Religious scholars and practitioners of Zen Buddhism know that "zen" is about much more than just acknowledging and celebrating contradictions. Nonetheless, the word "zen" is often used as a shorthand for a mindset that calmly accepts contradiction, and the appreciation of the potential for balance through discord. That's my own interpretation of the colloquial usage anyway. So what does this definition of "zen" have to do with game design?
Games are, it is important to note, made by humans and (usually) played by humans. Because of this, games are reflections of our reality- both in how we make them and how we perceive the experience of playing them. A game design “practice” is a reflection of a game designer’s reality. The most challenging problems we face in fostering a healthy and productive game design practice relate to resolving contradictions and general “imbalance” through unfiltered self-reflection, awareness and mindfulness in pursuit of the “middle path.”
When analyzing our designs as they are developed - from ideation to implementation and testing, we continually strive to seek the truth, obscured by a multitude of inherent barriers. We must develop skills and strategies to allow us, as game designers, to properly perceive the meaning behind the massive amount of information that comes from the internal and external play-testing of our games.
Surprisingly often, apparent design conflicts or problems are seen as:
- Two sides of the same coin
Often the best solutions them is:
- To balance
- To tune
- To tweak
- To pursue a “middle path”
- To accept it - maybe even turn it into a feature
Focus, guidance, and experience are important methods for examining and building a skill-set to resolve complex issues. Certainly by concentrating in one area or on one task, we are able to produce the best game experience possible.
With the aid of an experienced practitioner on the path we seek, we can progress faster than learning everything on our own. Yet, there are some things, we can only learn if we experience them first-hand. The pursuit of a game design practice is no exception to these statements. To do anything well, it helps to consciously develop a practice around the ideas and concepts that enable us to develop methodologies, rituals and habits to procure for ourselves the most beneficial set of information possible.
It's not about you
Adopting multiple perspectives beyond our own is essential for making the hundreds (or thousands) of objective decisions that are necessary to make something that appeals to others. Yet at the same time, the individuals on the game design team must start with their own subjective sensibilities. The personal taste of the game's designer (who possibly may not formally hold this role) is the catalyst during the initial ideation phase, even if they are not the target audience. This often can continue through pre-production before the necessary step of getting their ideas into the hands, hearts and minds, of the actual intended audience of players.
These problems become most challenging when the target audience for the game is a mainstream commercial endeavor. For mass appeal, a professional game designer is challenged with the goal of providing fresh-yet-not-too-exotic an experience for the player audience, usually under the critical microscope of team-members, executives, publishers, funders, game reviewers, the press etc.) This kind of pressure can make it difficult to be truly objective.
Designers can’t help but bring their own subjective sensibilities to the table when it comes time to analyze feedback. For any feedback to be useful, it must be compiled, processed, parsed and analyzed to determine the best course of action in order to pursue the next step- to iterate or change the game to provide a better experience for the players and play-test it again. This is not all that dissimilar to the scientific method. For a game experience to be of the highest value, it requires a special balance during the play-testing phase between objectivity and creative taste.
Even the pros get this wrong
This is tricky stuff and I have seen some of the most seasoned game development veterans fumble by allowing their personal biases to dismiss (what others can see as) rather substantially obvious feedback from “well-run” play sessions. Yet, I have also seen 18 year-old first-year college students handle unexpected and difficult-to-accept play-test feedback with the highest level of grace and wisdom possible. Witnessing these instances, each came as a surprise and seem counter-intuitive.
Why does that happen? A simple explanation is that the veteran developer’s decades of experience, combined with a lack of disconnectedness from the work, can result in a level of hubris and denial which cause them to be dismissive of the feedback. The developer thought they knew better what the players wanted than what the players said they wanted. It is true that sometimes consumers don't "really" know what they want, especially if something completely innovative and new is presented to the market -but, not often. The over-confidence of a designer can result in poorer choices than an insecure novice who may be more open to feedback than dismissive - because they lack the confidence to allow their egos to insist that they know better than the play-test feedback.
I am intrigued by game design precisely because it is complex, multi-disciplinary and filled with lessons, skills and qualities that require us to resolve or accept many layers of contradictions. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.
For me, The "zen" of game design is enjoying the voyage as much as celebrating the arrival at the destination- having fun while tackle the dynamic, highly demanding, complex but rewarding set of riddles requires a disciplined mind, a light-hearted, yet persistent nature. This is just part of what is required to maintain and cultivate a successful game design practice.