game design

Screengrab from my MarsLander 1901 (unpubl.)

For the purposes of my career, “game designer” is a practice, not a vocation: Game design is fundamental to achieving a robust understanding of how games and simulations work.


My first (and most “successful”) commercial games were closer to what SimCity–designer Will Wright would call “toys:” The Wyrd games (Palm platform) started as an excuse (1) to spend time with something other than my dissertation, and (2) to think about the history of letterforms — in this case, the futhark alphabets, associated with Germanic tribes and eventually the foundation of Old High German.*

Splash screen, Wyrd II (PalmOS)

Wyrd (an Anglo-Saxon term suggesting “fate” or “individual destiny”) was a rune-casting game that played with the idea of computation and magic. Candidly: While it was fun to cash royalty checks, I started getting fan mail from users (mostly in Florida), expressing their gratitude for the game’s “advice.” So I pulled the game off the market, archived the codebase, and went back to my dissertation.

But I still enjoy building and testing games (analog and digital) in limited, supervised release, and occasionally consulting with NGOs about “serious games.” Working with students to develop games has been gratifying, too.

Pieces from a recent design session.

On several occasions, I have been invited to create social games and transmedial events for groups of between 20 – 100 players. photoRace is a good example.


In games like “photoRace” (2014,2015), small groups of new students or trainees worked from a shared list of simple tasks (“Introduce yourself to someone wearing a tie”). Using their smartphones, players photographed their group engaged in the task, tagged it, and uploaded it to Instagram. Some javascript on my laptop watched Instagram feeds for the tag; an automated scoring algorithm (in Lua) automated scoring and pushed the latest photos to display publicly via projector.

“Capture a Coordinated Leap,” 5 points. Has the added benefit of generating material for next year’s brochure.

As a distraction between overwhelming information sessions and endless HR presentations, the mechanics of a game like “photoRace” are perfectly adequate. What made iterations of this game fun, however, was the introduction of principles borrowed from folk games like “Truth or Dare.” Point values awarded for completing a task increased considerably as the tasks grew more challenging (socially, physically, interpersonally). This is, after all, what makes games truly engaging: Players must always be faced with “interesting choices:” Do I risk looking foolish for 10 points, or play it safe for 2? In many of its iterations, photoRace (gently) prodded students and new hires to face down taboo and superstition. While I doubt Kant would have approved, games like photoRace can help us begin to take the old man’s exhortation seriously: Sapere aude.

New Georgetown grad students earn a hefty point reward for photographing themselves as they help undergrads move in. While there is no reason to believe acts like this will change the world for the better, the game ably demonstrates how games can temporarily convince us to suspend the hidden barriers and biases that shape our worlds.

  1. *
    Unlike the Greek and Latin alphabets which were pressed into service of Commerce, Reason, and Empire, runic alphabets (especially as carved letterforms) were often believed to harbor magical, transcendental properties (we continue to believe this, if their ubiquity in fantasy films is any indication). It has been a while (and I was never an expert here), but my sense is that the futharks were hallmarks of a kind of scribal/oral hybrid mediaculture.