The Grow-A-Game exercise

Notes from a G4C session, following some context.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Design Introduction

An approach to classifying early game concept design sees design methodologies classified as either top-down or bottom-up. Gamasutra has a good article on this here: Game Design Cognition: The Bottom-Up And Top-Down Approaches.

The short of it is that one can approach a game from the verbs or use-cases that the player can utilize, proceeding to elaborating specific mechanics for those verbs, moving onto the features and content that makes up the majority of the game itself, before finally arriving at the context and greater thematic content, etc.

The opposite approach starts with developing an overall abstracted concept of the game – answering questions such as what is this game about, what is the meaning, the setting, the ideas at play? This abstract concept is then used to construct a context which the features, gameplay mechanics and specific actions can be ultimately derived from.

Top-Down Design Plus Values Consideration at G4C 101

The first day of the Games for Change festival was focused on the “G4C 101 Workshop” – directed at nonprofits and other professionals new to game design and production concepts and essentially coach them through the processes and concerns inherent in building a social issue game. Mary Flanagan, a professor at Dartmouth and head of the Tiltfactor Lab research group just gave a talk (when I began writing this, several days ago) for the workshop detailing a somewhat altered perspective on the top-down design approach.

She began by laying out some of the challenges for aspiring serious games developers, among which include technical proficiency (programming, art, etc.), business models and sustainability (costs, funding, boards), affordability, and finally design proficiency. Since the audience was in large part new to thinking in terms of game systems, giving a basic understanding of the process of design was the goal of the talk. The main challenges were to incorporate consideration of values in the design process, and how to make rules which support that value.

Led by Professor Flanagan, the Grow-A-Game exercise directed participants through a primarily top-down approach to game design. As injecting a particular human value or principle into gameplay systems is generally a central focus of social issue games, this particular design approach began with examining potentially relevant values, and proceeding from there. Some examples of commonly accepted human values across cultures included privacy, creative expression, diversity, cooperation, group success, community, humility, and so on. The exercise used different color cards to randomly select values, verbs/actions, games, and challenges, which were then used to brainstorm new gameplay concepts using the selected value and other guidelines. One of our early card combinations was security/safety plus monopoly, from which we envisioned a game which had community security performing as a sort of gameplay capital.

It was interesting to see what a diverse group of concepts came together from such a simple exercise, although conceptually it wasn’t much of a stretch in terms of design methodology. Values become a part of the high level concepting, which can complicate matters, but a good gameplay mechanic can be designed for almost anything.

Apparently a number of serious games have been made starting from this method, including Hush (singing + human rights) and Layoff (empathy + security), both of which are worth checking out.

About Bryan

game designer, facial haired, racially ambiguous.

02 June 2009 by Bryan
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