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Life experience – Why it matters for crafting games

October 15, 2012

Have you ever been to a foreign country, where things work very differently to where you grew up, and customs and expectations are unfamiliar to you? If not how do you expect to be able to create the  experience of being in a strange new land well in a game?

‘Well’ is the operative word there. You can learn from other games, but guessing at sensations is a very poor substitute from drawing on reality, because when you have real experience with something, you can actually tell when you’re successfully recreating the experiences that have an effect on us.

For example – If you’re a game designer writing a romance into an RPG, where you have to put together dialogue for it, but you’re actually quite sheltered and haven’t gone out and experienced a whole mess of love, lust, or romance, then guess what – You’re going to suck at it. You may not think so as you do it, because to you it might feel okay, but to anyone who has experienced these things, it’s possibly going to seem laughably bad.

Frankly, with all due to respect to some of the designers of some decent RPGs out there, it feels like this has often been the case – With romantic and sexual encounters in games coming across as a bad guess, because it’s nothing what it’s really like.

That doesn’t mean that crafting a plausible romance in a game is easy for someone who has firsthand experience, but they will be way better equipped to understand when the emotions their creations evoke are on the money or not. It will be a person with life experience who cracks the formula, and not someone who simply imagines what it’s like.

If the above examples seem a bit too touchy feely and aren’t working for you – Consider a more simplistic gamer-friendly case. If you want to create a FPS that really caters to an active competitive community, then your task will be much easier if you understand what it’s like to be a part of such a community. That’s a life experience too.

Being open to new experiences

Some people need a nudge to get moving in the right direction with things, and as funny as the above heading may sound, there are some things folks who don’t naturally seek experiences can take on board to help themselves become a little more world-wise so they can broaden their horizons to the point it will make them better designers.

  • Spend time away from gamers and be more social
    Don’t just hang out with gamers! Find out what matters and motivates folks who aren’t into gaming, and see if there are things they’re doing that you can join in on. You don’t have to commit to anything long term, even just short-term involvement can expand your understanding of what other people get out of things a lot.
    While you’re with them, ask them if there’s a game they’d be interested in playing at all. Find out what they’re doing instead of gaming, and what they get out of it.
  • Get outside your comfort zone
    You feel awkward doing something some of your friends do? Then go do it – Like dancing for example. You may not even become a decent dancer, or get over your sense of dread that comes with doing it, but that’s okay – Those are memorable experiences! Take mental notes on what feels bad or wrong as you go through these things… And hopefully, the pleasant surprises of things going right.
    Or a more common situation these days for folks in their mid 20s or later and never lived away from their parents. Then the comfort zone you could benefit from leaving is quite obvious. You’ve got loads about independence to learn. How are you going to create a self-sufficient character if your mother is still doing your laundry?
  • Be open to emotion
    That may sound very corny, but being confused about emotions is a very common issue, particularly among males who have an expectation placed on them in many societies to be less emotional, more rational, and level headed. All of that posturing is a total load of bullshit. Everyone has the propensity to get hurt, depressed, scared, confused, or conversely, happy, triumphant, or fall in love – Furthermore, it is when people feel these things that the accompanying events are the most memorable.
  • Learn about psychology and sociology
    These are the social sciences of understanding how people think, and how society works. Now while reading and contemplating may not first-hand experience, arming yourself with information about how people and societies operate BEFORE you go and interact with them will help you get much more out of it. If you’re a poor researcher  of this sort of thing academically, then simply step back and take time to observe how people act. What is pushing their buttons? Does what they say match what they do? Are they aware of differences here? How does society influence how individuals think? How has it influenced how YOU think?

Borrowing the experiences of others

Of course, it’s impossible to experience everything the world has to offer, even if you focus on trying to do so. There are some life experiences you just can’t magic up with an exercise, or would never wish upon yourself.

For example, if you want to include the death of a parent in your game experience, then making it happen is obviously not the way to get a grip on what it feels like. Or you may not be in a position to have children, and thus not really understand what it’s like to be responsible for the welfare of another living being.

This is where being a social creature is of massive benefit – You can ask other people to share their experiences with you. There may even be a way others can invite you into the equation. Perhaps you can look after someone’s kids, or maybe just help entertain them during some expedition. Even helping to take care of a dog can help a lot here, as these are pets that often look to you for interaction and inclusion. Take what was someone else’s experience, and make it your own.

This isn’t something exclusive to game development at all, it works in any creative endeavour. Look at Heston Blumenthal – He may be entirely self-taught, but when approaching how to create a special themed dish that originated in the past from a far away place, he makes a point of travelling to this place to see how it’s done, taste the dish in its true authentic form.

And then after Heston’s puts himself through a firsthand experience, he then totally does what every designer should do – He experiments and iterates over what he discovered, to try and find a way to improve and perfect it, to create the best culinary experience he can. His end product plays on everything from taste and sight, through to the emotional connections and associations we have with cultural themes.

In fact, I think Heston would make a brilliant game designer, though he may have no inclination to do so. This is possibly something the industry needs to work to change in order to grow… But more on that in another post to come.


How to take away something from an experience

So if you try to go through any of the previously mentioned activities to experience more, there is one key thing you must do to get the most out of these things so you can actually learn something to take away and use later – You need to be truly open to what will happen, and be REALLY honest with yourself so you can step back from your experiences and analyse them with objectivity, and learn the cause and effect.

Sometimes it doesn’t take rocket science or soul-searching to find the answer, but other times you may need to look into possible answers that frankly don’t make you sound awesome. For example, if you had a social experience where you felt hurt, rejected and inadequate, that’s a pretty powerful mix of emotions to have there that many people would try to not dwell on. It’s very easy to want to just dismiss the person or people who made you feel this way as insensitive asshats. However, drawing a conclusion based on natural reaction that feels justified may prevent you from taking much of use away for the experience.  If you can instead reflect on it honestly, and make a point to identify the REAL reason that you felt those things, then you’ll learn a lot.

Why did you do what you did? Why did that seem the way to act, or to not act at all?

Try to look at the conclusions and discoveries you’re making in a cause-and-effect sense, because those become your tools in your systems, mechanics and storytelling that will give you a serious shot at recreating those emotional experiences for others.

It’s really no different from the essential iterative design tenant:

Design – Build – Playtest – Analyse. Repeat.

With the real world, the process is more like:

Consider – Approach – Experience – Reflect.

Sometimes you won’t go through the first two steps, because the experience will be thrust upon you without warning or planning. For a deeper understanding however, you can always add those two steps in and repeat. Repeating is especially vital with experiences involving interactions with others. You’re not going to learn everything there is about love and romance by going on one date.

Go out, take it, and bring it back

At the end of the day, the most important thing for you to bear in mind as a game designer is that you’re unlikely to design something well that you don’t understand – And that the best way to understand things is to do them. If you want to deliver a new experience, or take an existing one and do it bigger and better, then there will be no greater asset in your mental toolkit to tackle this challenge than to already know first-hand the experience you’re trying to deliver.

You may well get there in the end by just making games (and you’re going to need to keep at that as it is) but you’ll dramatically increase your chances of getting there sooner if you can draw more from life itself. It’s much harder to see what is missing in gaming by looking at it, if you can’t see what else is out there in the world and life to draw upon.  Go embrace it, then bring it back to gaming, and share it.

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