A new lecture about game design.

This talk is called Games and the Human Condition; it was given at Rice University on September 27, 2010. It's about "best practices" of modern game design that I find unsettling, and the way in which "social games" and "gamification" are destructive.

A full video is available from this page at Rice University.

Here's a link containing just the slides (ppt format).

Here's a long and wordy abstract:

Video games have evolved tremendously over the past few decades; they're much more entertaining than they used to be. That is not by accident; we, the community of game designers, have been continuously refining our techniques. The most common way we do this is by testing out our games on you, the players, and optimizing for the "best" result (where "best" is defined by us). As this process is ongoing, what kind of relationship exists between the designer and the player? Is it artist/audience, experimenter/subject, entrepreneur/customer, or tycoon/resource? Invariably it's some admixture of these things, the particular ratios for a given game being chosen by its designers (usually without awareness that a decision is being made). Today, due to the way the Internet is widely used, and because game designers are becoming more serious about certain aspects of their craft, the iteration time of this game design optimization process is shorter than ever before: designers can observe their players much more thoroughly, and more quickly, than they ever have in the past. At some point a quantitative change becomes a qualitative one: the result of all this competency may be heavily destructive. Some aspects of the current notion of "good game design" may in fact be very bad, or at least indefensible, from an ethical standpoint. Today's "better" video games spend a great deal of effort to undermine defenses that took you tens of millennia to evolve. They tend to be successful at this. As designers keep evolving their craft and gain greater analytical power, what will happen?


  1. Thanks for posting this!! really good and loved the Moore quote at the end :)

    semi off-topic, i’m sure you have little time, but.. if you were ever keen to blog about it, i’d love to see your thoughts on recent indie games such as Minecraft and Limbo etc if you’ve played them.. or other games (even AAA).

  2. Thanks that was something I wanted to know.

  3. karateka was totally the halo of 1984

  4. unless by ‘halo’ you mean over-hyped less-than-fun skinner box.

  5. Why was playing Counter-Strike good/beneficial for you then? And are you still FPS player?

    “A burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control. For instance, action video game experience heightens the ability to view small details in cluttered scenes and to perceive dim signals, such as would be present when driving in fog (Green and Bavelier, 2007; Li et al., 2009). Avid players display enhanced top-down control of attention and choose among different options more rapidly (Hubert-Wallander et al., 2010; Dye et al., 2009a). They also exhibit better visual short-term memory (Boot et al., 2008; Green and Bavelier, 2006), and can more flexibility switch from one task to another (Boot et al., 2008; Colzato et al., 2010; Karle et al., 2010).” ~ http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/10/content-matters/

  6. After listening to that, I’m wondering about how you would distinguish story/eyecandy that is used to circumvent boredom from audiovisual elements that are actually core to the game.

    Braid seems to rely a lot on its aesthetics – particularly if we’re talking about “speaking to the human condition” instead of just being a clever puzzle game. I would certainly say that Braid uses visuals differently from how Peggle uses visuals, or how Modern Warfare 2 uses visuals, but I would have a bit of a hard time defining exactly how it is different. It seems like an interesting distinction for designers who are trying to create interest without manipulation.

  7. It’s a tough question, and one that I deal with constantly when designing games now. My short answer is that at a high level there’s an obvious difference between the two types of things (in terms of what the designer is intending to do when he puts them in), but then if you really start looking at the situation carefully, it becomes hard to distinguish one from the other. Situations become very nuanced.

    This is why at the end of the talk I say that I don’t really see how to avoid manipulating people while still being a “good game designer”… I just settle for trying to respect my audience, which helps my design motivation to come from the right place.

  8. What is the difference between being a good game designer, and just being a decent human being? It seems like the same principles apply.

  9. I’m not a game designer, but I’ve had much of what you spoke about on my mind lately. Your lecture here clarifies some otherwise fuzzy notions that I had floating around.

    Surely many game designers are trying to get a grip on this stuff; have you considered writing a book on these topics (game design ethics, game value, etc)? The discussion in the lecture here is something worth developing further and exposing to a larger audience, and I think you have some refreshing perspectives (not to mention that with a second game on its way, you’ll have plenty of experience to reflect back on).

