Games and humanity
Games have been accompanying mankind for many millennia. In fact, for as long as there are records of human activity on the planet, there have also been records of ludic activities.
However, it was not until later that we would come to create what we consider today as being a "game", and while the distinction is often semantic and somewhat unimportant, it alludes to the increasing consideration we have grown to dedicate to game-making.
Much like other forms of art and sciences, game design and the way it is conducted have too changed over centuries, today I'd like to share three major period distinctions that help me better contextualize where we're at today.
First Era: game design as evolution
The first era begins with the first historical record of what can be considered as game, The Royal Game of Ur and Senet being major contestants to that title. During this period games had no particular discernible creator, like songs and stories of their time they were part of the cultural reality of the society in which they emerged. Because of that, any given game could exist in several different forms and rules, varying by region and who played them, much like common stories and fables. In this era, games were not so much designed, as they were "evolved" by the same people that played them. This process led to small changes at a time, reflecting and serving the audience that engaged with them.
Second Era: game design as alchemy
The beginning of the second era is marked by the rise of traditional game designers, around the Victorian Era (1800s), starting with people that first made a living out of game-making. In this era, game design advancements are achieved through experimentation and sharing notes with other designers. Just as ancient alchemists wrote down formulas on what ingredients to combine, game designers too created their own rules of thumb and guiding principles to their praxis. This era infused games with wide innovation, helping to distinguish markets and audiences as well as provide standards to play experiences.
The major issues with this practice of design, however lies on its faulty nature. Like with alchemy, findings and beliefs of a given designer were deeply colored by personal opinion and the audience being serviced, rendering its findings often not applicable when put to use on a different context. Another drawback to this approach is the lack of common jargon designers could use when referring to elements of play to better refine their craft.
Third Era: game design as discipline
This puts us to today, at the tipping point between the second and third era of design. While a lot of advancements are still achieved through the good old method of wild experimentation, with the burst of capital flowing into games, new methods and ideas have affected games and their design. Today, games are heavily tested and metrics have begun to affect our design more and more. In combination with that, we have a rise of theories surrounding game design and the nature entertainment.
For the first time in history, we’re providing formal training of game making in academic environments, much like the Fine Arts and more recently cinema has. As we transition into this new era we see vast opportunities and new fields to be explored such as that of Gamification. Moreover, we have begun to formalize the study of game-making, producing a variety of material and thoughts on the matter. Theories like MDA, Bartle’s Player Archetypes, MMDA, Chemistry of Game Design and publications such as What Games Are, The Art of Game Design, A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Characteristics of Games and others have helped us better structure and organize our thoughts around games.
Moving forward, these new practices will allow us to elevate the craft of game-making even further, addressing the core of the central question of the nature of engagement. As we pioneer into this new world of design possibilities and understanding, we can now begin to anticipate the promising potential that this third era is about to usher.