Theory: Playing Isn’t Working

Being a good game designer involves having a reasonable familiarity with existing games. Every kind of artist learns by studying the works of others, after all. It’s important to recognize, however, that playing other designers’ games is not the same as doing design work. To make real progress, design time needs to be spent hammering away at one’s own games.

One of the perils of game design, I’ve found, is that research can be an awful lot of fun. Part of how I learn about fighting games is by playing them–and I really like fighting games. So too for wargames, worker-placement games, co-ops, semi co-ops, deckbuilders, and on and on. Learning is fun, because “have fun with this” is the default way to interact with the medium.

So far, so good. The danger is that it can feel natural to flip the equation around, turning “learning is fun” into “fun is learning.” From the latter statement, it’s easy to arrive at “having fun is also doing work.”

Unfortunately, that last position is wrong. Playing other people’s games might help one refine ideas for one’s own games, or be a source of inspiration, or demonstrate a useful technique. It will never, however, bring one’s own games into actual physical existence. It will never playtest them or write their rulebooks or do any of the other things that need doing to make one’s own games happen. Having fun isn’t doing work; it’s taking one away from the tough stuff.

This doesn’t mean that a designer should only work, leaving no time for play. Experiencing other designers’ games can be very valuable. Again, no artist would be expected to practice in a vacuum, ignoring the masterworks of his or her field.

What it does mean is that play time and work-on-own-designs time need to be kept separate. Don’t set aside two hours to work on a project, and then spend them playing Flower “to learn about non-conflictual games.” Play Flower during free time, and put those two hours into creating the next generation of non-conflictual gaming.

It’s often said that ideas aren’t worth much in game design, because lots of people have them; what’s rare and valuable is the follow-through to make an idea into a publishable game. Getting into a “playing = working” mindset is an easy way to end up on the wrong side of the ideas/follow-through divide. Play, definitely play–take it from a lawyer, making some time for not-work is a good idea–but recognize that playing doesn’t move one’s own designs forward, and keep the time for that latter goal sacrosanct.

5 thoughts on “Theory: Playing Isn’t Working

  1. Totally agree. This reminds me of language study since you can watch as many TV shows as you want in a foreign language, but until you actually try and speak yourself you will only get limited improvement in your speech (since you can learn things like vocabulary words).

    Actually now that I have been in game design mode lately I’ve been trying to resist the urge to play other games. One reason is so I am not too influenced by other games (oh, this game has a cool element I’ll just add it to my game in progress now). I’ve played enough games to have a large base of ideas to work from, and I’d rather use that (which is partially subconscious) than something I just played. Also, less time playing games is more time developing them (:

    1. I’ve had that exact experience with foreign languages. 🙂

      Have you considered playing games in genres unrelated to what you’re designing? I’ve found that helpful as a way to keep learning without having to worry about undue influence.

      1. Not a bad idea, except my time is very limited so for now I’m trying to focus mostly on game design. Problem with playing games is that they are very addictive, so can eat up insane amounts of time…

  2. Playing for fun and playing for analysis are different.
    We’re all designers because we naturally think about poor game experiences and how to improve upon them, so no play is a total waste, but playtesting others’ games to give them helpful feedback is very important practice for game designers of all levels. The deeper you can go analyzing a play experience, the more valuable it will be in your work as a designer.
    None of that contradicts the critical advice here, which is that we must practice our craft in the most applicable manner, and be always designing.

    1. “The deeper you can go analyzing a play experience, the more valuable it will be in your work as a designer.”

      I couldn’t agree more. Over time I’ve noticed that the best authors often give the most useful critiques of books; the skills of analysis and production go hand-in-hand. It’s the same in game design.

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