The Phenomenology of Game Design

In the last few weeks I read David Cerbone’s excellent Understanding Phenomenology and then went straight into Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun. I am currently working my way through Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design – A Book of Lenses. All three are excellent books I can highly recommend if you are interested in the topics they cover.

Phenomenology and Games Books

At first they may seem to be utterly unrelated, one dealing with some of the most hard to understand philosophers of the twentieth century – Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleu-Ponty, and at the other end of the scale books on the nature of fun and what makes a good game. But as I read them I was amazed at the extent to which both Koster and Schell reference these philosophers, and the degree to which an understanding and practice of phenomenology can help us design not just better games, but better understand gaming, human experience and many related aspects of product and organisational design and also experiential education.

As Will Wright says in the introduction to A Theory of Fun “The design and production of games involves aspects of cognitive psychology, computer science, environmental design and storytelling to name a few.”

Koster develops an excellent theory of fun by drawing on a huge range of research which is deftly summarised. I am extremely interested in mental models and the relationship between seeing and thinking, and Koster discusses this when he says “seeing what is actually there with our conscious mind is really hard to do, and most people never learn how to do it! The brain is actively hiding the real world from us.”

While considering how “games train us to see underlying mathematical pattern recognition” Koster later reflects on the current inability of games to instil within us a deeper understanding of ourselves, noting how much of Sartre’s work and quotes seem highly relevant, given that every world we perceive is artificial, since all are just “mental constructs in the end.”

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Jesse Schell has written an altogether different book to Koster, one that complements it well providing a huge amount of detail and guidance in every aspect of game design. It is probably the best book available to learn what exactly goes on inside the head of a games designer, and what is beautiful is that Schell uses the concept of lenses to offer us 100 different lenses or differing perspectives on games design. This is brilliant as it emphasises the necessity for diversity in perception rather than the need for consensus views when solving problems and when designing not just games but any project.

In chapter two Schell considers phenomenology, and how this offers a completely different approach to understanding human experience compared to behavioural psychology which takes a “black box” approach to the study of mind:

On the other side were the phenomenologists who study what game designers care about most – the nature of human experience and “the feeling of what happens.

I do not really want to launch into a long review of The Art of Game Design, but I have to say I am absolutely loving it and it’s relevance goes far beyond the design of computer games and beyond any game at all to be of interest to anyone who designing any simulation or tool or group exercise  or actually product or service in fact. I do like his lens #8 which is the ability to see holographically, i.e. all at once, and there is also a great section on intuition and how game players use their intuition to comprehend complex interactions and realities with many interacting variables.

I have just one disagreement with Schell and that is where he characterises phenomenology as being about introspection and also fully subjective. For me phenomenology is about understanding what it means to be human in this world, and the confusion with introspective psychology and introspecting on one’s own mental processes is a common one.

You may now be wondering what this has got to do with the transition of consciousness? That is a fair enough question, and one that I will answer in full at a later date, but I am looking for inspiration for the development of creatively designing learning experiences, experiences that will encourage people to reflect on their own experiences in life, and how these impact on others, how it impacts on the way in we develop meaningful dialogue and can learn experientially and not just in the more traditional left-hemisphere kind of way. I will be writing more on this theme, but for now just wanted to give you all a heads up on three very excellent and complementary books.

9 responses to “The Phenomenology of Game Design

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  5. Personally, I think that when we move from introspection into the subjective experience to “what it means to be a human in the world” we move from phenomenology to existentialism. But the fields are highly overlapped and this is just a semantic triviality.

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