    Then again, a book might be too easy… You may be on to something with a game that puts you in the role of a Farmville developer. ;)

  10. I was pleased to see Miegakure on the near side of the spectrum, I’ve been eagerly awaiting it since playing a demo a few months ago. As I’m working towards a similar approach in a different field, it’s great to see what I value about games so successfully demonstrated.
    While gaining a sense for 4D maneuvering is intrinsically interesting, it is difficult to do without a simulation, and difficult to appreciate with total freedom (as hours of staring at projections of rotating tesseracts has shown me). Using gameplay to simulate and provide well-crafted exercises is a perfect fit. The “good game design” is used to smooth inessential barriers, rather than to grind down the essence so that it fits anywhere.
    Thanks for the talk!

  11. Enjoyed the talk, especially because a lot of these concepts are central to talking about art in general, and subjective communication from artist to audience. I will say that one of the things I like about games is their potential as a medium for story-telling. But I guess a lot of the stuff about best-practices has more to do with the motivation for using them. And a story-based game could still be made with core mechanics which are meaningful and integral to the experience. (Braid being an example of that, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it story-based).

  12. Amazingly interesting Talk, I would love to hear any others that you’ve given, also I would like to ask that you rant about achievements as you said I could during your talk :)

  13. Thanks for the link, I learned some new and profound things from your talk and that Alan Moore quote at the end was spot on – “The Mindscape of Alan Moore” is a really great documentary and I still rewatch it from time to time.

    I’ve really cut down the amount of games I’m playing and the time for that for exactly those reasons you mentioned – very few games offer some insight on the human condition and I’m simply fed up of sinking time in beautiful but hollow experiences or those that just repackage the old been-there-done-that concepts.

    Good luck with the Witness and I hope it really will be as mind-expanding experience as Braid.

  14. Jonathan, thank you for the great video. Hopefully we’ll get to see a lot of games from you in the future. Braid and your approach to games have really inspired me, and got me back to enjoying the gaming culture.

  15. @ Jabberwok & namuol: that’s what he is talking about. why write a book when you can make a game? these are very difficult notions to express, words can not do justice to them, it has to be experienced to be understood since lenguistic communication can be some whar blurring. games are to actions and interactivity as ? are to story. if you want story… “well i won’t even go in to that” but btw “The Witness Developer(s):Jonathan Blow Publisher(s):TBA *Platform(s):Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3* Release date(s):2011 Genre(s):Puzzle Mode(s):Single-player Media:TBA” -Wikipedia

  16. @ a: What I am saying is that adding story may be a way to keep people involved with uninspired core mechanics, but it is also an art form, and games offer story-telling opportunities which the written word does not precisely because of their open-ended nature. Likewise, the written word offers many opportunities for story-telling which are simply not available to film or game makers. They are different forms of expression that can be used to approach like subjects from varied angles.

    As a medium which utilizes multiple disciplines (like film), games have many ways in which to express themselves as art, by incorporating writing, painting, architecture, music, sculpture, et cetera, into a single product. Braid is not just the core game created by Blow, but includes Hellman’s art, and the composers who contributed to the score, not to mention the writing in the chapter intros and epilogue. These elements are not just ornaments to boost sales; they are integral to the meaning and emotional content of the game. That was my point. I am not discounting the assertion that a developer should work towards true expression and respecting their audience. In many cases, bells and whistles can be just that – like putting make-up on the elephant man – but the elements that surround the core of a game can and should be meaningful.

  17. Hey look, it’s Dan Wallach!

  18. @Jabberwok: that’s more like it… you got it!

