On Game Design and the “Wall of Awful”

by Derek Turner

I recently came across a concept in my various travels on YouTube that I immediately recognized in my own life: a “Wall of Awful”. It is a concept created by ADHD coach Brendan Mahan to explain the overwhelmingly negative feelings of failure, self-doubt, and paralysis that come from small failures or struggles along the way – the “bricks” in the Wall that soon enough stretches high and wide and becomes seemingly insurmountable.

Even though it was designed with ADHD in mind, I think the concept of the Wall of Awful can apply to anyone, and I often find myself referring to my own Wall of Awful in various areas of my life. (Please know that I am in no way attempting to minimize the experience of people with ADHD who experience this Wall of Awful by applying it to everyone – I just think it’s a really useful construct for anyone to know.)

A Wall of Awful can include anything: finances; housework; renovations; cleaning; relationships; professional obligations; errands; lists of things to watch or play; emotional responses; writing; or even game design, which is what I’ve been thinking about lately.

So, what really is a Wall of Awful?

Just in case that overly cursory explanation of a Wall of Awful didn’t make it clear (or didn’t do the concept justice), here are some more thorough explanations of the Wall of Awful. (There are many more available with a cursory Google search.)

So how does Game Design fit in?

Game design can, and has, easily become a feature of my Wall of Awful in recent years. It seems kind of strange that it often ends up there, since game design and networking with other designers is something that brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment; then again, sometimes it’s those positive things can become the biggest bricks in your Wall.

It’s probably different for every game designer, but I think we all have some aspects of game design that are part of our personal Walls of Awful, whether it’s playtesting, rule revisions, networking, graphic design, publishing, or any of the other various stages of design. Different aspects of game design are different bricks for different designers.

There are some aspects of game design that more naturally fit onto the Game Design section of my Wall of Awful. For example, I am far more invested in the initial idea development and game design than in the repetitive minor tweaking of rules for balance, so that latter process can easily become a Brick for me.

I’m also not really invested (or equipped, for that matter) at all in the graphic design, production or finishing side of game design, and I would far rather hand off a finished design to a production team or company to do the work to get it out to the marketplace, so anything that falls into the latter two categories tends to become a Brick in my Wall. I have a game that has been finished for several years; now it’s still sitting there, unpublished, as a part of my Wall, much to my embarassment.

I am also really interested in connecting with and mentoring other designers; I know it sounds funny to talk about mentoring others considering that I have not even published one design, but I have often found in my circles that my experience as a board gamer and educator gives me more of a mentorship role by nature. At any rate, I really enjoy making those connections and investments – but even those relationships and intentions can become Bricks in my Wall sometimes.

Dealing with the Wall of Awful

So, what can we do about it? Mahan lists five ways that we can deal with a Wall of Awful. The two that don’t work is staring at it or trying to go around it, and the one that works but isn’t healthy is to “Hulk Smash” through it; that can work for a bit, but it’s never good in the long run. The two ways that do work are to climb it or to put a door in it.

Mahan shares a lot of strategies – much more detail is available here – but one of the points that he emphasizes is that there is not a “one size fits all” model, and that different bricks may require different strategies – even in short order.

There are a lot of different websites and designers that try to help emerging game designers (like me) try to get past these blockades and blockages, and I have found many of them useful in my learning how to design games, but sometimes the existence of all of that help can even become a brick in and of itself – after all, if others can figure this out and get games published, it only follows that I should be able to do the same, right?

You should definitely access those resources – I know I do often, and we even try to provide some helpful links on our site – but remember that your process of dealing with your Wall as a game designer will likely be unique.

Conclusion: What are my game design bricks?

I wish I could say that I know exactly how to deal with the bricks in my Wall of Awful, but I can’t even say that I always know what they are until there are other bricks built on top of them. I’m starting to get an idea of what some of those bricks are in regard to game design (as I described earlier), but I’m always finding that there are new bricks being added, and it’s a constant challenge to deal with the old and the new, especially when game design is tricky enough without the added emotional pieces.

I often find, in regard to game design as part of my Wall, that I either get lost in the details and lose track of the overall flow of the process, or I get paralyzed by how daunting some parts of the process seem. So my main strategy is to take large tasks and divide them into small, methodical actions that I can take to chip away at that Wall – essentially, to make that door through it.

The priority for me is to try at least to learn how to identify new bricks and to do those small things one step at a time. One such step for me, for example, is writing about it, so this post is actually helping me climb my Wall of Awful by making me analyze my own patterns and admit that there are some emotions there to process.

So that’s me and my Wall of Awful – what about you? What are your bricks in game design? How do you deal with your Wall? What resources do you use to deal with your Wall of Awful as a game designer?

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