Meaning Through Game Design

A few weeks ago I was listening to a radio show on CBC called Rewind, in which clips from archived CBC interviews and shows are played back. They often replay sections of interviews with a Canadian personality taken from interviews that span years or decades. This particular episode was about a well-known Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.

What caught my attention was the first clip they played; an interview between Bill McNeil and Margaret Atwood from 1968, when Atwood was 29 years old. She had recently published a book of poetry, and McNeil was asking her to explain what it was about. I’ve transcribed Atwood’s comments from the episode here:

McNeil asks Atwood if she feels she can say what she wants to say better in poetry than in any other form.

“No, no no no. That’s thinking of poetry as a translation from prose, as though one were thinking in prose and then translating it into poetry as a form of expression, whereas one actually thinks in poetry. It’s not that I have a message in prose and then translate it into poetry, at all,” replies Atwood.

He asks her, “What is it then that you’re saying in your poetry?”

“Because I don’t think of my poetry as a translation from prose, I don’t think of it as being able to be translated into prose, so I can’t give you a neat little précis.”

He ask, “Well then, what is poetry for you?”

“It’s a form of thought, not a form of expression, because a form of expression means that you have something separate from what is being expressed.”

He says, “but you are saying something in your poetry.”

“Yes, I’m saying something, but you can’t separate what I’m saying from the actual form in which it’s said. Do you ask a painter, ‘what is this painting saying?’ Do you?”

(You can listen to the full episode here: CBC Radio: Rewind – Margaret Atwood)

I was so struck by what Atwood had said that I turned off the radio immediately and sat, thinking about it further. She was right, of course, that certain things can only be said via certain media. Through her poetry, Atwood communicates with the reader in a way that isn’t possible through any other medium.

I started thinking about other artistic media. Try describing to someone what a piece of music is about in a way that makes them feel the same things as if they’d listened to it. Can you make someone understand the texture, tastes, and smells of an amazing meal you had? The best films communicate with the viewer in a way that isn’t possible in a book, or painting, because they communicate best through the medium of film. The best books communicate best through the medium of the novel. This is why great books often make mediocre movies, because part of the art gets lost in translation to a medium that isn’t ideally suited for that particular message.


Even this photo can’t capture the experience of eating this sushi. (Photo credit: flickr user “e-wander” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

If all that is true, and games are an artistic medium, then that means that the best games will communicate something that can only be expressed through the medium of games. But what is that? What kinds of thought can only be communicated through games, or can best be communicated through games?

In 2011, game designer Clint Hocking gave an amazing talk at GDC about game dynamics and “how games mean”.

In the talk, Hocking discusses how film generates meaning through the edit. He talks about a film in which a film maker cut together a shot of a man’s face, followed by a bowl of soup, followed by the same shot of the man, followed by a shot of a dead person, etc. When people watched the film, they attributed different emotions to the man, first that he looked hungry when looking at the soup, then sad when looking at the dead person, etc. Hocking argues that because the shot of the man is the same every time, it is the placement of the shots in time (i.e. the edit) that generates meaning.

Film Edit

Film creates meaning through the edit. The placement of imagery next to other imagery in time creates meaning for the viewer.

(You can watch the full talk on the GDC Vault for free: GDC Vault: Clint Hocking – Dynamics: The State of the Art)

If film creates meaning through the edit, how do games create meaning? Hocking argues that games create meaning through dynamics. To talk about dynamics, we need to first talk about the MDA framework: MDA Framework (PDF)

MDA stands for “Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.” It is a framework created by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek to describe a formal approach for understanding games. Briefly (including some quotes and examples from the MDA paper):

Mechanics can be thought of as the “rules” of the game. These are the components that make up a game “at the level of data representation and algorithms.” In poker, the mechanics include: shuffling the deck, dealing, betting, raising, hand ranking, etc.

Dynamics are the kinds of player behaviours that result from the mechanics as the game is played. In poker, the mechanics create dynamics like bluffing, or intimidation.

Aesthetics can be thought of as describing “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.” So in the MDA framework, aesthetics are not talking about the visual look of the game, but rather the emotional result of playing the game. In poker, the dynamics create aesthetics like challenge, fellowship, or expression.

If you start reading about game design, you will find a lot of books written on mechanics, and some on aesthetics, but writing on dynamics is much harder to find. Dynamics in games often appear as feedback loops, which can be hard to describe. But as game designers, our central job is to create mechanics that generate the dynamics that lead to the kind of aesthetic experience we want the player to have.

Monopoly Feedback Loop

Example of a feedback loop in Monopoly from the MDA paper

So, back to Clint Hocking’s talk. He argues that is it through dynamics that games create meaning. Thinking about what Atwood said about poetry, I’m inclined to agree. Dynamics aren’t present in other art forms because other art forms don’t let the viewer/reader interact with them the same way games do. Through interacting with mechanics, the player experiences dynamics, and Hocking argues that those dynamics are what create meaning in games.

If we accept Hocking’s statement, then my question becomes: what do we want to say with games that can only be or can best be communicated with dynamics?