    @jon: haha, you are very funny. as in all your lectures! you are also wearing your favorite red shirt again? i agree that farmville is way more dangerous than WOW. and that “artist” should not listen to their audience (as bad as that sounds) but respec them. like in infameous2 they took off the new cole and mde it look more like you(the old cole from infameous1) just b/c people told them to. and on the other hand Valve still realesed L4D2 when all their fans told them not to. this says that Suckerpunch dosen’t care about the integrity of their craft.

    i’ve been following your colleage Hecker, he has very interesting thoughts about throphies.
    but it seems the list of implementations that your game has to have is getting bigger and bigger, from adding dameging extrinsic rewards to changing fords in the game to specific ones and integrating leader boards and other stuff. how should one go about dealing with these people and this changes to have your game put on a console yet realese it as pure and unharmed as possible? or at least how did you do it with braid and how do you plan to deal with in in the future… *anybody else that has an answer is welcome to enlighten me*

  19. Thanks for posting! I love these talks. I wish I could get everyone else I know who play video games to listen to just one of your talks and seriously think about them. Farmville currently infects a number of them, sadly.

  20. Another amazing talk. Thankyou!

    Saved the Moore quote, its very powerful.

  21. Amazing talk.

    I’ve listened to this twice already and I have plans to listen again.

    One thing that struck me as weird was your issue with manipulation being evil or disrespectful to people.

    On some level all communication (including art) is manipulation, because you’re attempting to persuade someone or get them to understand an idea.

    Is a basketball coach being manipulative by using techniques to motivate his team to perform at their peak performance?

    I understand your objection to using the “game design best practice toolbox” for evil purposes, like solely getting people to part with their money and attention. But I don’t think that means you should necessarily exclude story, candy, goals and improvement from future game design.

    That stuff works.

    A lot of people may not have picked up Braid if it hadn’t looked so beautiful. And that would have been sad.

    ps Love to hear your full rant on Microsoft achievements some day.

  22. I play games like World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare as a means of coping with the absurd; they remind me that being human doesn’t always equate to being in a ‘heightened’ state of mind.

    Unfortunately for me, the sheer deconstruction of my lifelong hobby when I played Braid was very intimidating. I have not completed the game yet because, quite frankly, my brain hurt and I felt very stupid. It wasn’t giving me the kind of stimulation I was used to which was frustrating. That being said, I thank you for doing this to me.. I’m a painfully self-aware product of the entitlement/gotta-have-it-now generation and Braid helped me realize it.

  23. That was very interesting, thank you.

  24. @ Nathan:
    “What is the difference between being a good game designer, and just being a decent human being? It seems like the same principles apply.”

    “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. […] The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from your existence. ”
    -Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  25. If the goal of the experience / communication / manipulation is solely to part players from their time and money, it is evil or unethical.

    Or rather, at an even higher level, if the intent of the creator is not to EDIFY the player in some way, the creation may be considered damaging / destructive as well.

    These are the hard truths. All the “bad” games that Jonathan has discussed over the years do one or both of these.

  26. I saw a lecture over at TED today which was unsettling…


    You don’t need to watch it but let me just say, he plays world of warcraft.

  27. Hi Jonathan,

    With great power comes great responsibility it seems.

    I have watched your video and what you describe is very close to the kind of analyses that is common within social sciences that apply critical theory. If you can find the time then please do read Jurgen Habermas on ‘communicative action’.

    In a nutshell: Habermas makes, first of all, a distinction between the economic sphere and the public sphere, the sphere where we can form public opinion trough debate. He then states that the latter may only coeverce the former, not visa versa. Only this way our attempts at communication towards understanding and agreement can be freed from strategic communication that is using people as an instrument towards success, as is frequent under economic and bureaucratic conditions.

    I will try not to go into detail, as I probably wont do his intentions justice, but the main point is, as I said, that Habermas stresses the importance of striving towards a situation where all participants are able to speak and listen freely, without constraints. Although I am not sure if Habermas elaborated on art, as his main focus is face-to-face communication, his theory might give some appropriable insights as to where to place the line between sincere communication and strategic manipulation. I do not remember clearly, but in his main text on this subject, called ‘communicative action’ u will surely find more about this . I vaguely recall him stating that allot depends on the degree in which the speaker is transparent and reflexive about the reasons behind his use of manipulative means. If his intention is sincere and thus the speaker has no reason to hide his agenda, then it is not so much manipulation as it is trying to making an important point in the best possible way.

