Could or Should a Game Design be Autobiographical?

I’ve a collection of fragmentary expressions of idle thoughts, waiting to be turned into fuller pieces for Painted Wooden Cubes. Some run to a couple of paragraphs, some a couple of sentences; some are what I think represent neat puns, waiting to be used in titles for articles as yet undevised.

Then there are the questions I’ve posed myself: questions I’ve wanted to let run through my mind before sitting down to address in writing – questions to which I’ve wanted to be able to venture an answer, rather than having to offer articles remaining inconclusive.

The question which has sat unanswered in my drafts folder for the longest is the one above: Could or should a game design be autobiographical? It’s waited there six months or so now, returning to my mind whenever I task myself to write something for the site, teasing me, getting in the way of new ideas.

Let’s get it out of the way.

It keeps coming back because it’s a question which fascinates me, but which I can’t resolve for myself. As a writer, I can’t help but feel that any piece I compose, whatever its nature or purpose, must reveal something about me in some sense. Academic articles and inconsequential, formal emails each betray something of me, however impersonal I might wish them to be.

And then the fiction I’ve written cannot help but interact with the notion of autobiography: I write characters with my own name, but then deliberately attempt to distort them from being in my own image: I reverse an aspect of myself, and see how the new character turns out. I don’t pretend that this is in any respect a radical approach to composition. Quite the opposite: I am aware a great many writers  use variations upon the same devices – some more overtly, some less.

This need not be purely about narrative forms: non-narrative poetry may be generated through similar processes, or music might, and imagination makes me confident the same is also true of much visual art.

But what of games? Certain designers offer recognizable patterns in their work: Knizia, Feld, Vaccarino. Ought their design tendencies to be considered expressions of the self?

I suppose they must be, at least in a technical sense. But how useful is this as a means of thinking about the game design process? How important is self-expression in sitting down to make a game? And how important is it in assessing the worth of a game someone else has created?

If an album were described, say, as its artist’s ‘rawest ever expression of himself  or herself,’ I might be pretty curious to listen (depending on the artist in question). If a game were sold as ‘Reiner Knizia’s rawest ever expression of himself’ I’d be absolutely desperate to play.

I ask, largely because I am unable to speak from experience. I am not a designer. The germs of thoughts I’ve had with respect to potentially designing a game have primarily been practical in their origins: realizations that I haven’t seen a particular take on a mechanism utilized in any game I’ve played. Such thoughts I might then toy with coolly, as logical puzzles, as temporary distractions. Very little which I think defines me comes into any of this.

If I’m thinking about themes for an imaginary game, there’s maybe more of my self invested, but not startlingly so: I think the fact that I play with ideas for games about, say, contemporary political processes only says a very limited amount about me.

Do any game designers reading feel differently? Do the processes of play-testing, and players’ expectations of balanced, working mechanisms prevent articulation of the self from being a feature of game design or not?

One thought on “Could or Should a Game Design be Autobiographical?

  1. Great question!

    I can answer from my own perspective that the they must be autobiographical. I think most designers design games they would like to play, which says a lot about the types of preferences for games a particular designer has.

    To your point about creating a game to fill a missing mechanical opportunity – that says something about your fine-toothed interest in game mechanics and that you’d like to explore some mechanical relationship in greater detail.

    Some designers are theme first, loving the narrative, others are mechanics first (loving the math?!), others flirt between the two. This is all a reflection of the designer and their particular interestings and inclinations.

    I have 6+ games design at various stages across many different themes/mechanics, but I find there are some threads that weave between them that are similar – mostly in terms of kinds the experience I’m aiming for in a design rathter than the specifics of theme or mecahnics.


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