly showed in her series of board games “The Mechanics is the Message”, mechanics can also be a carrier of strong narratives, depending on the context.

Neglecting to mention this I think is an oversight and it is something we have to become more aware of as game developers. Dismissing story, dismissing context I believe is a pretty grave mistake. As human beings we are looking for meaning and meaningful choices. Games may seem to be devoid of that, but even an abstracted game like chess has an underlying narrative – that of two warring nations, seeking dominance on the battlefield.

The fear we have as an industry to be considered a media that has some form of responsibility for what we produce is impressive, especially taken in context with how elitist we are and how proud we are of how interactive the media is, our choices, and how difficult we consider game development to be.

Omitting or glossing over the impact that the message of the game has on the player is problematic to say the least, but it is a common thread in most books that I’ve read so far about game design.

The irony is that Schell uses the dramatic arc later on in the book to outline how pacing works.

Narrative is not the only aspect of The Art of Game Design that concerns me. The way Schell is determined to reinforce stereotypes that has been with us since Aristotle is also problematic.

Women – he claims – don’t enjoy playing games that men enjoy playing because of – wait for it – different brain structures.

This is something Koster and to some extent Bogost also reinforce in their books A Theory of Fun for Game Designers and Persuasive Games. As far as I understand it, Schell uses Koster as a source and cites Simon Baron-Cohen. Simon Baron-Cohen believes that men and women have different brains because if testosterone, something that hasn’t really been proven. Those studies are about as reliable as the studies that “prove” games cause violent behaviour. Somehow the gaming industry and culture has a tendency to believe one and not the other.

The stereotypization of men and women is concerning because Schell also focuses very much on the logic and mechanics of games. Implicitly, the whole book so far more or less states that this is a job for a man. Not only that, the perspective he uses is that of a male player. The default is a “he”.

Why is this a problem? It lays the groundwork to make sure women are subconsciously and sometimes consciously excluded from game development and gaming culture. It also reinforces the man as the default view that permeates society, sometimes to such a degree that women’s lives are threatened by it. Look up seatbelt research, airbag research and just about any medical field there is. Men are the default. Women barely exist.

In addition, the false meritocracy that exists in game development is also reinforced by these beliefs.

Women are still taken less seriously than men, we still have an uphill struggle just to be believed or acknowledged as authorities in our fields.

In addition it reinforces the entitlement men feel towards games. This is their turf. How dare we come along and try to change it?

If this was just the message in one book I think I would be less concerned, but the attitude in Schell’s book is repeated over and over, and my concern is that this is what we’re teaching the next generation of designers, and the next, and the next.

Snobbery – because “no one” can do what we can do.
Elitism – because critics simply don’t understand how to separate mechanics from content.
Blandness – because content and mechanics work together to create a game. The idea of a “pure” system is just that – an idea and not the reality.

And finally gatekeeping and entitlement that is designed purely to keep marginalized groups out of gaming.

This might seem harsh, but it is repeated in every “he” in the book.

Schell is decent at explaining mechanics, but that is all you should read this book for.