Game design is ‘just’ specialised interaction design

First of all my best wish­es to you for 2008. It’s been a bit qui­et around here lately—the last prop­er post was pub­lished Decem­ber 19. Shame on me. The usu­al apolo­gies apply: I’ve been busy doing work, but also spend some time catch­ing up with friends and fam­i­ly in the Nether­lands around the hol­i­days.

I was con­sid­er­ing doing the tra­di­tion­al look back at 2007 and per­haps post some res­o­lu­tions for the com­ing year, but I won’t. 2007 has segued into 2008. There­fore I feel it’s best to just dive in and tell you what’s been occu­py­ing my mind lately.

How exact­ly do the fields of game design and inter­ac­tion design relate? I’ve found myself strad­dling the line between the two more and more often. And what I’ve been won­der­ing: Can game design be con­sid­ered a spe­cialised sub-dis­ci­pline of inter­ac­tion design, or are the two equals with some over­lap? (Or can inter­ac­tion design per­haps even be con­sid­ered part of game design?)

Here’s a dia­gram of how I tend to think of the rela­tion­ship between the two fields: 

Venn diagram of IxD and GD as equals with some overlap

Seen this way, inter­ac­tion design and game design each have their own body of knowl­edge with some over­lap. From this per­spec­tive you could con­sid­er my work to be bro­ker­ing of some sort—passing infor­ma­tion back and forth between the two. I tend to place myself in the inter­ac­tion design cir­cle, mak­ing the occa­sion­al for­ay into game design ter­ri­to­ry and bring­ing back inter­est­ing stuff I find.

But there’s at least one oth­er way of look­ing at these two fields:

Venn diagram of GD as part of IxD

I was trained to be an inter­ac­tion design­er. But part of the cur­ricu­lum con­sist­ed of game design. Nowa­days inter­ac­tion design’s empha­sis on effi­cien­cy nat­u­ral­ly makes it irrec­on­cil­able with game design. At the Utrecht School of Arts, these two were not seen as being at odds with each oth­er. You can con­sid­er this a gross over­sight, or alter­na­tive­ly as proof of a far-reach­ing vision. Whatever.

In any case, it can be argued that (dig­i­tal) game design is sim­ply a very spe­cialised sub-dis­ci­pline of inter­ac­tion design. This is not to say it is in any way less valu­able than ‘reg­u­lar’ inter­ac­tion design. How­ev­er, it might help peo­ple in both fields to advance their prac­tice if they look at each oth­er this way. Which is more or less a sum­ma­ry of what I’ve been argu­ing ever since I went free­lance last year.

The prob­lem is of course that in real­i­ty the two fields—or to be more exact the two com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice—are very much sep­a­rate from each oth­er. I’ve been try­ing to make some change there, in my own lit­tle way.

On the oth­er hand this might just be me try­ing to jus­ti­fy my inter­est in game design as an inter­ac­tion designer… 

But per­haps there’s some­thing more than just pro­fes­sion­al guilt at play here. I’m not sure yet. Some obser­va­tions that might sup­port one or the oth­er view:

  • Although their def­i­n­i­tion of games is very exact, Salen & Zim­mer­man’s def­i­n­i­tion of play is broad­er: “Play is free move­ment with­in a more rigid struc­ture.” Isn’t that an apt descrip­tion of what peo­ple do with any­thing interactive?
  • The Inter­ac­tion Design Asso­ci­a­tion defines inter­ac­tion design on their site and says it con­cerns: “the struc­ture and behav­ior of inter­ac­tive prod­ucts and ser­vices”. Sure­ly that includes dig­i­tal games?
  • I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but I seem to remem­ber Koster men­tion some­thing about game design ulti­mate­ly being about putting peo­ple in touch with each oth­er. Sounds like inter­ac­tion design to me.

In any case, as long as I need 400+ words to explain why I want to do both inter­ac­tion design and game design, I’ll be in trou­ble. Can you boil it down for me?