My response to Against Design (Blog Post)

2022 UPDATE! Kind of a weird idea, but, let’s do it. I wanted to write a response to my own article, and I figured… hell, it’s my site, I’ll just edit this article and add my 2022 response to this article, right here, in the article.

Overall I think a lot of my arguments around the early `10s was me saying “game design is a discipline” and feeling like there was a lot of pushback against that idea, and interpreting that pushback as “game design is therefore not a discipline”. I think what I’ve learned over the past 7-8 years is that there are two distinct things:

  • Skill
  • Formalized skill (skill expressed into words, symbols, graphs, charts, visible design tools, etc)

I don’t know what percentage of “total skill” falls into the second category, but it’s certainly not 100%. Probably a safe guess is that it’s well under 50%. It could even be as low as like, 10%!

Further, not all attempts to formalize game design skill are actually “accurate”, in that they clearly or accurately express that real skill that a designer has learned. In other words, it’s quite possible for a very skilled designer to write down some theory that is actually incredibly misleading for others. The idea of quantifying “skill” into a number is silly, but, just to illustrate the point: If we were to say that some designer has “10 Skill Points” in game design, a formalized game design essay they write could actually be expressing things at a “5 skill point level”. Or it could even be expressing things at a -5 skill point level!

So: game design is absolutely a discipline. There’s no doubt about it, and I think maybe there never has been. I think what there is, is a doubt about formalized, written down or otherwise expressed game design theory. That’s a pretty common pitfall, I think: to sort of mistake the map and the territory, or to think that the verbal realm IS human thought, when actually human thought is so much more than that which can be (or in practice is, at least) formalized. In other words: no one’s really “against design”, they’re just (correctly) cautious about formalized design.

I kind of think that more or less covers the gap between Frank and I here.

Anyway, enjoy this article anyway maybe!


Frank Lantz wrote an article last night called “Against Design“. When I read the article, I was kind of confused by what I was supposed to take away from it, as there are some conflicting statements in the article. However, based on the title and what I know of Frank, I took it as “to some extent I am rejecting the idea of game design as a discipline”.

I’ve since had a bunch of conversations with Frank (and others) on Twitter, and it seems that what he meant to say was that we should be humble and not over-estimate how much power the game design discipline is granting us right now. That sentiment, I totally agree with. I think we are just barely uncovering the tip of the iceberg. We are right now where music was in the 17th century.

So, yes. We shouldn’t be getting cocky and arrogant about how much game design – the theory and the discipline – can do for us.

Here’s the thing, though. Game designers really, really do not have this problem.

Let me get the issue of myself out of the way real quick. I think that I am in the top, top 0.01% when it comes to “how much a person expects game design can do for the quality of a game”. In fact, I might be literally at the top of that list, because in my view, even our best games come up pretty short. I envision interactive systems as being wholly, just fundamentally better on every axis in 10 years, and not because of technological advancements, but because of advancements in understanding of game design theory. I am that optimistic when it comes to game design – I really, really believe in it.

I also think we already see some huge improvements in newer games, and I’m really optimistic about even the very near future.

I also think that there’s a huge gap on this axis between myself and… just about every other designer I’ve talked to. With the exception of a few people, almost everyone has a view that sounds something like one of these:

  • “At the end of the day, theory isn’t useful, it just comes down to what’s fun.”
  • “You can’t say anything is good or bad, it’s all subjective!”
  • “I actually think that my ignorance makes me a better designer!”
  • “Game design isn’t a discipline, it’s just coming up with ideas.”

Those are the most commonly expressed opinions with regards to what game design is good for.

And it makes sense, since many game designers… really aren’t doing that much game design. They’re just deciding which abilities you’ll have in this particular third person action game, or designing levels for this particular puzzle platformer. So it’s really no wonder that people don’t think much of this discipline – most of those who, on paper are doing it, aren’t doing much, and the discipline hasn’t been explored very deeply.

With that in mind, I just think it sucks to hear one of the few guys who maybe believes in game design as a real discipline write this hemming and hawing article about it with a title like “Against Design”. Statements in the article like:

  • But lately I find myself questioning design as a way of understanding where games come from and what makes them work.
  • There are so many great games in the world that don’t reflect good design principles, or that don’t seem designed at all.

If there are games that break your models, why not just adapt your models? Instead of saying that the AWP wasn’t made by sensible people, why not try to unpack what it is about the AWP that is actually working. Maybe the guys who made the AWP are just way more sensible than you are!

Ultimately, I think that the real story behind this article is really an appeal to a kind of mystical thinking. It seems to me that some people really want there to be some “unexplainable mystery” so badly that they will throw their hands in the air at the first sight of something that seems confusing or or that conflicts with something else they know.

This is particularly annoying, because don’t worry – even if you’re pursuing answers full time, it’s still going to be super-mysterious! It reminds me of people inventing stories about fairies and ghosts and bigfoot, while there are actual worlds worth of flora and fauna all around them, waiting to be discovered.

I think we have to stop fetishizing the unknown. We don’t know most stuff. Not knowing is the starting point; the default, so it’s not the exciting thing. The exciting thing is these tiny, tiny bits of knowledge that we’re able to eke out. What makes us special as human beings is our ability to do this, so that’s what we should be celebrating.

Of course we should be humble, and of course we should remember how easy it is to get stuff wrong (I probably need to hear that more than most people). But no matter how much stuff we get wrong, we shouldn’t be encouraging each other to abandon the search, and I think that that is exactly how a lot of people – people who are similarly on the fence the way Frank is – will take the article.