    So, as you already made clear in your presentation, it is the intention , and staying true to it, that counts. To grab a simple example, a common Hollywood movie can hardly be sincere. It might communicate a certain message that is worthwhile, yet it uses so many tricks to manipulate people, that its message is finally contradicted. The idea that was originally worthwhile has in the process instead become a means for success. Like u say, don’t make a popular game, make a game about a or b because u think subject a or b is fascinating or fun or whatever. The continue to make reasonable and intuitive design decisions that carry the idea as well as possible. I think this leads to more creative games. Let the idea speak for itself, perhaps design is to discover what u have to say to begin with.

    What you describe is exactly in the line of Habermas deliberative model. The highest degree of freedom from strategic thinking should be aspired in a) the communication between producer and designer and b) the mediated communication between designer and player.

    Thank u for furthering my understanding that games should be first and foremost about communicating a specific idea which can potentially enhance our inner world and our (shared) experience of live.

    P.S I wonder if your revelations are a combination of past education and intuition, or perhaps only the intuition of a gamer who is always curious to explore the rules of the system he plays, and if he does not like what he finds, finds a way around them.

  28. Having recently defended a Master’s of Music in Composition, my status as “artist” is ensured. Even Ebert’s conservative taste will not dare speak up against the ancient form of expression, which academic arts (which I happen to be a part of, for better or for worse) most often consciously break.

    The music field do not concern themselves with definitions of art forms at large. We put people in darkened rooms, in front of speakers or musicians wearing black, give them a paragraph of a program note, and then say “GO.” There are no previews, there are no “demos,” I’d never have to tell someone that there’s more to my piece than what they’ve heard in a preview of the first two minutes. The audience for academic experimental music and the new avant-garde are few, but they are mostly attentive. It’s easy to see that I HAVE IT EASY.

    Why is it, though, that forward-momentum is best felt when hearing your misunderstood and under-respected tribe speak about things that seem in dire need of being said? Your ideas remain VASTLY RELEVANT to the growing field of interactive arts – creative coding, multimedia, theater, and interactivity. Dynamical meaning, elemental conflicts, manipulation of audiences, aesthetic and ethical decisions – these terms are not exclusive to games, and ought to be applied elsewhere.

    It would be no surprise to hear that all our “new music” is trash, and that the art world catered within academia is the last thing you’d want to associate yourself with if you want any “cool points.” If that was indeed my proposition, my argument would have been ruined. Instead, I’ll say this: you’re obviously in full understanding of the responsibilities that you’re accepting by speaking out in the first place. You might not be self-absorbed enough to think you are defining things for the art world at large, but that is what’s happening regardless of what you choose to think. Games aren’t the only interactive art form. There is a lot to learn.

    I’ve been researching writings dealing with aesthetics of video games, and I’m sad to say that the pool is weak in numbers, though deep in ideas. I know I’m not the only academic-track person interested in researching this. Game designers need to write more papers, particularly on aesthetics.

  29. Tristan Muntsinger

    Love your talks. Much of same stuff I’ve been trying to tell people for many years now (mostly getting the same response you’ve gotten — “you’re insane; games are awesome”). You’ve definitely put way more thought into it than I have, though. Thanks for that.

    I’m curious about how you think a developer can respect the player, and offer a rewarding and enjoyable game, outside of a puzzle game? The more I think about the type of gameplay that you describe, I can’t help but think that it only fits with puzzle games. Certainly, Braid falls into this category, as does your new title. Along with many other games you seem to admire, and enjoy. Most of the popular indie games fall into this category as well.

    Where do you see development outside of these types of games?

  30. I don’t see that there is anything puzzle-game-specific about the stuff I am saying.

    I do think that certain kinds of games are predicated on disrespect of the player, though, for sure (like just about all of what are currently called “social games”).

    But you can make a first-person shooter that respects the player thoroughly. I would argue that Counter-Strike is such a game (just to pick one example).

  31. How respectful to your audience was the subtle Greenspan-as-best-conman-of-all jab (not that I necessarily disagree with it)? Now when they see Greenspan they’ll implicitly think “con man” — they won’t know why, but it’ll just feel right.

