The Clockwork Game Design Podcast: Episode 11 – Good Formalism with Charles Pratt

cgdplogo_mediumToday’s episode features an hour-long discussion with game designer at NYU Game Center teacher Charles Pratt. Charles and I met at the Practice conference and had some good discussions, and I think our perspectives live at that rare place where they’re not too different so that we can’t communicate, but they’re also not so similar where we have nothing to discuss. Overall, I think it was a great conversation and I hope you guys agree.

Here’s a talk Charles did at NYU called Ground Truths: Articulating a Formalist Perspective on Games.

Also, be sure to check out Charles’ podcast (if you haven’t already), called Another Castle. His podcast hasn’t recorded an episode in a few years, but there’s a bunch of interviews there with a ton of interesting people.

As always, you can support the show by becoming a patron at

Thanks for listening!

  • Brett

    Maybe the best podcast yet. Some of the best game-design discourse I’ve heard in a long time. Both of you were clear, reasonable and convincing. Tons to think about.

  • Van

    Doing things in an informed and organized way is an ability that most people can’t develop. Thus they say things like “I do stuff by intuition” or “I play by ear”. That’s what you think you’re doing, but in reality, you’ve just hit a brick wall and you’re romanticizing your persistent lack of progress and understanding.
    In any event, the human intuition is just one of a plethora of mental faculties, so relying solely on it is negligent. And here’s the thing – just because you’re clueless and disorganized does NOT mean that you’re using your intuition at all, let alone using it to its full potential.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I disagree with Mr. Pratt about whether a screenwriter can learn screenwriting from books or low-resolution movies. The argument he’s making sounds a lot like Frank Jackson’s argument about knowledge ( Essentially, what both Pratt and Johnson are saying is that some knowledge can only be acquired through direct experience. The mistake I think is that Pratt is conflating whether it’s possible to acquire knowledge without direct experience, with what he really means, which is that it’s very hard to learn how to do something without direct experience. We all acknowledge that we can learn through direct experience, but I think it’s important to separate the experience from the thing itself; we can interact with games in ways other than playing them. Just like you say someone could learn about screenwriting from reading rather than watching movies, I think we can learn about games from reading the rules. The knowledge we get through these other forms of studying is real; the screenwriter’s knowledge about writing that is acquired through reading is real, and the game design knowledge acquired through reading rules or other non-play activity is also real.

    Part of the problem is related, I think, to the failure of language to distinguish between the rules of the game, the experience of playing, the “game” in a complete sense (i.e., encompassing all of the above), and so it’s not totally clear how to evaluate claims about how to acquire “game design knowledge” because we are unclear about what is the subject we are acquiring knowledge about designing.

  • Ryan Rothweiler

    I thought the conversation was interesting, but I didn’t really agree with much of what Charles said. I was surprised you seemed to mostly agree too.

    I think good formalism is formalism which helps designers build better interactive systems.

    The idea that a game doesn’t exist unless a player is present, is maybe an interesting thought, but I don’t see it as very helpful. I think most designers know a player is acting within their system. The concept of someone acting within rule sets is the whole purpose of designing an interactive system.
    The other argument towards the end there about balance. It would take quite an argument to convince me that any part of the design (or balance) of Puerto Rico is personal preference.

    Lots of interesting thoughts discussed, but I think most of the formalism Charles presented was bad formalism.

  • I try to be *extra* agreeable during these kinds of conversations. Like I am willing to bend over backwards, at least temporarily, to try and find common ground. So sometimes I think I will probably end up in a situation where I’ll sound like I’m accepting a premise that I wouldn’t actually accept, and I think that may have happened during this episode. Either way, I agree with everything you said in your comment.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I think Charles’s point was that a game is really a co-creation between designer and player. However, I think you point out a problem with language they alluded to. How can you talk about the game, as in the interactive system a player *could* interact with, and the game, as in the experiential co-creation, separately when we use the same word for both things? Since the word “game” has so much colloquial baggage associated with it, I think it makes more sense to reserve the word for the more common usage (as interactive system) rather than Charles’s usage, which is a bit wonkier.

    As an aside, I think it’s a mildly helpful concept. It might lead you to accept various ways to play your game, and maybe even design for them. Many games were played differently than they were originally designed, and later changed to accommodate those playing styles. I don’t think you need to have this Zen Koan-like thought process (“Is a game really a game if no one is gaming, man?”) to get there, but personally, I think it’s a cool idea.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Something that surprised me about this episode was how you agreed with the idea that improvisation and not getting too formal is good when you just did a podcast talking about how improvisation wasn’t as good as a more considered approach. I would have liked to hear you push back on Charles a bit and hear what he had to say. But interviews are hard, and it doesn’t sound like you had the advantage of editing to make it sound flawless. Still a great conversation and maybe it’s a feather in your cap that your listeners have so internalized your message that we react when you say something that doesn’t sound like you.

  • Yeah, you’re the second person to point that out. I think I will tend to kind of “give” agreement on certain issues in a conversation temporarily as kind of a bridge. Like, “ok, let me grant that, now let’s explore it further”, and hopefully we can get to the point where we both come to the conclusion “together” that the initial thing we agreed to was actually wrong. I do wish I would have pushed back a bit more, though, so apologies for that. Chances are if you think I didn’t really agree with something, you are right. šŸ˜€

  • Jereshroom

    “I agree with everything you said in your comment.”
    But do you actually agree with it, or are you just saying that? (:

  • Ha. I actually agree.