Game Design vs. Game Theory

First, I just wanted to note the addition of a blog to the links page: Game Design Advance. A number of NYU professors post there, on topics ranging from the expressive meaning (or lack thereof) of game mechanics to lessons game design can bring to the voting process. Most game design discussion revolves around practical considerations; if you’re more interested in the underlying theory of design, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Adding a link on broad game design issues reminds me of an issue that’s come up recently: the difference between game theory and game design. Occasionally when I tell people I’m interested in game design they think I’m an economist, or they tell a joke about my public defense clients being in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Since the latter, at least, risks sending me off on a tangent about interrogation practices, I think it’s worth clarifying the two terms.

Game theory, as I understand it–and I do not claim to be an expert–is primarily about modeling human behavior. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a terrible game, but it’s brilliant as a mechanism for explaining why people confess when they would be better off staying quiet. Game theory does sometimes adopt a prescriptive mode, but those efforts rely (again, as I understand it) on building an accurate model.

Game design, on the other hand, is about evoking behavior. It tries to get people to perform certain actions and to experience certain feelings. Those actions might be simple (move a piece on a board) or complex (hit a baseball approaching at 90+ miles per hour), and the feelings might be positive (“this is fun!”) or negative (“this game taught me about a depressing era of history”), but the goal is always to evoke things rather than solely to model real-world behavior.

A designer might, of course, model a historical event as part of the effort to evoke something, and a theorist may want his or her model to make people act or feel in a certain way. The fields overlap. However, they are different enough that I think it’s worth understanding where they diverge. If nothing else, it will protect you from rants about interrogations.

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