Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Design of Everyday Things

Part of the reason Duncan Fyfe quitting bothers a lot of people isn't just losing an interesting writer, it's that the bastard actually quit. WE ALL think about quitting. The unpaid ones, certainly. Even if you're a paid writer for a major magazine you think about quitting. The money is mediocre, a noticeable percentage of women are turned off by it, and the amount of time it kills is prohibitive. People come back to it for a lot of different reasons but the notion that one can very easily lose that sense of fulfillment is a bit scary.

Whenever the urge to quit writing comes over me it usually means it's time to get a new direction with my writing. A new style of blog or agenda that I need to develop and promote. You have to keep expressing something grand with your writing and not feel like you're repeating yourself.

I started reading video game academics earlier this summer for a different project and out of a general desire to understand their angle. One of the complaints Simon Ferrari always levels at me is that people in the blogosphere rarely acknowledge the groundwork these folks have laid down. So I started reading video game books.

The selection is wide and mostly revolves around books I see developers mention or whose titles I know because I already read their authors. I've written several of these posts already and have books lined up but if you think of one I should do let me know. I'm also generally broke, so a free copy improves your chances remarkably if you're an author yourself.

The style I opted for was to abandon reviewing and instead write an introduction to the book. I'm not totally sure how else to explain it except as a synopsis of a book, but with lots of quotes and a basic message about what the author is trying to say.

It's not as good as reading it yourself, but it ought to get you up to speed.


Ben Abraham said...

You're spot on about why Duncan *quitting* was so irksome.

Michel said...

These are more books that every designer should read, as opposed to critic:

-The Elements of Typographic Style
-A Pattern Language
-Most of the books at http://www.designersreviewofbooks.com/

Game academics are mostly worthless because they often only study games. Games that were current when they published. I'm sorry but Quake 2 has very little to teach us these days. But Simon is right, the groundwork has been laid ... by designers in other fields: Architecture, graphic design, user interfaces, etc. DoET was a good place to start.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Yeah, one thing at a time. One of these days I'm going to write a large essay explaining why my legal education gives me a better understanding of rule systems and player behavior than most of the game design guides I've read.

Simon said...

Michel, ma belle.

"Game academics are mostly worthless because they often only study games."

Except game studies is a multidisciplinary field drawing from architecture, graphic design, computer science, creative writing, history, sociology, user-end design, psychology, rhetoric, etc.

Game academics don't really teach games in isolation. At Tech it's situated within computational media and digital media. At USC and Wisconsin it falls under cinematic arts. At UC Santa Cruz it falls under computational expression. Only IT Copenhagen and MIT come out and say: we just do games. And even then, when you read stuff by the researchers there, it's pretty clear in the first five pages that they're drawing from their experience in fields other than game studies.

Why, exactly, would you criticize something that you don't even know any basic facts about?

Simon said...

I'm pasting here, for your enjoyment, a link to a page containing .pdf files of the books the people in my program are required to be conversant in by the time they exit the PhD track, something called the qualifying exams or "Qual Comps." If you look at Exam List Part 2, A Pattern Language is the second book out of 10 on architecture. Not to mention the fact that we are encouraged to take an architecture "minor."

Simon said...

Dammit, got so excited I forgot the link:


Craig said...

One thing I've found interesting about academic games criticism is, like Simon says, how interdisciplinary it actually is.

It's a nice contrast to my own thing, the dinosaur that is traditional literary criticism.
Academic games criticism often is as much interested in the actual practical work of design. But apart from a bit of theory here and there, we're often strongly encouraged NOT to get involved or interested in the details of what's involved in getting something written. Instead, we're supposed to stand back and treat what we read as literary or cultural objects. It's like the whole process of creation is considered a mysterious or (more commonly) unimportant "black box" compared to interpretation or cultural consequence.

But academic games criticism is so often interested in trying to see what else can be done. I think literary studies would be a lot more interesting if we took that approach.

Simon said...


Thanks for the vote of confidence and sharing the comparison with your field! I should say, it's kind of a touchy issue to mix pure theory and practical theory. I came from a film theory background as an undergraduate, and if I wanted to make films to supplement a portfolio for an MFA I had to go do that on my own time. Film studies, as I'm sure literary criticism does as well, does draw on some feminist theory and psychoanalysis... but on the whole it was much more isolated than what I've experienced studying games.

In fact, my program in particular has been called out by Roger Travis because he doesn't like our school's stated modus that scholars should be designers and designers should be scholars. I'd say roughly half (if not more) of game academics are fairly active in game production either with their students or with their own startup companies.

The criticism that game academics are useless has become increasingly tedious over the past few years, because it's become more and more clear that people who say shit like "I'd never trust a professor who never shipped a title" are the same people holding the industry back. Our Masters program graduates a number of people who go directly to lead designer jobs at companies like Maxis, and we get people like Raph Koster and Jason Rohrer visiting us at a rate of about 4 or 5 awesome guest lectures, workshops, etc. per semester. We're not sweating it :)

That said, before I look for a tenure position I'm going to try working a few years as a level designer just so I never have to deal with the "never shipped a title" stigma.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I demand you warn me the next time a guest lecture is coming to your school.

@ Craig

I heartily recommend picking up any text and giving it a spin. Now that I'm about four books deep I'm getting pretty familiar with conventional thinking, but at first I was startled by the connections being drawn between Derrida, Lacan, and other philosophers from different fields.

It's also WIDE open for people offering new ideas. I'm a hobbyist when it comes to Jung but I was still able to put together various connections between his ideas and video games. Since the field is so hungry for anything new, you can post something complex and have a few people give it a read just out of curiosity.

Craig said...

I have been reading some. I got Bogost's two about a year ago, and I think he's got some really interesting ideas. I actually think that his model of "procedural rhetoric" applies really well to how we actually read, as well as games.

But I've also read some stuff by Juul, Wark (which I can't decide if it's really about games or not), and random articles.

Any other suggestions, apart from the ones you're going to comment on the blog (which of course I'll probably also pick up sometime)?

L.B. Jeffries said...

Hell, anything really. The psychology in gaming is something that has always fascinated me so I'm reading Craig Anderson's research claiming they make people more violent along with the other book trying to prove that this isn't the case. It's all mostly a Jaberwocky argument, everyone arguing what the data means, but it's interesting stuff.