Game Design Praxiology

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On 14th May 2018, I successfully defended my doctoral thesis titled Game Design Praxiology at the University of Tampere, Finland. My dissertation is a collection of 19 different studies between 2006 and 2016 covering topics from game ideation and production processes to design values of game developers and cultures of game jams.

Kultima_Praxiology_COVER_webThe book without the articles is available online at: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-03-0742-4.

The journey to get to this point has been long and I reflected that path and future directions on my lectio at the defense day. Here is my transcription of the opening talk:

Over ten years ago, I stepped into the world of game research. Since 2006, I have been calling myself a game researcher. Such title does not exist formally, but it is more communicative than university researcher, project researcher, or university lecturer – as the Finnish universities wants us to call ourselves. It is almost – as if – we would be without a personal agenda: blank canvases working as hands in a machine that produces objective lessons in the human life that we want to understand better, or even gain better control at. But all of us researchers, we know that being a scholar on a certain field, calls for devotion, persistence and personal engagement. Often times you are the only one, or at least among the very few that sees the seriousness of your topic.

Being a game researcher has been a dream come true career, I was never able to imagine. When I started my university studies in 1999 at the University of Turku studying theoretical philosophy, games were touted as a mere past time, waste of time even among my peers, and most definitely not worth an academic eye. Much has changed since.

Digital games have become part of everyday lives of majority of the people in the first world countries and beyond. Several generations have been brought up by games. We have learned languages through games, acquired skills that are imperative for the ever complex futures, formed friendships with each other, found solace in the midst of the political turbulence or remedies on the emptiness of the modern lives. We have found power in play, fell in love with the craft and each other – some have even found their partners in life through games and brought up their kids with gaming. We have also learned how games can bring bullying, hate or even crimes closer to our homes. Game cultures hold all the colors of the human. And there is much to explore when something goes into so many levels and dwells deep into the human in us. We have started to realize the value and the seriousness of games as a phenomenon.

But games are not only for the players. They are made in professional settings, where people get paid for their work. They are designed step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Hours and hours are used in perfecting the best ones of them. Hundreds of people are involved in the biggest productions. Even the most simple ones take time, skills and experience to reach the devices of the players. If we only look at the final products, we have a very limited view of the overall of the phenomenon of game design.

This dissertation contains five claims: 1) Game design is timely and particular, 2) Game design is value pluralistic, 3) Game design process is opportunistic, 4) Game design process is a plethora of ideas, and 5) Game design practice is natured and nurtured by the surrounding ecosystem. These theses form the foundation of game design praxiology, which I have further translated as a pursuit to study games as created.

My dissertation is positioned on the multidiscipline of game studies. It presents the findings of a ten-year study of game developers and the contexts of their creative practices. As a multidisciplinary enquiry, this study draws from the theoretical and methodological traditions of creativity studies, management studies, computer science, and design research to supplement the discipline of game studies. However, studying game developers is not a typical focus for the field of academic game research. Through this dissertation, I am making a critical comment on the young tradition of game studies for its ontological narrowness and the neglect of the relevance of the creator in the quest for understanding the phenomenon of games and play.

I argue, that we cannot fully understand games before we also understand their creators and have a better view on what goes into making games.

This study has been a long journey. Altogether, the five claims presented in my book, draw from nineteen sub-studies between 2006 and 2016. The whole, that these studies form, is exploratory utilising multiple methods, capturing the voices and realities of the creators in different ways. Some of my sub-studies have been spanning over couple of years, some have been small investigations into specific topics and some have drawn from couple of different data sets that might have been collected further away from each other. They all have their own research questions and conclusions, but they have also impacted each other and contribute to a whole that has been growing within a decade of my career. The overview of the study is ethnographically informed: the data collection covers an extensive period in games from 2006 to 2016, bridging the sub-studies with field work and digital ethnography at multiple industry events around the globe and social media platforms.

I have found value in collecting the stories and reflections of the developers to understand game development as experienced, since the issues that they express and the meaning making processes that they engage into, as well as words that they choose to use, frame their practices. This dissertation takes several levels of game developers’ realities and experiences into consideration, but at the same time leaves a lot for others to study.

Perhaps most importantly, my dissertation addresses the changing environment and a decade long stream of trends in the game industry – painting a picture of a challenging field of the practitioners. Such an environment requires flexibility and adaptation from the creators making game development a constant learning process.

