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.