When I look at some of my favourite games, this is what they do well; they create meaning in ways that would not be possible in other media. Proteus, one of my favourite games, works because what it evokes could not be experienced better in another medium. I think this is why I find it so difficult to explain to other people why I love that game so much. I can tell you about my childhood memories of exploring forests, and fields, and ponds. I can tell you about the beautiful island I explored in Proteus where I sat and watched the stars move overhead. I can tell you about the sounds I heard while walking through a forest in Proteus’s winter landscape. But it doesn’t capture it. You need to play it yourself to experience the meaning in it.


Sitting beside a lake in Proteus, a game by Ed Key and David Kanaga.

The thing is, I don’t know what this means for me yet; what this means for the games I make. I’m more and more interested in exploring games that best convey meaning through the medium of games, but I yet don’t know how that will manifest itself in my work. This is a process. I’m still learning. I’m still working it out.


Indie Sixy Times

Last week was the sixth anniversary of the start of my journey into independent game development. Every year I like to write up a little recap of the past year, and this year is no different. And we’re off!

For me the past year has been quite different from previous years. Most of the year was spent not working on my own Streaming Colour projects, but instead working with Matt Rix on games for Milkbag Games, our new company.

I did manage to put out a few things by Streaming Colour: Finger Tied Jr. (July, 2013), and Baby’s Playful Hands (October, 2013). I was also lucky enough to have Apple ask me for a demo version of Finger Tied that they could put on iPads in actual, physical Apple stores. That was pretty exciting, and being able to see my game on iPads in Apple stores was extremely rewarding.

The rest of my year was spent working with Matt on games for Milkbag Games. At the start of my year six, Matt and I were in the middle of working on a game called Snow Siege. However, by the fall, we both needed a break from the game. We’d been working on it for a year and were still months away from it being finished. At that time I was working on a prototype for a bonus mini-game in Snow Siege. The game was a little scratch card where you tapped on squares to reveal shapes that rewarded you with prizes. The game was so much fun on its own that we started joking about taking the mini-game idea and making it about rescuing cute, pixelated animals. But the more we talked about it, the less it became a joke, and the more it became something we really wanted to make happen. This mini-game became the core of Disco Zoo.

Disco Zoo started as a three-week prototype to test the idea and see if it was fun. Once we were able to play the game, we were convinced that it was something worthwhile and we spent the next three months expanding the prototype into a finished game. We teamed up with our friends at NimbleBit to publish the game, and the game launched on iOS in late February, 2014 to an Editor’s Choice feature on the front page of the App Store. We brought the game to Google Play in April, and between the two platforms we’ve had nearly 3 million downloads so far.

Needless to say, we’ve been extremely pleased with the response to Disco Zoo. Matt and I had a great time making the game, and people seem to really enjoy playing it, so we couldn’t be happier. Some people buy things in the game, so that makes us happy too. 😉

On a personal note, Disco Zoo couldn’t have come at a better time for me, because if the game had flopped, I might have been at the point of having to decide between continuing with indie life or finding a full-time job again. I’m so lucky to be in a position where I can keep doing this. I have said this before, but none of us do this alone. I’m always aware of how much help and support I’ve received from family, friends, journalists, twitter acquaintances, players, and more. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has supported me in a myriad of ways over the past six years. Because of you, I can continue to do what I love and keep making games for the future. And after all, that’s kind of the whole point.

Here’s to year seven!


P.S. The title of this post was blatantly borrowed from TOJam 6: “TOJam Sixy Times”. 🙂

Baby’s Playful Hands

Two years ago I released an app I made for my 8-month-old son, called Baby’s Musical Hands. It had some colourful squares that played musical notes when tapped. I wanted to make something for him that he could play on my iPad without worrying about buttons that were too small to press, ads, or in-app purchase. The app proved to be quite popular with infants and their parents, and I was extremely happy at the reception it got. It even won some awards from the Children’s Technology Review and the Best App Ever Awards.

Since then, I’ve been giving thought to ways that I could change the app to provide even more interest to babies and toddlers. My daughter is now a year old, so I thought I would take this opportunity to make an app for her: Baby’s Playful Hands. Baby’s Playful Hands is similar, in that there are coloured squares that play musical notes when tapped, but I’ve added more layers of interaction. There are six instruments and colours, and they change as the baby plays with the app. There are more animations to surprise and delight children. And I changed the musical scale to a pentatonic scale so that things sound nice when babies are randomly hitting notes together.

Baby’s Playful Hands is available on the iOS App Store today! It’s a universal app, so it runs on iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. I hope you and your children enjoy it as much as mine do! 🙂

Get Baby’s Playful Hands on the iOS App Store


Creativity and Self-Doubt

There have been some studies recently that look at the way social networks affect our perception of ourselves in relation to others. Some of the studies have talked about how since we tend to share only the best of ourselves online, it can lead us to feel bad about our own lives, as they seem so much less perfect than the lives of those around us.

