Game design is immaterial

Posted: gamedev

Reading Elements of Game Design planted a splinter in my brain that I cannot stop fiddling with. On page 8, when discussing the game designer's role,

Designer's intentions are immaterial, save for how they turned out in the implementation.

The implication is that design vanishes when the game handed off to the player. The player doesn't directly interact with game design. Instead, the player experiences with their senses: holding the controller, watching pixels on the screen, jamming to a chiptune beat.

I find this statement ultimately unsatisfying.

There's something in the design itself that lingers; something that continues to pull at the player's expectations long after they've dropped the game.

Take, for example, my love of DOOM. The fluidity of arena-based combat subverted my childhood understanding of first-person shooters (FPS). Now every FPS I play is subject to lofty expectations stemmed from my enjoyment of DOOM.

Some games play with expectations more fundamentally within their design. Antichamber utilizes non-Euclidean space to cultivate mind-bending puzzles. The entire experience hinges on player assumptions that game worlds are reflections of the real world, and thereby follow the same rules and physics.

This concept of prior experience is referred to in philosophy as a priori, literally "from the former". Kant suggests, as quoted by the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (emphasis mine):

[T]he objective validity of the categories, as a priori concepts, rests on the facts that through them alone is experience possible (as far as the form of thinking is concerned). For they then are related necessarily and a priori to objects of experience, since only by means of them can any object of experience be thought at all.

Kant defines a priori concepts as conditions of experience. Every experience I perceive is rooted in the existence of fundamental concepts that I do not directly perceive. These fundamental concepts must exist in order for the experience to exist.

Applied to games, player experience rests upon an a priori foundation of game design. Player's do not interact with game design directly, but the design must exist in order for the game to exist. Following this transcendental view, the design exists even though it is unknowable by the player.

What I found while venturing into all of this theory is that, from a player's perspective, "unknowable" is a better definition for game design than "immaterial".

Although a player only interacts with the sensory aspects of games, the design doesn't vanish from the experience. It's still there, built upon as a foundation of a priori concepts, affecting the player's overall enjoyment of the game.

The design, the unknown something, is carried with the player separate from the game. Players accumulate a repository of design concepts throughout their lifetime that ultimately affect they way they perceive and experience games.

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