  32. Tristan Muntsinger

    You mention “respecting the player” many times and you say that games like WoW and Farmville don’t do this (which I completely agree with). But what do you mean by “respecting the player”? I think you mean respecting a player’s intelligence/adeptness, since the argument is WoW and Farmville just forces you to click, click, click until you reach an objective, then rinse-repeat (among other bad qualities). Doesn’t take much critical thinking or skill to do that.

    Though, I guess it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a puzzle game, as long as it respects the player’s ability to appreciate it on a higher level (Space Giraffe is one of your favorites, if I remember right).

    What does really confuse me though, is your love of Counter-Strike. I loved Counter-Strike too, and had a lot of fun with it. I’d like to understand why you think this game respects the player. What makes it different than all the other FPS-clones out there with a similar multiplayer environment? Is it just because it was the first one to offer that level of enjoyment?

  33. Tristan Muntsinger

    Btw, is there an easy way to find all your lectures? I think I’ve found 4-5 of them. I’m wondering if there are more hiding on the internet.

  34. There are a bunch listed here:


  35. thank you jon! i love all your talks. can’t wait for the next one… you are so right about everything! every time i listen to you i’m like “omg, that’s exacly how i feel” and i mean EVERYTHING you say.

  36. @anonymous
    Exactly, you’re so on point with Jonatan’s position. Aesthetic only approach seems shallow though and hard to push through for broader educated audience. But maybe that’s my European approach, in US people seem to be more open-minded for good analisys over low-based fields.

  37. I’m in the process of slowly breaking into indie game developing, and I must say you speech really helped me define the way I want to go with game development. Thank you =)

  38. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FR749iZI3eSCKhIjJ3STvZ6NCy-uwSMh2_skyWtE2WY/edit?hl=en&authkey=CKTY2MUL

    A full transcript (minus some “right”s and “ya know”‘s) can be found in the link to a public Google Doc above. It includes embedded pictures (from the slides of the presentation) and links to subjects discussed in the lecture I thought some people watching or reading might want to know more about.

    • Jeremy: <A (minus some “right”s and “ya know”’s) .

      lol that’s cool man, thanks! but the those words are what makes him cool to hear or read. i guess is him? when i talk and hear myself talk i’m just like him, i say “right?” “like” “you know?” a whole bunch… haha it’s just a way of talking i guess… very nicely done public doc

  39. Very interesting and insightful video.

    I wrote an essay on the nature of gaming, which I thought you might be interested in. Fortunately it’s very relevant to the topic of your lecture:

  40. Huff, huff, huff. Sorry everyone. Left the gas on, missed the taxi and then the poodle broke down.

    Still, I’m here now! I’ve got my third-best bottle of damson brandy to share, and oh.

    Where’s everyone gone?

    Oh well, tangential comments away now I’m here. Bottoms up!

    Impossible Mission then, eh? A very peculiar example for a bad 1980s platform game. Have you tried Manic Miner? or Monty on the Run? Deary me, classics to a man, wouldn’t say a word against ’em, but there’s your unplayable, repetitive, pixel perfect jumping frustration simulator every time. Don’t even think about China Miner . Brrr. Miner 2049er, you have a lot to answer for.

    Anyway (*slurp*) Impossible Mission? Bit rum to pick on it, given that by comparison with its peers it was a model of player-friendly design. It had *ahem*:

    – Half a dozen different behaviours for the robots, forcing you to first identify what ‘mode’ each was in, and then tackle it appropriately;
    – Robot behaviour and item placement and map randomised each game;
    – Hub based design that let you tackle rooms in pretty much any order;
    – Multiple paths, to avoid bottlenecking on one, impenetrable level;
    – An overarching plot to give context to your actions;
    – A fixed time limit, so each ‘death’ cost not arbitrary lives but reduces time available to finish the mission, and cuts down your future options;
    – The ability to disable all the robots in any room you found tricky, using a special code (at the cost of more time);
    – The ability to reset the lift positions in a room, if you’d buggered it up;
    – Minigames* for earning extra shutdowns, lift resets, and to decode the collected parts.
    – ‘Dying’ in a room only sent you back to the start of the room, not the start of the game;

    On the downside, a couple of the rooms had really nasty jumps in them, and occasionally the random design would throw up unfinishable games. On the plus side, the random design would often mean that you could often completely ignore the nasty rooms.

