Theory: Playtesters and Designers Are Not In a Hierarchical Relationship

I saw an interview a long time ago–I regret that I can’t find it now–in which a game designer was asked how much of a contribution a playtester has to make before he or she gets credited as a designer. Like everyone who’s been to law school I have an aversion to “fighting the hypothetical,” but that question has always struck me as coming from an inherently wrong place. It assumes that playtesters are junior designers, and they are no such thing. Playtesting and designing are separate skills deserving of separate respect.

Good designers are not necessarily good playtesters, and vice-versa. Design ability does not confer the patience to test a game over countless permutations, nor does it grant the unique insight that enables great playtesters to look at a game and see unexpected ways in which a player might approach it. What’s more, design ability does not include the communication skills that are so important to giving effective playtest feedback. On the flip side, playtesting experience may not prepare someone to confront a blank sheet of paper and find a game there. An adept and valuable playtester may also have insight that primarily goes in one direction: he or she may be able to tell that something isn’t working, without necessarily having an opinion as to how it might be fixed. Playtesters and designers simply bring different things to the table.

Trying to fit playtesters and designers on the same ladder undervalues both. It elides the many skills each possesses, collapsing them into “people who make games” in order to force similarities that aren’t necessarily there. They should each be understood as having their own hierarchy, and should be measured against those in the same field, so that they can be evaluated according to how well they do their respective jobs instead of how they do each others’.

Efforts to “promote” playtesters into designers grow, I think, out of a sense that playtesters’ contributions are undervalued and that making them into designers will get them the recognition they deserve. I appreciate where people with that goal are coming from, but turning skilled playtesters into designers doesn’t do anything to get playtesting respect. If anything, it suggests that playtesters don’t need to be respected until they’ve “graduated” to designer status. That cure may really be worse than the disease.

The right solution here is simply to push recognition for playtesters. Acknowledge them more prominently. When you meet a good one, recommend him or her to others. Don’t cast playtesters as merely junior designers. Recognize and value the unique skills they bring to the table.

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