Game Design Game Design Workshop Wednesdays

Game Design Workshop Wednesday Exercise 1.3: Your Life as a Game #GDWW

Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.

In the last two weeks, I pretended to be a tester for the indie hit FTL and documented everything I experienced and did in the game, then I critically analyzed a game that was “dead on arrival”. Today’s exercise in the Game Design Workshop Wednesday series asks me to list and describe areas of my life that could be games.

Many creative individuals will give the advice that you need to learn to take inspiration from everywhere to create great works, and the making of games is no exception.

I remember hearing that Shigeru Miyamoto created The Legend of Zelda inspired partly by his childhood exploration of the hills and forests near his home. Will Wright talked about his Montessori-based education as an inspiration for the digital toys he creates. Colossal Cave Adventure was partly based on Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system.

Fullerton asks you to look for the underlying systems, goals, and obstacles that exist in the world. Inspiration can come from other games, but you’re less likely to design a clone if you look elsewhere.

I thought about a number of areas of my life for this exercise. Some seemed too easy, such as the idea that taking care of my cats is like a virtual pet simulator…only real. I noticed a number of areas seemed to make use of the same resources, namely time and money, so in a way, life itself was a game of resource management and goals, with goal-setting being one of the activities you can participate in, and it became quite meta.

Sierra Road


Like many people, I want to be healthy. For me, it means more than dropping a few pounds and wearing my belt a little tighter, although weight is a very easy metric to track. I do have a goal weight, which is 20 lbs less than I started the year with.

We’re now halfway through 2014, so how am I doing with this goal? I’ve lost about 5 lbs. I haven’t been paying too much attention to this goal, clearly, but what’s the game here? You know, besides Fitocracy.

Let’s look at the components of weight. Obviously you aren’t just weighing your muscles and fat, as your body is made up of blood, water, bones, and other things that you aren’t trying to change when you talk about weight loss. Dehydrating yourself to have the bathroom scale indicate you weigh a few pounds less isn’t healthy or desirable.

The components you want to change are muscle mass and body fat.

Without going into too much detail about the different kinds of fat and how some fat is beneficial, when it comes to weight loss, people generally want to lose fat.

What is fat? It’s stored energy. It provides insulation and protection, and there is research that indicates it helps with a healthy immune system. Still, losing some of it isn’t a problem for most people.

Muscle, on the other hand, isn’t something you want to lose. Your muscles are what you use to move, and moving uses energy. If you are trying to lose weight, your movements will result in your fat stores getting used up while you maintain your muscle mass.

Occasionally I’ll run across the fact that about 3,500 calories are stored in a pound of fat. In order to lose it, you need to consume 3,500 calories less than your body needs, or you need to exercise and use up 3,500 calories.

So, if weight loss was a game, the goal is to reduce the amount of fat calories stored in your body.

The rules are that eating less means fat gets used up by your body to make up for the caloric deficit, and exercising more burns up more fat.

So we have a goal, and we have some rules. What’s the challenge?

The challenge is that the rules aren’t that simple. It’s not just a simple matter of “calories in and calories out.”

If you starve yourself, your body responds by storing more fat. Oops.

And if you exercise the wrong way, your body ends up losing not just fat but also your muscles, which makes you less effective at burning calories. Oops again.

Neither option is very healthy in the long run. So you need to eat well, and you need to exercise safely. The former requires you to learn how to make a habit out of cooking healthy and nutritious meals, and the latter requires a time investment.

And both require discipline. If you have a day job like mine, you are probably familiar with the challenge of resisting the free donuts or pizza brought in for meetings. Each day feels like a challenge to remember that as good as the junk food might smell and taste, I don’t want to add the extra empty calories to increase the difficulty of being healthier.

And making time for a walk, let alone weight training or biking, similarly requires a routine that you set and follow, which can be hard if you don’t have a routine already and live in a town which has multiple locations where the sidewalk ends, almost discouraging your efforts.

Other challenges? The weather might impact your motivation to exercise. You might eat to make you feel better if your mood is down. You might drink a lot of juice or soft drinks or beer, all of which contribute plenty of calories to your diet without you realizing it. Healthy foods take more time to prepare and cost more money than chips and pre-packaged, pre-processed food. You might get hurt or sick, making exercise counter-productive.

Ultimately, weight loss shouldn’t be the real goal. Being healthy should be, and it’s not something you can diet your way to temporarily. It requires a lifestyle change.


I love learning new things. The more you know, the more capable you are to handle a situation. Years ago, I learned how to boil water without hurting myself. Today, that knowledge enables me to create a pasta dinner for my lovely wife. It also allows for steamed vegetables, cooked rice, hardboiled eggs, and more. My cooking abilities expanded greatly from making nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and pouring myself a bowl of cereal when I learned how to boil water on the stove.

Being more capable is the goal, but what does it take? Just as Fullerton advises you to practice making games to learn how to be a game designer, any new learning requires the application of the new knowledge in order for you to really know it. It’s why you had homework in school.

Practice requires an investment of time, and it might even require money. Whether you teach yourself from a book or by taking formal classes, it requires time to be set aside for the practice.

Most people dance by figuring it out on their own, and for the most part, it’s passable for the occasional wedding reception or flailing about at a club.

My wife and I took dancing lessons, and it turns out that there is a lot more to dancing than shifting your feet from side to side and turning in some random direction once in awhile. How you hold your partner, how you signal which way to turn using slight pressure of your hands and arms, and how you step all need to be coordinated to dance well.

It took a few weeks of dance lessons, but we increased our stats in Coordination and Dexterity. We’re not world class dancers, but I remember receiving the compliment on our wedding day that our first dance looked very elegant. Success!