One of the trends that I highlight in my dissertation, is the casual turn in games. When I started my work at the University of Tampere, we were set to study the design space of casual, mobile, multiplayer games. As these three notions dominates the game markets nowadays, back then there were not even a single game that would combine all of these dimensions. Some games in 2006 were directed towards large audiences with their simple and easy to learn designs, some were utilizing the power of networked computers to gather millions of players together and some were played on the mobile devices. But none of them were Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, or perhaps something like Design Home that I play almost daily. Digital games were about to grow up and become as penetrating in our everyday lives as Football, Chess, or Lottery had been for decades or centuries before the digital entertainment. This normalisation of digital play has had a wide impact on the ways computer games are created.

In 2018, the sphere of games and play is overwhelmingly vast. There is more variety for everyone to search – and at the same time it is increasingly difficult to get visibility to a single work. Any theoretical frame that pursuits to address games without narrowing their scope, will be in trouble. My dissertation explores the multitude of game design, and discusses how games can be many and always affected by the values and appreciations of their respective creators – which also come in numbers. One of my favorites in this dissertation is the notion of game design value. I have used this to communicate the pluralistic nature of game design. Throughout my journey, I have been witnessing as well as participating to several discussions where we compare our game experiences. We are all engaging from our own perspective on the judgement of game design decisions that the game developers do before we engage with games as players. Even though for a one game maker, it might be important to create really challenging games or others use games as a platform of self-expression, innovation, or economic gain, game design cannot be reduced to a single value.

It is important to understand that games are made by someone. And the processes of these creators are not straightforward. Anybody can come up with an idea, but it takes experience and persistence to make those ideas come to life. In essence, it takes several tries to get everything right in such an experiential product as games strive to be. In my dissertation, I address this core concept of game development: iteration. Game development consists of cycles of working on the details, where some ideas hit the dead end and others are formed during the process. Iteration is a word used widely by the practitioners, but in my work I tie the concept into a larger notion of opportunism in game design. Opportunistic strategies are visible on multiple levels of game work, and embraced as well as amplified within game creation cultures. Game developers do not only need to react to the changes within the industry, but take and prepare for the opportunities that might come about within the development processes.

A big part of my study is revolving around the notion of game idea. The level of ideas is more accessible to the outsiders of the creation cultures, but often misunderstood. One cannot enter the industry as an idea guy – game developers are not running out of ideas. The creative process of making games is collaborative and social, requiring creative input from several professions. The game innovation processes are not solely based on single overarching game idea, but rather on various idea acts: practitioners create ideas, record them, utilize them in various ways, bounce ideas with others, test and learn new ideas through prototyping, find new ideas and kill loads of them within the production processes – and they also nurture their creative processes through hobbies and research. The role of a game idea is not emptied through brainstorming studies. It needs to be looked through the lens of game design praxiology.

Lastly, my work highlights how the larger ecosystem impacts on the game development practices. For the past decade, the game industry has expanded into a wide ecosystem of diverse actors and professions. We no longer can operate with simplistic frames of role division between a game designer, programmer and an artist – we need to understand the rich fabric of networks of people that make the productions and the whole industry move forward. This varying network of actors, including non-commercial actors, has its own role in nurturing the developments within the field.

Nowadays there are multiple different paths to become a game developer – through school or training, but also through hobbies just like decades ago. In my dissertation, I have highlighted the phenomenon of game jams, as it has been growing exponentially during my study period. And I believe that it will have a greater impact that we can yet understand. Looking closer to this phenomenon particularly, we are able to expose a widely spread global movement of creative communities emphasising diversity, co-creativity, opportunism, and prototyping cultures impacting a whole generation of game developers.

Throughout these ten years, I have been sitting at the audience of several of my colleagues defending their books on games. A classic question or comment from an opponent has been how one could have been dividing the examined study into smaller, more focused investigations making the theses cleaner and easier to handle. I feel like we game scholars have not had such an academic luxury. As you embark on one question, you are destined to face a wall of another one. We are starting to find the paths that are more safe to focus on. There is much more work to do. My dissertations calls for further research within game design praxiology: as long as game making is not a part of the basic education in the same way as writing or drawing, games are in danger of remaining misunderstood as a wide and vibrant form of art and practice.

I ask you, Doctor Whitson, as my opponent appointed by the Faculty of Communication Sciences, to make the comments on my dissertation, which you consider pertinent.

Thank you everybody, who were part of this journey! I appreciate all our past projects and conversations as well as look forward to the future collaborations! From now on, you can call me Dr. Aakoo.

Here are some photos capturing the shared joy of the defense day:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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