Game Design book review 1 – The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia

I decided that in my sabbatical from work, that I would read through some of the great books from game designers and I had a shelf of them to go through and put my comments to. But when I asked the very respected, recently departed Richard Powers on what to read, his suggestion was The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard Suits. What I thought I was getting into was a book about creating games, but I was given a philosophy book about what really are games and why pursue them. I haven’t completed the book yet, but it takes the Aesop fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper and changes the morale. In Aesop’s fable, the ant works hard and has food stored away for winter, while the grasshopper plays during the summer and needs to borrow from the ant to survive the winter.  Bernard Suits seems to postulate that it is better to be the grasshopper and game-playing is the supreme human good and that playing games are what he should have been doing and worthwhile despite the lethal consequences.

He is not saying that a life of leisure is the answer either. Stamp-collecting or lying on the beach is not the Grasshopper way, but it is the playing of games that makes life worth living. If the goal of golf is to get the ball in the hole, it is not fun to just pick up the ball and drop it in the hole, but to follow the rules and hit it with the club and play it where it lies. The rules is what makes it a game and not the objective or graphics or ending.

I bring this up because on my first day of my sabbatical I have a potential game design project. A company has an RFP with GP Strategies to design a game experience to help train the workers on internet security. But as we talked before the meeting, we came up with all kinds of possible games to get these learning objectives across in a replayable manner. But the actual meeting with the client was not that, but it seems that they want a glorified simulation or exercise with cool graphics. They want the players (about 3000 employees) to set-up the website security in a very structured manner and then for us to add a time-element, a score-keeping element, and a graphical build element to their structured steps. We can probably make something like that look good with a timer on the top, a running score, a 3-D security image turning from red to green as you completed the steps, but is it a game? If there is one starting place and one finished solution with a pretty structured set of instructions on how to get there, all you can do is work on your speed and memorization of these steps, but there isn’t much in the set of rules to follow or bend to help you. I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie “Big” where the toy company is making a transformer building and he says “I don’t get it – how is that fun?”.

I don’t know if we’ll win this work and they might be able to make a real game out of the experience that they want the end users to have and it might be fun, but from the first description, it doesn’t sound like something that I want to leave my sabbatical for just yet.

I look forward to finishing The Grasshopper and I thank Richard Power’s for his recommendation and advice in his last days before dying from ALS.  Richard’s smile, fun, history and 70’s style games for learning will be missed at NASAGA.