Product or Media? The Intersection of Games and Design

A director of design and an avowed "hardcore ludologist" ponders why the well constructed games he nominates do so poorly in design competitions, engaging a debate over whether games are a media or designed objects. But they're both, he says.

Matt Jones of the London-based design consultancy BERG, has unsuccessfuly nominated console games like Left 4 Dead and BioShock for three straight years in the Design Museum of London's Designs of the Year exhibition. Writing for Edge Online, he says that games subordination of "scenery and backstory" to physics and gameplay make them, for him anyway, a form of architecture, and thus eligible for consideration in design awards, alongside physical examples of design like laptops or office buildings.

But he reasons that they are also rightfully considered media to be experienced like a film, a book or an album. And that too is owed to a feat of superior design. It's just one not recognized, yet anyway, outside the games community.

Are Games Design? [Edge Online, Jan. 6]

I must admit to being a fairly hardcore 'ludologist' when it comes to appreciating games. The scenery and backstory come a very poor second to the physics, mechanics and 'toyetics' (as Gary Penn has dubbed it) of the world I get to play in. So as a result, for me, games really are frameworks for fun, rather than 'interactive stories'.

I tend to see them as having much more in common with the approach of an architect or landscape designer in terms of shaping and creating flows, confluences and possibilities for enjoyment. Whether it's Molyneux, Wright or another guru of gamespace, the language and argot used to describe what they are trying to design often leans heavily on that of architecture - and of course architects have often been involved in or crossed over into world-building, concept art development and even level design. As a result I really do think that critical appreciation and commentary from the world of architecture and design could be illuminating and progressive.

Another parallel with architectural criticism is that those versed in architecture can look at a drawing of a building plan and section, and be able to read it - allowing them to comment on the intention of the architects, and the possible qualities of the building without experiencing its constructed form.

Similarly, a seasoned gamer or game critic might be able to read a videogame in abstract very quickly - seeing patterns, references or even clichés in the mechanics and dynamics offered by its designers. But to a less familiar eye, games are hard to appreciate without playing them and experiencing the physics and laws of the world they present. Without such literacy in games, and without the prompting to simply play games, it's little wonder that mainstream design critics tend to ignore their charms.

It might be quite an easy bridge to build between the lush three-dimensional worlds of leading console games to those of architecture. It's perhaps easy to cast a more esoteric critical eye over the possibility-sculptures of god games. But I'd also argue that the same critical appreciation should be given to the elegant minimalism, the exuberant joy-giving and often beautifully crafted bottle universes of so-called casual games.

After all, one can see their analogue in the everyday objects - spoons, chairs, staplers, kettles - reified in design museums the world over for their immaculate balance, simplicity, deft detailing or just whacked-out joyfulness. Why should pocket calculators be put on a pedestal, and not Peggle?

- Matt Jones

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.