Game Design with Kids: An Interview with Charley Miller

Charley Miller is a game designer and producer based in New York City.

Avi Solomon: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Charley Miller: My name is Charley, I'm from Kentucky and I'm a game designer based in New York City. I split my time between personal game projects, teaching game design, and working with clients. The client work is split between game design and helping non-gaming projects think through their user experience. I think of myself as an ambassador of games right now because so many people want to gamify their product but most are doing it wrong by just adding static incentives. I'm currently working with a team on an iPhone location and social game about spreading viruses in the real world called Outbreaker—not as scary as it sounds—that plays with the idea of what it means to go viral. I'm also hoping to release games about running for President and walking the streets of NYC this year.

Avi: How did you become interested in designing games?

Charley: I think it found me before I found it. I was making up games to entertain myself and my friends as far back as I can remember. I never thought I could make a living doing this. It was at NYU's ITP graduate school where I realized I have a knack for game design (studying under Frank Lantz who now leads the NYU Game Center). My first post-NYU job was with Kognito Interactive in 2008 where I learned instructional design—basically making simulations with learning objectives in mind. I veered off course when I started a dating website that raised money for charity in 2009 but jumped back into full-time, independent game design shortly thereafter when the New York City indie game design scene started to take off.

Avi: What is a Game for you?

Charley: Well the lines of 'what's a game' are becoming blurred these days, for better or worse. To me, a game is a game is a game. They should have clear goals, a defined game space, and meaningful choices for the players to make. Games aren't film, or novels, or even art in the general sense. Games are their own unique kingdom and they're expressive in their own way. And we're only at the beginning of realizing the possibilities of game design.

Avi: What is Game Design?

Charley: Game design is the craft and process of inventing games. It's an inherently rewarding practice that's equal parts fun and frustrating. All game designers are also players and the best perspective to design a game from is that of the player. To design a game, you must consider things like how a player will learn to play; how a player will get better; how a player will understand their game state and assess themselves; how the game systems will create emergent systems and how players will explore these areas, etc. So in essence, game design is about designing a complex space to be navigated by players. It requires a lot of testing, a lot of balancing, and a lot perseverance. But this is what games do best: rewarding a decision with another decision to make. Not badges or points or leaderboards.

Avi: Why is designing games important?

Charley: It's naive to think that game design is going to solve all of the worlds problems. But games are important because games say a lot about who we are. They are a reflection of us as individuals when we play and reflections of cultures around the world based on their design. And even when you consider folks games (games that sort of emerge on their own, like hide and seek) at some point, somewhere, someone suggested a rule that stuck. So we're all game designers in some sense if we're all players. And it's through this sort of play that we develop a common language and experiment with ideas.

I teach a lot of game design classes at General Assembly in NYC and my students are a fairly diverse set of minds, ranging from twelve year olds looking to make the next Grand Theft Auto to fifty year old product managers looking to know more about gamification. A question I get is how can one game design class serve all of these interests and the answer is that the basics of the game design process of iteration through physical prototyping and playtesting has something to teach everyone.

Avi: Why is paper still useful in designing games?

Charley: When I used to teach high school journalism, I'd explain to my students during our conversation about censorship that the first pass on censorship happens inside our mind. We literally filter our thoughts before we speak or act. But any designer, whether engineering or game designing, will keep a journal nearby to capture as many ideas as possible so that ideas can more freely pour out. This allows a designer to do the filtering later so that no good idea is canned at the moment of inspiration. Sometimes bad ideas can lead to great ideas. That's the funny thing about creativity: it's a process with emergent possibilities that are unpredictable. This is a long way of saying that for game design, you need to capture your inspiration on paper—whether the ideas is about a game mechanic, a theme, a narrative, a character, a goal, etc.—so that you can give yourself a trail. You never know where it will lead or when you might need to double back to find another route.

Once a core mechanic is set (the thing a player does in the game), then you can paper prototype to start playtesting. I break playtesting down into four steps along the game design process to answer specific questions:

1) is the core mechanic fun?
2) does the game break?
3) do the game systems need more balance?
4) how do you teach someone to play?

Paper prototyping helps you answer all of these, even if you're making a video game, and allows you to figure out what makes your game interesting.

I always ask my game design students: "Where in this game is there a moment where the player is faced with an interesting choice?". These are the moments that give a game depth because players will want to explore the possibilities of their decisions.

So long story short: this is what paper prototyping helps you design.

Mobile Quest

Avi: You have worked together with kids to design games.

Charley: Teaching game design to kids really isn't much different than teaching it to adults with two exceptions: most kids have not developed the soft skills to collaborate effectively and have a bit more trouble sitting still. Last summer I helped out at Quest to Learns' mobile summer camp where these soon-to-be sixth graders worked on the ARIS iphone platform to create location-based games on the High Line. If you know the High Line, you know that it's basically a very narrow park that runs for 20 blocks or so. The kids turned this space into a platformer game, where players will use their GPS enabled smart phones to play through a game narrative that blends the physical of the High Line with the virtual of their games. It's good to be young these days.

Avi: What surprised you the most in your work with the kids?

Charley: Kids are typically naturals when it comes to game design and it's easy to understand why: they know what's fun and all they want to do is playtest. But what might surprise adults is to know that most children these days are able to wrap their minds around complex systems. That might be thanks to the amount of gaming kids are able to enjoy these days.

Avi: What is the best place to start learning about game design?

Charley: To be a designer, you have to be a player first. Start by playing a variety of games and try to deconstruct the experiences. Start asking yourself questions about why the designer choose certain elements and thinking about how systems are working together to create the dynamics of the game. That should get anyone nice and confused but hopefully stirred to know more. At that point, you need to learn two things: what are the core elements of games and what's a process for game design. There are a few books out there covering this stuff that are decent but I recommend finding a game designer to study from. Join a playtesting group so you learn how to observe and listen. And then just start doing: all game design starts with pencil and paper. The most important lessons you'll learn from your own mistakes as a designer. Anyone in NYC should feel free to reach out to me @superfection. I love talking games.