I’m a Game Designer … again

So today, while I was out at the local YMCA camp with my school — and the kids were playing all sorts of games that teach the value of cooperation and responsibility and kindness and generosity and all those good school values that make working together so much easier, I had this insight about my work as a designer, and as a designer of design curriculum.

I am a Game Designer.  Again.

I last did serious game design back in the 1990s for White Wolf Game Studios, when I worked (briefly) on the Vampire: Middle Ages game series in their World of Darkness.  Thanks to the kindness and generosity of Geoff Grabowski and John Chambers, I switched over to the Exalted game system, and later on to the Scion line.  I don’t know that I wrote half-a-million words of game books over the years, but I know that I broke several hundred-thousand: Exalted’s second edition, a number of the world books. What I wrote, basically, was a lot of explanation of the societies and cultures of the Age of Sorrows.  I always avoided trying to deal with the mechanics of games, though — the statistics and the dice-rolling, the stats for individual characters, and all that sort of thing — because it wasn’t something I understood very well at all.  Instead, I was interested in stories, and how stories interacted with the world.  And I like to think that was one of my major contributions to Exaltedthat these were real people in a real world, albeit a world very different than our own.

Designers, though, play games with the real world.  They think to themselves, “wow, I’ve noticed thirty problems with the world… I have the time, energy and resources to fix two of them, maybe.  That eliminates these twelve from consideration: they’re too big for me to solve with the time and resources I have.  I also need the help and support of other folks to solve these other eleven… That leaves me with nine problems to solve.  Of these nine, I don’t have the technical expertise to solve these five.  Which leaves me these four.  Of these four, one bores the heck out of me.  Two are interesting to me personally, but they’re side projects for me, because I can’t get any help.  This one, though… it’s interesting to me, it’s interesting to others, my resources can handle it, and I have the right amount of time.”

So, my boss asked me to create two events for middle schoolers this year: a repeat of the New England Design Symposium (NEDS) on April 6 2013 during this school year, and a new event in November 3, 2012 (this year).    I’ve been going back and forth with him on the design of these events, and the other day he basically told me that my designs weren’t compelling enough. “People’s school schedules are full,” he said.  “Andrew, if people are going to come to an event, they want to be challenged, they want to be excited, they want to use all their intellectual and emotional brain power, and they want to win.” And although we had some more chit-chat after that, effectively the meeting was over.  I’ve taken some notes and written some ideas and made some drawings since then, but really I haven’t had a good sense about what comes next.

Except today, walking back from playing a game of “Atlas!” I had this key insight:

My boss is talking about GAMES.  He wants me to make GAMES.

Part of me genuinely doesn’t understand why I failed to realize this for so long.  I’ve been kicking myself since about 11:45 this morning, wondering why I couldn’t have seen this in August, or last June. Or why my boss didn’t see it, or my friends and designer colleagues didn’t see it.  And frankly, part of me imagined that that portion of my life had closed forever. I mean, I stopped hearing from White Wolf about the same time that Iceland’s economy collapsed briefly back in 2007-08, before their revolution and constitutional convention re-made the country.  I figured I wasn’t wanted any more.

But apparently I spoke and thought too soon.

I’m a game designer again.  Designing games for kids to play in and at school.  Why?

  • To teach creativity
  • To teach generosity, community, kindness, cooperation.
  • To teach sideways thinking and empathic problem-solving
  • To save the world.


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  1. You were a designer on Exalted?! There’s another conversation I’d love to have with you.

    After a few years of teaching I stumbled into the tail end of the Forge-RPG community and the early-mid part of the indy/story game explosion. Although it’s been abandoned by real RPG theorists, the Game/Simulation/Narrative trifold model had a profound effect on my teaching.

    Like most new teachers, I was developing my practice in the space between the obvious influence of my (superb!) mentor teachers and my own internalized (often unconscious) experiences as a student. My personal classroom “innovation” had been to phrase and present many of the traditional classroom routines as “health bars” and “super meters.” I was reskinning a process I had found bewildering and arbitrary as a student in language that was more personally palatable.

    That some middle school kids wouldn’t immediately grok how bulletin board of homework keys signaled when the next quiz happened didn’t even occur to me. That it actively worked AGAINST my stated goals for how students would learn to play with mathematics was absolutely invisible.

    It’s not that classroom activity maps exactly onto RPG theory. Rather, playing Sorcerer / Dogs in the Vineyard / etc showed me that the mechanical structure of an RPG system mattered, and could really shape what kind of game emerged from play. That revelation pushed me to examine my teaching practice again, to see my classroom as tweaks and house rules to a system that didn’t share or further my goals. I had built systems that emphasized a version of “winning” math class, while I was trying to present math as a “story” of personal learning and discovery.

    So, yeah, we’re game designers of sorts. And we’ll do our best work when we’re honest and clear about our all the paramaters of our creative agenda.

    • You’ve left a lot of things for me to consider here, and I’m up against some big deadlines, so I hope you’ll be patient with me. MakerFaire is a possibility. We’ll see!

    • I hope you can make it to NYC that weekend. Don’t worry about a direct reply anytime soon. Your posts have a tendency to linger in my head for weeks at a time, and my responses window is haphazard at best. It’s a staccato conversation.

    • Andrew,

      Let me ask… What’s really resonating with you these days? What do you want me to comment on more? Where are the challenges that I can help smooth out? Where can I help you?

      And on the far front of you helping me: Can you think of a list of 26 actions or processes that you and I can work out a method of representing visually, that would help kids understand being MAKERS better? Because if we can turn them into visual images, we can create a visual alphabet of design, which winds up benefitting both our schools.

      Be well, Andrew

    • Hi Rick and Maria! Thanks for stopping by!

      I’m composing a more elaborate e-mail to you, which you should get in an hour or less; I’m editing the dictation script of it I made earlier today.

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