I’ve noticed that this can happen when we talk about our work as creative individuals. We like to talk about our successes, but we leave out all the hard work and failure that came before the good parts. Maybe we don’t like to think about the difficult parts. Maybe we’re afraid of appearing weak. Maybe we’re afraid of looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.

Five years ago, when I was new to the indie game development scene, I was working on my first game, Dapple. I had been working on it for a couple of months, and what had started with great ideas and enthusiasm had turned to a place where I was starting to doubt every decision I was making about the game design. Should I match three colours or four? Does the game need power ups, or will it work better without? Should I let the player choose their colour each turn, or should I pick one of the available colours at random for them? I was getting stuck inside my own head, convincing myself that every decision I was making was bound to be wrong.

I decided to reach out to a game designer I respected and ask for advice. I sent an email explaining who I was and my situation, and asked for advice on how to get through periods of self-doubt. How do you make a decision when you feel like all your ideas are wrong, I asked. The response I got amounted to: “Sorry, this doesn’t happen to me. Can’t really help you out.” As you might imagine, this was pretty crushing. Now I felt even more incompetent and I started to feel like “real” game designers must not ever doubt themselves. What was wrong with me that I doubted my own abilities?

But the longer I worked, and the more game designers and developers I’ve met, the more I’ve come to realize that either this individual was, by far, the exception, or wasn’t being honest with me. I have shared my feelings of self-doubt with many other designers since then, and invariably they have similar stories. We all doubt ourselves and our decisions from time to time. We go through periods where we think our work is terrible and will never be good. We become convinced at times that no one will like our game.

What I’ve learned is that, for me, it’s just part of the process of making a game. Making a game is about making a huge number of decisions, and it’s only natural to feel at times like I’m making the wrong ones. And hell, sometimes I am going to make the wrong decisions. But that’s ok. The important thing is to take the information I have available and make a decision.

An old boss I had once said to me “don’t worry about making the right decisions, worry about making the decisions right.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was saying, but I do now. Sometimes you just need to make a decision and move on, or you can become paralyzed by it. If you realize later that the decision was wrong and makes the game worse, you can go back and fix it. But don’t let yourself get into a situation where you refuse to make decisions for fear of being wrong.

I wanted to write this in case any new game designers happen to be following me on twitter or read this blog. I didn’t want someone working on their first game to feel like the doubt they’re experiencing is unique to them. I wanted to say to you that self-doubt is common. It’s ok if you experience it, because everybody does. What’s important is that you find ways to work through it and move on.

Over the last few years I’ve found that a few things can really help me when I get stuck on a problem:

  • take a walk outside, preferably in nature
  • exercise
  • visit an art gallery and remind yourself of the beauty we are capable of creating
  • go to a movie and see something great
  • go to a movie and see something terrible
  • work on something unrelated for a few hours, or a day or two (but be careful not to jump indefinitely from project to project when things get hard, because things always get hard at some point)
  • do a game jam
  • just make a decision and start working on it. If you hate it, you can change your mind.

I hope that helps. And, if in doubt, read and re-read this quote from Ira Glass:

Ira Glass on having a creative career

Ira Glass on having a creative career

If you have any suggestions for what helps you get through the hard parts of development, let me know!


Good Design Matters

The summer I turned 18 I was accepted into a summer camp called Shad Valley, held at university campuses across Canada. It was a one-month-long camp focused on entrepreneurship and engineering. It was to be the first time I lived away from home for any length of time.

Shortly before leaving for Shad at the University of New Brunswick, my dad told me he wanted to get me a small, battery-powered alarm clock for the trip (this was before cell phones). So we set off to various stores around town.

We visited several stores. We looked and we looked. I kept saying “what about this one?” “No,” my dad would say, “that’s not right.” And so we’d keep looking. Finally, being a teenager, and frustrated by the length of what seemed like such a simple task, I asked why a particular alarm clock wasn’t good enough. “Because good design matters,” my father replied. Because design is important, he told me. When we buy things we have a choice, and we shouldn’t settle for something that isn’t both functional and beautiful.

Finally, my dad picked a small alarm clock off the shelf. “Here,” he said. “This one.” It was a small black clock with an analog face set behind a circular piece of clear plastic. The face was marked with lines of a nice thickness. The numbers on the face were written in a clear and attractive font. The face was surrounded by an edge of a pleasing thickness. It had a button that made the face light up. The button was exactly where you’d put your thumb, if you were to grab the clock in the dark. It wasn’t an expensive clock, and it was just at a local hardware store, but it was attractive and functional.

At the time I didn’t think much about it. But, the other night, as I sat with my son reading stories at bed time, I looked over at that clock on his bookshelf to see the time. I realized that I’d had that clock for over 15 years. The colours have faded a bit, and the face has a crack in it, but I still like the way it looks. A clock of a lesser design would probably have been tossed years ago.

I doubt my father even remembers having this conversation about that little alarm clock, but it has stuck with me. As game makers we are creating experiences for players that are at their best when both functional and beautiful. It’s not good enough for a game to just be beautiful, or just functional. Something amazing happens in games when form and function act as one. Good design matters.