    And my goodness, but you’ve not found a previously popular game unplayable until you’ve tried Brian Bloodaxe.

    Anyway *hic*, in future I’d use any of the early 80s wave of British Unplayable Retro Platformers as an example of player-hate, instead of what was a model of innovative and forward thinking design, for 1984.

    I shall now, pass out.

    Good night, gentlemen.


    *Whether ‘minigames’ are a good idea or not, they were there there.

    * hic *

  41. You called Braid a “gaming literate type of game”, meaning that it was designed for people who know how to play games.

    Do you see art games (or whatever one might call them) ever appealing to a broader audience, the way that Wii games arguably have? What would game designers need to accomplish to make that possible.

    Personal Note: I’m a senior in high school. I’ve already applied to several colleges, though I haven’t heard back from any yet. You’ve convinced me to study computer science and programming in order to become a good game designer, but can you recommend any specific college/grad school programs that I should look into?

    Thanks so much!

  42. @ Nathan: hello… i’m on the same boat! i’m 6 months in my first computer science and animation class and i am a senior in high school… and i have done *my* reserch to determin what would be best for *me*. i never really luked games like that, i just like computers and systems and hacking… and games. u’know regular juvenile shit like that, but after hearing jonathan talk and playing Braid i had an epiphany or whatever an i see thigs in a new way. i don’t want a job or study that will bring money or recognition and now i see the value in getting serious about computers and being a very technical person and what i can achive with that. if you also feel like this and want to do what jon is doin now i have done some reaserch on what to do. pretty simple there are to ways the artist way and the scientist way. if you aim for a degree in arts or interacty technology art or whatever they call it, you will be a programmer and an artist. if you aim for a degree in computer-science you will be a programer and a scientist. the difference is being a programer and something extra whatever the extra you chose will be like your second thing you learn… since i see jon as a technical person and a scientific person i will take the more technology and scientific focus route than the artistic one. since you can just read or watch to learn about art the the toughts and philosophies behind it… it will be easier to know and learn this. you don’t have to know how to make a movie and go to some expensive school, you just watch a history of good movies from the medium’s life and so you get an idea of what the art of movie-making is. with that same mentality go to a community or city college for the first 2 year and then go to a real university. for a)train your character to “real” education and living nd b) save a shit load of money for the 2 years you will get your foundation of education. *then* after the fisrt 2 years, you can go to what ever expensive school you like. coincidently i am going to Rice, since i live in dallas and rice is the closest best scientific-focus school (since people go out of their way to go there and be nuclear physicist and stuff) after i complet my fist 2 years at mountain-view college (a low budget and not well respected but reliable little college vey close to my house) with help from scholarships and the like (since i am poor and dumb student). on the side i will also become a citizen and go out of my way to get goverment help with out falling in the trap of enlisting in any sort of goverment service(since only dumb people go to the army, right?) and it will also help if start training your self in programing, computer skill, hard/soft ware, system, physics, biology, physicology,phylosophy, tech stuff, art, architecture, game, film, music, web, literature and thigs of the like…. b/c, yes! you will need all this to make vidyas. get serious about videogames and science… and art, why not?… get educated get smart and all that stuff.. most this things you can learn like i did… watching movies (good movies) hearing music (good music), reading books (not twilight books), playing games(games like Braid) and there is a shit-ton of things you can learn if you have a computer, youtube has very excelent programming tutorial, and math tutorials and philosophy and scientific papers can be found in the web. is difficult to do all this at first but it gets better and cooler and it’s very hard but very interesting. but when you are older you wont need anyone else.

    good luck geting educated Nathan D!

    p.s: take all this advice very seriously, but i’m only a 17 year old kid who is trying to follow the same thing as you, so maybe i missed something, but i doubt it. i doubt i’m wrong about tryng to do all this, to make games…

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