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Games, Books and Interface

Posted by admin on February 27th, 2007 at 8:59 pm

Ernest Adams, author of a number of books on game design, wrote an article for Next Generation entitled “50 books for Everyone in the Game Industry”, highlighting 50 of the most influential and insightful works on the topic to date. He breaks them down into twelve categories, such as theory, business, and the history of games, attempting to cover a very broad range of topics. One of those topics is “inspirations,” that is, books “whose influence can be felt in many games” and “have helped make the game industry what it is today”:

  1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, by various authors
  3. Star Trek, originated by Gene Roddenberry
  4. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
  5. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  6. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
  7. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet H. Murray

This is an interesting if odd list.  I’ve never read Hamlet on the Holodeck, and I think I would have replaced The Hunt for Red October with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. But the choice of the D&D Player’s Handbook is one where I agree, especially since he cites the authorship as “various”.

The original book to come under the title Player’s Handbook for D&D is the book with the firelit idol on the cover, and its author is clearly Gary Gygax. So clearly Adams means to include later editions of the Player’s Handbook as well, including the ones by Zeb Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and maybe even the 4th edition, too. These books share many things in common, but I’d argue that they describe quite different games. The Player’s Handbook in any of its forms is rather light on environment and setting details, so it’s not like the other works on the list, which are mostly novels.

So I think the only explanation that remains is that Adams meant that the form of the Player’s Handbook is what he found so inspiring. The organized chapters of information, the tables, the detailed rules and boxed examples. If we were talking about a digital game rather than a book, we might be talking about an interface.

Another book in the top-50 list is Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a copy of which I acquired after attending the author’s seminar some years ago. I had a chance to speak to the author briefly afterwards. I brought up the topic of user interface design and asked him what he thought of the fact that UI design is not treated as a discipline in its own right. He responded: “That’s because it’s a solved problem.”

I was baffled by the response. But now it’s so obviously clear. Maybe Gygax got it right and Tufte knew it. An interface might be arcane and lengthy, interspersed with amateurish illustrations, ripping off every pop-culture trope of its day. But this triteness conveys itself through archetypes and symbols, allowing the designer to connect with the player in a way that is uniquely cooperative. By interacting with the game, the game invokes its world directly into the shared mindspace of the participants. The interface is that which enables us to believe in the game, or not, and every choice in how to achieve it should be guided by asking how best to invoke that sense of flow.

For those looking for Adams’ whole list, I’ve reproduced it here in title order:

  1. 21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and Richard Boon
  2. A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al
  3. A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster
  4. Balance of Power: International Politics as the Ultimate Global Game, by Chris Crawford
  5. Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities, by Amy Jo Kim
  6. Creating the Art of the Game, by Matthew Omernick
  7. Designing Virtual Worlds, by Richard Bartle
  8. Developing Online Games: An Insider’s Guide, by Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Petrovsky
  9. Digital Game-Based Learning, by Marc Prensky
  10. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, by various authors
  11. Everything Bad Is Good for You, by Steven Johnson
  12. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
  13. From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins
  14. Fundamentals of Game Design, by Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings
  15. Game Over, Press Start to Continue, by David Sheff, with new material by Andy Eddy
  16. Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris Bateman
  17. Gender-Inclusive Game Design, by Sheri Graner Ray
  18. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, by Jesper Juul
  19. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet H. Murray
  20. Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga
  21. Joystick Nation, by J.C. Herz
  22. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, by Gerard Jones
  23. Man, Play, and Games, by Roger Caillois
  24. Masters of Doom, by David Kushner
  25. Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, by Mark Stephen Meadows
  26. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd edition by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister
  27. Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, edited by Joseph Tobin
  28. Postmortems from Game Developer, edited by Austin Grossman
  29. Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
  30. Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
  31. Star Trek, originated by Gene Roddenberry
  32. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee
  33. Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971 – 1984, by Van Burnham
  34. The Ambiguity of Play, by Brian Sutton-Smith
  35. The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman
  36. The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness, by George Alastair ‘The Fat Man’ Sanger
  37. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
  38. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
  39. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  40. The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, by Frederick P. Brooks
  41. The Oxford History of Board Games, by David Parlett
  42. The Ultimate History of Video Games, by Steven L. Kent
  43. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations and Envisioning Information, all by Edward Tufte
  44. The Xbox 360 Uncloaked by Dean Takahashi
  45. Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, by Steven Poole
  46. Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
  47. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan
  48. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, by Ian Bogost
  49. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  50. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee


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