Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

When I finished my undergraduate degree in game art and production, ready to walk out the labs and never look back, I bumped into my department director. He smiled and asked how my time had been. I told him that I hated the school and that the classes sucked. Most of what I knew had to be self-taught. Worst of all, the professors were not gamers. When I made a Final Fantasy parody logo of a class game project, my professor didn’t even recognize it. How can people who don’t even play games possibly teach us how to make games?

The director nodded more diplomatically than I thought possible, and I left satisfied that I had gotten in my last words.

Six months later, he emailed me inviting me into the department’s new PhD program as one of the very first students in the trial. Over Skype, he told me that as a PhD student, I would be responsible for inventing and teaching a class about game design. I took it as an extremely kind and polite way of saying “if you think we suck, then why don’t you try to do better.”

I tried, and I stumbled, and I failed. Certainly, my nonexistent experience with teaching helped. But more than that, I didn’t know how to organize the content. I was never explicitly taught game design: I absorbed it over years of reading dev blogs, watching GDC videos, following tutorials, analyzing games, and building my own projects. When I had to bring it all together, I had no idea where to start. So I decided to design my class like I would design a game, to improve my skills at both game design and teaching.

The students who sign up for my class are the types of people who self-selected themselves into a university-level game design curriculum. Many of them start out eager to make games, but with no prior knowledge aside from their experience as players. This passion is wonderful, but often it’s not enough, and a lot of them drop out because they don’t expect game development to be so difficult. Imagine if someone decided to major in fine arts because they really like paintings, even though they’ve never picked up a brush.

Eventually, these people can bang their heads against a game engine for a year or so and come out with a playable product. But even if they manage to get the code and art functional, something will feel wrong. The problem is that the design is not functional, but the students are not properly educated to realize it. They fall into a spiral of changing numbers or adding new features, hoping that their game will become fun through this random experimentation.

A lot of people say that the best way to learn is to create. Just start making games and eventually things will click. I think that this is great advice for programming and art, but some fields such as game design need a bit more finesse. If we think of the classic dichotomy between theory and practice, the learning process always requires a careful mix of each. For artists, theory might cover history and trends, whereas practice involves live models and easels. For programmers, theory focuses on structures and logic, whereas practice is about syntax and compiling.

I like to think of my course (and by extension, this book) as game design theory. Other textbooks may serve as a launching board towards game design practice. They can give you a step-by-step process to make a fun game. But I want to dive into the philosophical side of things. What is fun? What is a game? What is knowledge?

This is not a book that covers the field of game design. It will not teach you how to make a game, or work in a team, or find a publisher. I will only focus on one thing: the process of analyzing games. Why is it important to analyze games? How can you do it? What can you learn from an analysis?

So the purpose of this book isn’t to teach you what to do. It’s to teach you how to learn.

I started with this goal for my class, but I had to figure out how to do it on the fly. Learning how to teach people how to learn is rather difficult. But even though my early classes were rough and disorganized, eventually I got better at teaching. My sessions started to make more sense, my critiques started to sound more reasonable, and my ramblings started to be more coherent. Although my learning is not complete, the fruits of my effort are laid out here. This book is a collection of my lectures and conversations surrounding game design, refined through improvisation.

You can read the full book here.