Game enthusiasm vs. game design

Reflections on the strangely exclusive and competitive relationship between game enthusiasm and game design

Derek Turner

In my three years of designing board games, I have discovered an unexpected quirk in the constituency of the game design end of the hobby: there are not nearly as many board game enthusiasts as I had expected to see here. In fact, it seems almost as if a majority of designers actually do not play board games regularly (at least in my limited experience) – or if they do, it might be a small number of games with high repetition of plays.

I suppose it makes some sense that the two aspects of gaming – enthusiasm and design – might functionally be somewhat mutually exclusive. Designing, after all, is an intensive largely individual pursuit, and it demands a different kind of attention; it requires high detail, repetition, perseverance, dedication, time, and an at times masochistic drive for analysis, critical reflection, and feedback. It requires a high investment of time and energy for what might appear to be a small return (a small change in the rules or a minor alteration in appearance, for example), and it mandates a narrowing of focus into an increasingly smaller target.

Being a board game enthusiast, however, requires a different kind of brain space. For one, many enthusiasts play many different games and are constantly learning new rules and researching new games to play, rather than focusing on one design. Their pursuit is inherently social, whereas design is very singular – even in the play testing phase – as much of the effort on the part of the designer is to attempt to get what is in their heads out into a playable form and there can sometimes be very little information that is open for others to access.

Although the desire to try new things is part of both sides of the hobby, designers (necessarily) channel that energy into a limited scope related to a small number of projects (or changes within those projects), whereas board games spread out that energy amongst learning new games. There might be a similar quantitative investiture of time and energy as there is in game design, but playing many games is qualitatively different enough from an intense focus on one game that it does not necessarily feel like it’s the same level of input required for both enthusiasm and design.

Perhaps the relationship between board games and game design is somewhat analogous to how some actors and/or writers do not watch many movies or television shows, since they’re so busy making them. Or like the difference between being a creator and a critic – or a consumer, for that matter: when your hobby becomes “work” (so to speak), your relationship to it is necessarily different.

I believe that design is a natural manifestation of playing games, and that gamers often start having their own design ideas once they are steeped enough in the hobby. I know there are enthusiasts who choose either to not pursue their own designs or to actively not pursue ideas that they have had, but I do also know that there are some gamers who are more than happy playing the games and whose brains seem not to function that way; I do not understand how that could be – how does your brain not try to synthesize what you know and create something new? – but I know that they exist.

On the other side, I also have difficulty understanding how someone could design games without playing them regularly and exploring all of the games that are out there.  I suppose the analogy would be me trying to write a movie script without having any training or experience, but even that analogy is not that accurate, since I would consider myself to have a better-than-average grasp of the medium. Perhaps it is more like me trying to coach a hockey team based on watching games; even though I do have almost a quarter-century (!) of hockey fandom to my name, I don’t think I would be able to coach in any way, shape, or form based on those experiences.

Then again, it may perhaps be a false dichotomy that is being established here, and I’m also not convinced that the two sides – game enthusiasm and game design – are as mutually exclusive as I might otherwise observe them to be in practice. Maybe there are a high number of game designers who have managed to strike the balance between their enthusiasm for the hobby and their drive to design.  Or maybe there are not a lot of game designers who are also game enthusiasts (as strange as that sounds), so it’s not an issue for them.

I will admit, however, that I have found in my experience that my design “suffers” from my enthusiasm for board gaming – or at least that I have difficulty pursuing both sides of the hobby to the extent that I would wish. I attend a games night weekly and I play several other times in a month for an average of nine or ten total plays each week, whereas I spend only a few hours on design and relatively few of those thirty-plus plays in a month on play tests (of either my own or others’ designs). Furthermore, I have the sense sometimes that when I am play testing that it is taking away from my gaming time (and vice versa).

There are a few designers out there like me who remain avid gamers, but from my (admittedly fairly narrow) experience, it does seem like a seemingly high number of designers not only do not play many new games, but that they do not play many games, period.  Since most gamers and designers, like me, are not pursuing either of these practices professionally (as there are very few people in the world who do), we all have the finite limitations of time and energy with which to deal, and so maybe it’s not a false dichotomy after all.

Maybe, then, it’s not really possible to be both an actively avid gamer and a consistent game designer. Maybe one needs to give way to the other for the “balance” to work, and maybe the fact that most designers seem to eschew broader gaming is an indication that it really is not that possible to do both avid gaming and design.

I am not sure what is going to happen with me. I would love to be doing more design work, but I’m not at a point at which I am willing to sacrifice my own enthusiasm for games to do it. So then, in light of this conversation, I wonder if I am doomed to either having to give up playing as many games as I do or I am destined to spend less time on game design than I would like.

So here’s the question for game designers: do you also avidly play games, and if so, (how) do you balance your gaming habits with your design habits? Has that balance involved giving up gaming, or do you think that it’s possible to be an avid gamer and a game designer?

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