Practice also requires discipline and conscious effort. When learning a new skill, you will mess up. Rather than see it as a frustration, see it as part of the learning experience. If you’re learning how to juggle, you’re going to drop a ball. If you’re learning how to draw, your circles will come out misshapen. If you’re learning how to make games, you’re going to add a mechanic that makes playing worse. I’m pretty sure I tripped my wife more than once when we were learning how to dance, but you know what? We still got married and still danced. B-)

After practicing for awhile, the skill becomes part of your repertoire. You no longer need to look up when to add a semicolon to the end of a line of code or how to draw a person’s head so that it is in proportion to his/her body. Whereas learning to a ride a bike meant thinking about the mechanics of riding a bike at first, you now know how to do so without being conscious about balancing yourself anymore.

And the nature of learning a little is that you are now at the point where you can learn a little more. Learning to program a computer leads you to learning how to design software which leads to learning how to architect an entire system of software components.

Incremental improvement in your knowledge and skills opens up possibilities in your life. It’s why education and finishing school is so highly emphasized for troubled youth.

Home Ownership

Last year, my wife and I bought a house. For the first time, we’re living in a building with no one else. Yes, that means playing music as loud as we want, but it also means we’re responsible for all of the maintenance.

One of the goals of having a house is being comfortable living there, which means cleaning regularly and taking care of it. Everything goes to entropy, and you need to make an effort to fight it.

With a house comes a lawn, and growing grass requires mowing. Otherwise, you risk being embarrassed by being “those” neighbors. You can’t control when it rains, but when it does, you need to mow more often. If you don’t want to spend time mowing, you need to pay someone else to do it for you. There’s only so long you can pretend that you’re encouraging the wild grasses of the plains to grow before you need to cut it back. And don’t forget about raking leaves in the fall.

Things break. Spackle and paint can fix minor holes in walls. The flushing mechanism in toilets might malfunction and need to be replaced. Cupboard door handles might need their screws tightened.

Once again, I find my tools are time, money, and effort. Weekends used to be for relaxing from a workweek. Now weekends are seen as big blocks of time used to install closet doors or deal with weeds in the yard. Sometimes bigger jobs demand expertise from paid professionals, and sometimes you just need some elbow grease.

And sometimes the bigger challenge is to remember to make time to enjoy the house rather than see it as nothing but a source of unending work. B-)

Wealth Accumulation

There’s a difference between wealth and income. Someone making $40,000/year can become a millionaire over a lifetime, while someone making $200,000/year can live paycheck to paycheck. The difference is in the expenses. As described in The Millionaire Next Door, the wealthy tend to be people who live below their means, who prefer financial independence to living a lavish lifestyle. They get used cars rather than new ones, have household budgets, and clip coupons. They don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. They don’t look like what people think millionaires should look like.

My parents opened a savings account for me when I was very young, and ever since I’ve been a saver. I’ve since read books such as The Richest Man in Babylon that indicate people should save at least 10% of their income, and I’ve found that my parents already gave me the lesson.

Also, don’t put your savings in a so-called “rainy day fund” because one day it will rain. This 10% should go into savings that for the most part you never touch.

With savings account interest rates so low these days, however, your investments should probably be in something with a potentially greater return. Of course, such investments tend to have requirements that you don’t touch the money for a period of time, such as a 5-year Certificate of Deposit, although you shouldn’t touch that money anyway so there’s no problem with the lack of liquidity.

The key is to spend less than you earn, then invest some of your earnings somewhere. Starting earlier rather than later is better because of compound interest. If you invest for 10 years and stop, leaving the investment to sit, and someone else starts investing the day you stopped and continues to invest for 20 years, you’ll have dramatically more in your investment than the other person.

While there are various things that can happen to adversely affect your process, such as a housing bubble burst, a medical crisis, or a lost job, the rules of wealth are simple: over the long term, save some of your earnings, and spend less than you earn.

Winning the wealth accumulation game? That’s a personal question, but not worrying and stressing about money seems like winning to me.

Game Development

I have a day job these days, one in which I don’t do game development.

My game development business ends up being very part-time as a result, which means a lot less time to do the things a business needs to do to be successful: business planning, market research, and of course, product development.

I realized this year that I haven’t been doing much active game development as I’ve been spending most of the little time spent on my business working on exploring the market for educational games. Since I don’t have a lot of time to spend on market research, it is taking me longer than I would like.

But I don’t want to ignore game development, so I started focusing on doing at least 20 minutes a day. If I sit down and work for at least 20 minutes on game development, whether it is designing or programming, I put a little ‘X’ on that day on my wall calendar.

The idea is to keep a chain of these days going for as long as I can without breaking it. If I break it, I start over again and see if I can keep the chain going longer this time.

I learned this game from Bob Nystrom’s article about what it took to write his Game Programming Patterns book, which he learned from an article about Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity.

Sometimes I’m able to dedicate way more than 20 minutes, but I should always be able to make time for at least 20 minutes.

I started in early July and broke the chain after only one day. That’s not a chain, that’s a link.

But the next day I started a new chain that broke after three days. Still not great, but better.

Then I had one chain going for 13 days. Much better.

And now I’m in the middle of a chain going for nine days, and I want to keep it going. Can I get two weeks worth of days? A month’s worth? A year’s worth?

What’s more, even with just 20 minutes of game development, I’m seeing some progress on my toy project on the side, plus I’m able to dedicate time to writing blog posts such as this one and doing market research.

Exercise Complete

These examples might not seem like games on the surface, but they all have rules and constraints, with interconnected relationships between various components. Identifying this structure was good practice for game design, but it also helped me see that game design inspiration might come from anywhere.

If you participated in exercise 1.3 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.

Next week, I’ll report on my daily game journal.

(Photo: Sierra Road | CC-BY-2.0)

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