Sunday, April 9, 2006

Jesse Schell, over at Carnegie Mellon, dropped me a note on a fun project documenting game design innovations. I normally do not post the editorialized links that you find on many sites. For this, I’ll make an exception. Here’s the blurb:

"The Game Innovation team is launching The Game Innovation Database (GIDb) today. The goal of the GIDb is to:
  1. Document every innovation in the entire history of computer and videogames.
  2. Provide a comprehensive taxonomy for classifying videogame innovations.
  3. Make its data available through an online wiki.
  4. Serve as a forum to discuss the importance, influence, and possible future applications of various innovations.
Anyone can edit and contribute entries. The GIDb is designed for a variety of users. Instructors can use it for teaching videogame history and design classes. Game developers can use it as a tool for research and brainstorming. Game players, enthusiasts, and researchers can find information about specific games and can easily share their own knowledge. Those with a strong interest in videogame innovation may apply to join the GIDb Editorial Board.

Please feel free to make contributions and pass this along to friends and colleagues. We need your contributions and input!

The GIDb can be found at"

So what?
Here’s why I think this is important. Language is one of the biggest barriers to discussing game designs in an intelligent fashion amongst educated game designers. Currently, each designer is an island, isolated by and limited to their own design experiences. When they attempt to discuss even basic concepts with other designers, the terminology just doesn’t exist. Conversations devolve into exercises in semantic nitpicking as both parties desperately attempt to invent a common terminology on the spot.

I overheard a conversation at GDC where two developers were talking about how games must be challenging in order to be fun. I butted in and said, “What about Animal Crossing? Surely, this is a game that is not about challenge?” It turns out they were discussing Animal Crossing as a prime example, and they looked at me like I was an idiot. Quite understandable. After a few more fumbling attempt, it turned out they were using the word “challenge” were I was using the word “inconvenience” I happened to have a very particular definition of the term “challenge” and the misunderstanding sunk the entire conversation before it even started.

Multiply this one situation by the thousands that have occurred throughout the history of modern game development and it is no wonder that game design is considered to be mostly black magic practiced by a few mysterious talents.

Academic language definition is not the answer
Language is rarely defined through academic rambling. It instead tends to evolve and standardize through everyday usage. I would love to sit down and write a game design dictionary filled with exacting academically defined definitions. However, that would be next to useless. Many have tried and almost universally their work is ignored, except perhaps by a few brilliant eggheads. Academic definitions of game design contain too many words and not enough obvious practical applications where people can actually use the proposed terminology.

I like the approach taken over at because it consists primarily of practical examples. The site consists of dozens of types of game mechanics listed in a format that tells you why they are different, why they matter, and how they relate to others game mechanics. I can easily imagine a game developer browsing through the topics in search of inspiration on their next game.

Game design documents are rhetoric, and the same goes for text-based descriptions of game mechanics found in most writing on game design. In this wiki, however, most of the items listed are real games, many of which are available through emulators or in someone’s video game collection. You can play them and grok the described mechanics on an instinctual level. This is useful data that can be absorbed experientially.

The terminology listed in the taxonomy may seem secondary, but it always exists, lurking in the background. It helps guide your understanding of the information you are consuming and helps integrate your mental models of how games work. When you talk about the concepts that mechanics that you’ve learned with others, how do you communicate them? I am a lazy fellow, so I tend to forward the link from an existing web page onto my friends. I’ll reuse the same terminology so that I don’t confuse folks. The result is a common reference point, anchored in shared experiences.

In the end you have a pragmatic set of useful examples that drive language unification, not some academic dissertation on the definition of the word ‘fun’. It is a classic example where ‘show me’ may well work better than ‘tell me.’

Take care

PS: Blogger has informed that this is officially my 100th post on That is a lot of pseudo-academic blathering, if you ask me. :-) Hope folks are enjoying it.


  1. Afraid the link is broken - points to

  2. Sorry, I meant the second link. Good resource though - clicking 'Random Page' is a good way to get a little 'Word of the Day' type interesting read for the morning web-trawl. :-)

  3. Thanks for the heads up. The links should all be working now. :-)

    take care,

  4. Excellent site! I'll be spending alot of time over there.

  5. You're spot on about game design being a field still searching for a lexicon. Unlike painting and music, it's a mix of art and science and seems to need deeper terms than "beat" or "texture" to communicate its complexities.

    Academic terms are certainly not the way to go. Ever tried having a conversation with a Marxist? They have a proprietary definition for everything, so you can never get any further than arguing about square one! Politics and philosophy are full of rival groups who like nothing better than to hijack the dictionary for their own benefit. Especially if it can undermine the latest thing others said, even more so if it's witty... Too many evenings wasted, sorry to rant!

    I can't honestly think of a harder field than games to go about inventing new phrases to describe.

    But fortunately I also can't think of any better starting place than a central community wiki to see if we can all nail it after all!

    Language is what stops every one of us from having to reinvent the wheel.

  6. Language is not a major problem at the moment. The MUCH larger problem is the complete lack of fact checking and technical know-how. Obviously this will improve as the userbase grows.

  7. Gary, explain further. When you say "fact checking" are you talking about this wiki in particular or are you refering to the language of game design as a whole. If the latter, what would 'fact checking' entail?

    take care

  8. Great page (Lost Garden), good for a little intuition and insight in the morning, and congrats on the 100th post.

    Much of my experience is from being around tons of "Board" game designers, and by that I mean not videogames. There is already a strongly developed and defined lexicon between all of then that is intimidating and confusing at first. Once you get into it a bit, it's extremely helpful between the group for designing games.

    I disagree with John Muir's base comment that Painting and Music are just art, and that Videogame design is art mixed with science. But that's another argument of semantics!

    I think what Gary is saying is that when someone posts: "Halo was the very first FPS to have a dedicated melee button", many people are skeptical because we all seem to remember at least one game doing it beforehand, even if it was in a minor way. The 'Fact-checking' and researching will only get better as the site gets more attention.


  9. Building a common language for game design is a vital developmental stage we have skipped completely. I'm not sure this is the best way to go about it, though.

    One cannot create a dictionary to impose a new language form - rather, a dictionary must reflect the way language is used.

    A more practical approach might be to get some lexicographers interested in the subject of game design and catalogue the terms in use, thus building a lexicon. There will be overlap in a first generation lexicon, but from there we will be informed of the variety of terms in use, and 'natural selection' can prevail to narrow the field.

    I think this project hits a problem right at square one by calling its focus 'game innovations'. War breaks out immediately... :)

    I wonder if I can find a lexicographer...

  10. Danc, I refer to the wiki and NOT the Lostgarden article. I see a lot of very opinionated statements such is "Game x is the first to feature object y. This is what makes game x the best game of genre z ever!" This is usually written without providing date of publication, precursor games lacking the innovation, development studio, future games that have made use of the innovation etc. In one article, the author managed to completely miss out the name of the game! Someone else has attempted to fix the article and ended up putting it in the contents listing for the page but neglecting to add the relevant information to the page itself.

    There are no standards or templates for submitting articles and basic wikipedia conventions such as using the discussion tab for discussing the article are flaunted.

    In its current state, exact semantics are far less important than actual active submitters and editors.

  11. Visiting today (almost 2 years later!) opens a full-page Flash embed, with no alternate and nothing presenting itself in the source. I do not visit Flash-only sites on general principle, but I do kind of wonder if this is how it worked back when this article was written, or if they moved to the Dark Side some time in between.

    Anyway, I like the idea -- maybe I'll check it out when I get home.