Notes on a Language of Game Design

Over the next few months I want to write something around the idea of a language of game design. I say “around” because the subject is so tricky that it doesn’t let itself be approached directly; it must be circled carefully, with a keen eye for the subtle tracks it leaves in the gaming landscape.

Glimpses of our prey are fleeting; a movement in the long grass, the flash of an eye in the shadows. It’s a beast that none have seen clearly, yet tales of it are told wherever its hunters gather.

What do we mean when we talk about a language of game design? Over the past ten years, many designers have had the intuition that it might be possible to create a notation for describing game ideas like those that exist for music and choreography. Although the idea has been floating around for a while, it came to prominence in 2005 when Raph Koster delivered his lecture, “Game Grammar” at the GDC in San Francisco. Since then, many more game developers have started to explore the idea from a variety of perspectives, and for a variety of reasons.

But to talk of a language may ultimately mislead us. It’s important to keep in mind that we are using the word “language” as a metaphor. We might as easily say a mathematics of game design, a biology, or an architecture. Each of these designations points toward what we are looking for, but the contours of their meanings may scatter the light in other, less helpful directions, just as they reveal new and novel ones.

To create a language we first need an ontology. We need to know what fundamental entities games are composed of, and what fundamental relationships exist between them. (Actually, if we were really doing ontology, we’d have to be a bit clearer on what we mean by “entities” and “relations”.)

The search for an ontology raises some interesting questions. How are game entities similar to or different from their counterparts in the real world? How is creating a language of game design different from creating a language of surgery, of truck-driving, or of tasks and events in general? Given a real world-system of entities, a supermarket say, or a cowboy’s corral, what do I need to add or take away to make it into a game?

The central question, for me anyway, is not how I might write down my game ideas, or lay out their anatomy, but how do I see a game in what is around me or in what I feel? An artist looks upon his subject and sees form, colour, line and space. What does a game designer see? How can I teach someone to see it?

The posts in this series will be fairly loosely linked. I don’t have a grand unified theory or anything like that. I just want to share my thinking and get my ideas out there to anyone who might find them useful.