The 3 eras of game design

I have a theory that there have been 3 eras of game design. They overlap, but I claim you can see game design grow specifically where we’ve transitioned between these phases. I’m going to get a bit futurist here, so bear with me.

The first era was characterized by the “what” of game design. What can we make that is fun? What creates pictures? What creates sound? What is a camera? What is a game mechanic? This was approximately the 1980s to the mid-1990s. Spacewars and Wolfenstein 3d are great examples of these kinds of game.

The second era was characterized by the “how” of game design. How can we make this fun, using our “what” tools? How can we use game mechanics? Mario 64 answered how can we make 3d cameras fun. Starcraft answered how we can make an RTS fun. This is roughly the mid-1990s to the present.

The third era is characterized by the “why” of game design. Why should we make things fun? Why should games be fun rather then serious, or artistic? Why can’t games do more? I think this stage is just starting up, and will likely continue through the next decade. America’s Army and Passage both represent this period for me.

These categories are super rough, and the conceptual metaphor is a bit weak, but I think the eras of game design history actually hold up quite well. It’s important to point out that all 3 of these stages are interwoven. We are developing physics technology today, just as the military has been trying to use war games for decades. But the goals of the designers in each era were radically different. One can’t confuse being on one type of project from being on another. And the core of the gaming medium has shifted over time through these stages, and I feel it subtly shifting now.

I get a lot of flak for agreeing with Jonathan Blow and Jason Rohrer, but I think this progression symbolizes why he’s important. They are the heralds of the third act. I think there is little question that now coincides with the mass exposure of video games. My question now is whether this third experience driven stage will define the era, or be merely the foreword starving-artist fringe that has characterized the mature Renaissance arts for centuries.

If gaming is more like movies, then we would expect our second stage “action movie”-type games to be our most successfully, with our third stage Sundance games relegated to the word-of-mouth screening. If gaming is more like life, as I have theorized, then I would expect the opposite. Entertainment is only one facet of life, and games might then have many other facets that are equally valuable. The most significant evidence of this that comes to mind is the success of Brain Age among the elderly in Japan for mental acuity training and The Sims as a story telling and creation/expression tool. Of course, for every Sims there’s a Halo or Portal or Bioshock. We’ll see where this goes!

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