I’m a Game Designer, Dammit.

Saturday night I was at a house party in Brixton. I only knew the host, so between nacho-scoops of guacamole, I found myself repeating the opening gambit of ‘The Party Conversation’ (TM) several times.

“Hi, I’m Philip,” I’d say, extending my hand.

Handshake. “I’m Melanie. Hi.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“So, Philip, what do you do?”

Pause.

I used to say “I’m a journalist” at this point. But . . . let’s try something more audacious. Something that feels more honest.

I’m a game designer.” I said.

This is apparently quite an unusual thing to say, judging from most people’s reactions. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

“Really? So, you do computer graphics and animation and stuff?”

“No, no. I can’t do anything like that. I design the games themselves.”

Perplexed silence, maybe an inquiring motion with a glass of Pimm’s. I got the idea I needed to elaborate.

“Well, take two guys and a ball, and it’s just two guys with a ball,” I said. “But then tell them they’ve got to take the ball from the other guy and put it between those poles over there, without using their hands or arms, and that’s soccer. Sorry, football. That’s game design.”

“Oh. So, what kinds of games do you design?”

“Well, I’m a journalist by background and experience, so what I actually do is use game dynamics to design interactive applications that teach people about the real world.”

Mental note: use less jargon when you talk, Philip. I scramble to explain myself: “What I mean is, video games are a really powerful medium, see, and I design games and stuff on the web that  teaches you about the real world and journalism and stuff.”

Coherency FAIL. Waves of doubt washed over me, emanating mostly from my interlocutor’s raised eyebrows and partly from the concerned look in her eyes. I got the impression she doesn’t play video games much.

“What?” she said. “You can’t teach people stuff with video games. They’re just mindless entertainment.”

“Well, how about chess then? Think that’s a waste of time?”

She took a thoughtful sip of Pimm’s, then: “No.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it teaches you strategy and . . . Stuff.”

“Right. Put it on a computer and you’ve got a video game that teaches you about strategy.”

The inquiring Pimm’s glass lowered a fraction, the eyebrows unknotted slightly. I siezed my chance and dove into the breach:

“Imagine this. You want to find out what’s going on in Baghdad? You’re a Baghdad taxi driver. You pick: you’re Sunni, Shia, Christian, Kurd. You’ve got to pick up fares and make ends meet, but you’ve got to keep track of which neighborhood you’re in and which side of the line you’re on – or you might get shot by some extremist militia types.”

I paused for breath. “Nothing would teach you the geography of a broken city faster or better,” I added, pre-empting the response I could see curling off her lips.

She stopped and tilted her head. “But most games aren’t like that,” she said.

“Yeah, but most movies and most of the stuff on TV is pretty crap, too. But you don’t discount the whole medium just because of Celebrity Big Brother.”

At this point she said, “No, I guess not,” with a smile so broad it had to be hiding an awful lot, and went to get another drink.

* * *

When I used to say “I’m a journalist” at parties like this, the first question after that was invariably “Oh, what do you write?”

People would always ask me what I wrote. They would do this even if I’d just said “I’m a journalist and I work for the BBC,” which seems to me to rather imply TV and radio.

At this point I’d tell people that, while I generally write a great deal, most of it isn’t intended for consumption by the general public. Most of my writing is actually design for interactive applications on the Internet.

If you said “I’m a writer” or “I’m a film director,” the next question would probably be: “Oh, what do you write?” or “What sort of movies do you make?”

Journalists have to be writers, though, or filmmakers, or radio producers, as well. You can’t just be a journalist – you need a craft. Journalism is the process of finding stuff out and communicating it to the public. That “communicating to the public” bit needs to be expressed through a craft: film, radio, photography, text . . . or game design.

So I’m a journalist and a game designer.

At parties, though, I think I might keep saying I’m a game designer. It’s more fun.

And it feels more honest.

3 thoughts on “I’m a Game Designer, Dammit.

  1. Philip: I love this post. I often struggle to answer the “What do you write?” question. Of course, I do not have a cool fallback title like game designer, so I generally resort to: “I work on the web.” Which usually moves the conversation on to other topics.

    Wish I could be there for BeeBCamp 3. I’ll look forward to following along in the Twittersphere.

  2. Yeah, it’s a shame that there’s so many cool jobs/occupations that boil down to “I work with computers” or “I work on the web”. It’s like saying “I work in movies” but doesn’t yet have the attractive Hollywoodesque cachet.

    That’ll change though. In the meantime, I still think the best thing is to give examples, like “I designed that awesome website at omigoditsawesome.com . . . What do you mean, you’ve never heard of it?”

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