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The Grammar of Game Design

Some time ago, I had a quick conversation with a journalist about my article on the taxonomy of fishing mini-games. The obvious question was: why they are so common? A complete answer will probably require an entire separate article. However, one of the motivations is that fishing mini-games are one of the smallest experiences you can create using the smallest set of “game design elements”.

If we imagine game design as a language and gameplay elements as words, fishing mini-games are one of the shortest but complete stories that you can tell.

This made me realize that, yes, Game Design is a kind of language. It has basic elements, it has rules, and we use it to express specific sensations. Therefore, as a language, it has a proper grammar with its alphabet, its morphology, and its syntax and semantic.

In this article I’ll briefly put on paper this thought.

Game Design Alphabet

At the base of the game design language there is the game design alphabet. The atomic, indivisible, units that allow game design to achieve its goals.

Of course, the alphabet depends on the domain in which we are building the game in the same way the latin alphabet I am using to write this text is different from the greek alphabet or the hangul.

In game design, for instance, the alphabet of board games is different from the language of video games. However, they both share the same goals and structure.

Suppose we are designing a video game: what are the atomic elements of a video game? The ability to press buttons, to touch element (for games with a touch interface), or to perform physical actions in space (for games with motion control), but also visual elements on the screen, random numbers, and more.

Suppose instead we are designing a board game: what are the atomic elements of a board game? Dices, boards element, cards, coins, and more.1

In both cases, we have a limited set of basic element we can combine as we wish to create games.

Game Design Morphology

Then there is the game design morphology. In linguistic, morphology is the study of words, that is, how we create words starting from the alphabet. In game design, it is the way we combine button presses, visual elements, random numbers, etc, to create concrete gameplay elements.

However, while in human languages we create words by arranging symbols in space, e.g., putting a character after the other on a piece of paper, in game design we arrange the atomic gameplay elements in time.

For instance, we can double-tap a button in quick sequence, we can continuously press a single button rapidly, or we can press it just once at the right time, or we may hold it pressed. These are four different “words” we can create using only the “button press” letter of the game design alphabet (and I already talked extensively about that!).

Game Design Syntax and Semantic

And finally, we have the game design syntax and semantic. That is how we put together the “words” (the gameplay elements) to produce meaning. For instance, if we want to give the player the sensation of struggling to open a chest, so we can have the player pressing frantically a button to fill a bar (visual indicator) until the chest finally opens.

There are three “words” here: the rapid button presses, the filling of the bar, and the chest finally opening. They are arranged in such a way to express a specific feeling.

To came back to fishing mini-games, they are a beautiful example of this. In general, they are just a bunch of “gameplay words” and yet, they nail the feeling of fishing. In the smallest case, we can create a fishing mini-game with a couple of visual indicators and a button pressed at the right time.

However, there is an important difference between game design and human language. Until now, nobody ever wrote a “grammar” for it. And probably it never will. We do not have fixed rules and magic tricks to write perfect sentences (a.k.a., games). We know common errors but no perfect recepies.

And that’s probably why every game designer has its own clear voice.

The header image is a screenshot from Library of Blabber. It is a free game. Try it.

  1. In some sense, video games are “more abstract” than board games. In fact, we can decompose video games up to their basic (limited) interaction schemes. Board games’ abstraction, on the other hand, is limited to the physical objects used to build them. ↩︎

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