The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, 2nd. ed., by Jesse Schell


The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, 2nd. ed., by Jesse Schell
New York: A K Peters/CRC Press, 2014). 600 pp. $64.95 (paperback).

It is risky to begin a review with a seemingly unrelated anecdote by a book’s author, but this one comes from an extraordinary book, so here goes:

At one point in his career, Albert Einstein was asked by a small local organization to be the guest of honor at a luncheon and to give a lecture about his research. He agreed to do so. The luncheon was quite pleasant, and when the time came, the host anxiously announced that Albert Einstein, the famous scientist, was there to talk about his theories of special and general relativity. Einstein took the stage and looking out [at] a largely nonacademic audience consisting of mostly old ladies, he explained to them that he certainly could talk about his work, but it was a bit dull, and he was thinking perhaps instead the audience would prefer to hear him play the violin. The host and audience both agreed that it sounded like a fine idea. Einstein proceeded to play several pieces he knew well, creating a delightful experience the entire audience was able to enjoy and surely one they remembered for the rest of their lives. (p. 116)

The author of this anecdote is Jesse Schell. It comes from The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Its meaning?

Einstein was able to create such a memorable experience because he knew his audience. As much as he loved thinking and talking about physics, he knew that it wasn’t something his audience would be really interested in. Sure, they asked him to talk about physics, because they thought it would be the best way to get what they really wanted—an interesting encounter with the famous Albert Einstein. (p. 116)

Now, I am no Einstein, but my guess is that you are not interested in designing games and would agree that taking a pass on even a review of such a book sounds like a fine idea.

As a reader of The Objective Standard, you are probably interested in literature, education, psychology, architecture, business, philosophy, or some combination thereof. When you look for a new book, you probably want to read something that enables you to think better, to create more successful products and services, to enjoy life more. You may even be more interested in talking about physics than listening to the violin. But are you interested in designing games? Probably not.

So let’s talk about those other things—as, in The Art of Game Design, Schell does. For example, he talks about the delicacy of the psychological state known as “flow”—where we are absorbed in what we are doing: “Flow activities must manage to stay in the narrow margin of challenge that lies between boredom and frustration, for both of these unpleasant extremes cause our mind to change its focus to a new activity” (p. 139). He talks about the secret of location-based entertainment: “Whether you are running a tavern, a theater, a restaurant, a brothel, a theme park, or a video arcade, the rule is the same: give them something they can’t get at home” (pp. 28–29). He talks about the nature of knowledge and how teachers can help their students acquire it:

Knowledge cannot simply be poured into a mind, like pouring coffee into a cup. The mind must be put into a state of readiness, a state where certain kinds of knowledge are suddenly useful and important and the mind hungrily reaches out to grab the knowledge, to absorb it, to use it immediately, and to save it for later. Good teachers focus on painting scenarios and posing problems that put the minds of the students into this state. (p. 507)

Schell talks about these things (and more) because they are all at the heart of what a game is and how to design a good one.

But what is a game? Schell’s answer is simple, and when you hear it you may become interested in a book about designing games after all.

A game has many features, but as Schell explains, at its core, a game is “a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude” (p. 47). Games can be good or bad, too challenging or not challenging enough. They can have clear rules and goals or unclear ones. But Schell observes that every game effectively gives players a problem to solve. The goal of chess, for example, is to capture the opponent’s king. For Super Mario Brothers, it’s to save the princess. For Sudoku, it is to fill in boxes on a 9 x 9 grid such that each row, column, and 3 x 3 section contains the numbers 1 through 9. How to achieve each of these aims is the player’s problem to solve.

When seen this way, almost everything can be seen as a game so long as it is approached with a playful attitude. Schell, incidentally, defines “play” as “manipulation that indulges curiosity” (p. 40). He observes that artists experimenting with color or chemists with elements are, in this sense, playing around. And, for good measure, he even returns to Einstein, who said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought” (p. 503).

Ultimately, however, Schell observes that games are a means to an end, that this end is an experience, and that enabling this experience is the game designer’s goal. This, he also says, is one of the things that game designers have in common with other fields: “Designers of all types of entertainment—books, movies, plays, music, rides, everything—have to cope with the same issue: How can you create something that will generate a certain experience when a person interacts with it?” (p. 12)

To do that, and to do it well, you need to learn about human psychology, the varieties of pleasure, the structure of an interesting experience. You need to know how to listen to other people (as well as to yourself), how to brainstorm ideas and test them from many different perspectives (these are the “lenses” referred to in the book’s subtitle), and how to pitch the value of the experience to others.

Schell covers all of these things, with wit and humor, in The Art of Game Design. He draws on examples from “music, architecture, film, science, painting, literature, and everything else under the sun” (p. xli). The examples, in turn, lead to tools and principles that in return apply to these (and many other) fields. And that is why, if you are interested in almost anything at all, you will find a lot of value in this book.

Reading The Art of Game Design will enable you to think better, to create more successful products and services, to enjoy life more. I think you’ll like it.


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