CGD Podcast Ep. 33 – Flow, Formalism, and the Depth/Accessibility Trade-off

First of all, I’m not really a formalist, and I explain why in the episode. Also: why I’m not sure anyone really “is a formalist”.

I talk about the “flow” concept that you’ve read about in almost every game design article and you ever read that wasn’t written by me.

I also address a number of other topics, answer listener questions, and I even talk about some of my favorite podcasts at the end of the show.


And as always, if you enjoy the show, please consider becoming a patron on!

EDIT: I said that I would be talking about self-expression in games. I didn’t get around to it in this episode, but forgot to edit out the mention of it in the header. Apologies!

  • Chez Denison

    Good podcast !

    I do think you are way off on your claims about toys at the 20 minute mark. You made three claims I disagree with.

    1. Toys are easy to design

    A better statement would be: ‘Bad toys are easy to design’. Many of the mechanics of good game design apply to toy design as well; There is also the difficulty of making players WANT to do things with your toy when you dont tell them what to do.

    2. The more complicated the toy is the better.

    This is very wrong. Oftentimes a toys elegance is in its simplicity – look at creative mode in Minecraft. Adding superfluous stuff to toys only adds to the initial learning tax you complain about in your video. Mechanics players do not enjoy or rarely want to use should be cut from toy design.

    3. Toys have a lot of downtime

    This blanket statement is not true – this is just like any game and depends on your definition of downtime. Are skill-based lock-picking or blacksmithing mini games internal to toys considered downtime ? This ‘downtime’ can be fun in itself if designed right.

  • rellarella

    “How do I put this in a nice way?” Truthbombs Keith, refer to them as truthbombs. You got a gaggle of Black Pilled (truth)Bombers

  • 1. Everything that’s good takes a lot of work, but I stand by my position that toys are easy to design, at least relative to other kinds of interactive systems.
    2. I think Minecraft is actually extremely complicated. I’m not sure why you think otherwise. Also: making it more complicated would only make it better. See: Dwarf Fortress. Imagine DF with Minecraft’s inputs/graphics.
    3. Downtime would be stuff like walking around, or grinding/labor (digging a large hole), or just exploring parts of the toy you’ve already explored thoroughly.

    Thanks for posting your blog. Like I say in the episode, I encourage others to do the same!

  • Chez Denison

    Good points ! Thank you for responding.

  • Isaac Shalev

    Keith, your talk on formalism rubbed me the wrong way for two reasons. First, you seemed really defensive about being called a formalist! Second, you interpreted formalism in such an extreme fashion such that it couldn’t possibly apply to anyone, sort of a defensive reductio ad absurdum. I think you also made a critical error in conflating critique and creation. Formalism is an approach to interpreting art, literature, design, etc. It’s not an approach to making it.

    Formalism can be captured in two ideas:
    1) The work can and should be understood based on its form and structure, not based on its cultural or historical context, the psychology of its creator, or other external factors

    2) There is some ideal reading of the work, some central focus to the work that can be discovered, and which is the most important reading of that work in order to critique it as a work of art.

    You don’t need to be an absolutist about formalism to be described as a formalist. I think that there’s a clear resonance between your approach to game design and these two ideas. Your notion of ‘clockwork’ design has a lot in common with point number one. And even though you care greatly about the social context of games it’s not clear that you care about that critique as relates to the game itself as much as you care about the politics surrounding it (though I wouldn’t push this point too hard, I’m not sure I agree with myself full here).

    Where your formalist bent is felt most strongly though is point 2. You do strongly believe in idealized versions of games, of the perfect kind of gameplay. So much so that you definitionally read out many games from being games at all because of their distance from your belief in the ideal reading of a game.

    Anyway, for an interesting comparison with an actual formalist (dead 20 years, but still!) you might enjoy

  • Hi! Thanks for the awesome comment and thank you for listening.

    #1 still doesn’t apply to anyone, it seems to me?
    #2 seems okay to me, but I haven’t heard the term used in that way (at least, much) in the circles I run in.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out!

  • Isaac Shalev

    I think #1 certainly applies to some critics, in the sense that they’re only interested in a critique of a game’s mechanisms, dynamics, etc. If you evaluate the responses to controversy over games like 5 Tribes, or discussions over WWII games, or the use of Nazi imagery, you’ll see lots of formalists. They would largely take the position that none of this matters, as far as the question of whether or not the game is a good game.

    Your opinions regarding game design certainly feel formalist in the first sense, if not exclusively so. You may not empty the surrounding cultural context of importance, but it is a distant concern relative to the game mechanisms themselves. If you are leaning towards one pole, I’d place Max Temkin (Cards Against Humanity, Secret Hitler) at the other pole. His games and their surrounding activities are intended to be provocative, and are a form of conceptual art. Temkin’s games are intended to surface tensions, discomfort, hypocrisy, and cultural frictions. The mechanisms are entirely in service to a metagame tied to a very specific culture, time and place. Hopefully this example helps clarify what I mean about you having a formalist bent.

  • Venom

    I think the reason people call you formalist is more a case of you talking about making rules and setting up good rule system rather than what more often is done which is almost purely how to make the player feel certain emotions or specific case studies of games.

  • Max Hospadaruk

    I like his number 2 – this fits well with a lot of the people in my circles’ understanding of formalism(I guess more in the areas of film or Lit in my case – not many of my friends turn their critical eye towards the games we play in the same way). It’s true that almost no one in their right mind full fits with his #1, which makes it so interesting that that is how I think many people define formalism.