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Critical Methods and Standards

At an impromptu meeting with the Michael Abbott, the brainy gamer, and new friends the topic of "method" game up. With so many game developers speaking their minds at GDC, we had a great opportunity to find out more about how games are actually made. This wasn't a topic of technical training but of the more organic and personal process of how creative ideas are realized one small step at a time. Understanding how a concept goes from a curious observation to sellable product is somewhat rare in this industry where IPs and other ideas are kept secret. So when Michael asked me about my method,  or my process to generate so many blog topics, ideas, and posts so quickly, I showed everyone my notebook. 

One of the highlights of my trip to GDC was Michael Abbott telling me that the highlight of his trip thus far was seeing my notebook. I took the comment straight to heart. My notebook doesn't have a special name and the plain black cover certainly doesn't look interesting. It's simply the place where I write all of my thoughts and notes before they're worked into articles here on the Critical-Gaming Blog. It's the way that I extend my mind so I can work through incredibly complex concepts. It's me on paper in my most raw and unfiltered form. It's also the place where I keep all of my game ideas. Holding the attention of the table captive over something about me that I never thought anyone cared much about gave me some much needed perspective. So I want to share it with you as well.



I guess it may be surprising to know that as technologically savvy as I am, all of my projects and blog posts start on paper. I love paper. I grew up using paper for journals, origami, and drawings. From the beginning of Critical-Gaming, I've kept all of my ideas in spiral bound notebooks. Since there have been so many notes and ideas written over the years, I've completely filled 2 spiral notebooks and am currently working through my 3rd. Looking back through the notebooks is like peering back into my past. Everything from my dream games to how I talked about game design is capture in words, diagrams, and doodles.

Seeing my growth page by page gives me a keen perspective on just how important it is to communicate clearly. I can pinpoint exactly where I failed to clearly explain a design concept. And I can see how difficult it was expressing an idea without the language to describe it. Keeping this perspective fresh in my mind makes it easy for me to work with others to talk about games instead of just cramming my work down their throats. For this reason also, I don't go back and edit my early blog posts though I've changed my mind, updated terms, and refined my sensibilities since.  

What's apparent from looking at any page of my notebooks is how unconventional and non-linear my notation is. In many ways my notation style reflects my thought process. Because I don't think linearly I don't write linearly. My thoughts branch and combine in unpredictable ways, so I write my notes in the same fashion. It's a technique that's essentially mind mapping. To help reinforce the connection between my mind and my notes, I also try to draw at least one diagram or picture on every page. Reviewing my notes is just easier when I see Kirbys and Marios flip by instead of a black and white sea of symbols. 

My notebooks are where I jot down everything that I think and observe about anything that interests me; movies, art, TV shows, systems, but mostly games. So really, the Critical-Gaming blog is the direct result of my efforts to understand and explain what's interesting to me. I love art; the framing or communication of ideas by people. And by extension I love design; the organization and structures of a work drawing strong correlations between the intent and the reaction. The hope is by understanding how video games excite me, I can better understand how they can excite you. It makes life a much less lonely place when you find consistent connections, patterns, and similarities in the world and especially between people. So I'm driven to write about design at Critical-Gaming for all of us. Talking about method and motivation leads us into a discussion of my standards.


My Standards

All of my writing comes from my thoughts and experiences. Ever since I was 3 years old, I've found watching others play games (or do anything) about as interesting as participating myself. I distinctly remember taking turns playing Mega Man on the NES with the neighborhood kids and watching our successes and failures very closely. With a lifetime of observations and experiences to draw connections between, sometimes I get an idea for a blog post in a flash. Beginning, middle, end, examples, and title all hit me in an instant. This is a fantastic Eureka type experience. But most of the time my articles are the product of a long maturing process. After coming up with the faintest idea for a post I have wait until I come up with strong supporting examples, link the idea to a bigger concept, or until I understand what I'm trying to say in the first place. Most of my articles wait months before being written. Some wait for years. 

Over the years I've worked to develop both the language and the conceptual frameworks to truly understand game design. At the same time, I've pushed myself to explain these concepts in a way that not only holds true for video games, but on a more universal level. To reach this level, I've worked to explain design according to simple and fairly universal human phenomenon, limitations, and experiences. And the theories I present are designed to elegantly fill in the gaps between what we know. Though I have my emotions and opinions, it's clear to me that relying on these to explain any element of a game's design only clouds developing meaningful analysis. Rather it's by sticking with clear objective language for as long as possible that I can better understand what I really feel and communicate it. 

One thing that I should say is that I'm terrible about catching typos, spelling errors, and other formatting issues. I read, reread, wait before rereading again, and I still miss errors in the first lines of some of my posts. After the hours and hours it takes to write even the smallest article, errors are practically invisible to me. Reading in general is hard enough for me so I don't worry too much about the small errors. If you don't mind and have the time, just let me know where and what is erroneous, and I'll gladly fix it. I couldn't have gotten this far without your help. 

Part of my standard involves listening to everyone and everything. Really listening and remembering; reserving the time to take what others have to say to heart. I mull over your opinions and comments for years, even the most sarcastic, mean-spirited ones. I glean it all for truth and honesty. And I try to work everything into a single framework giving all the benefit of the doubt. I take everything you say and everything I read or watch seriously because doing it any other way doesn't make sense. I treat you as seriously as I treat myself and would like others to treat me. If I didn't care about what you think, I wouldn't ask. If your answers weren't important to me, I wouldn't remember them. And if I believed that my responses wouldn't help both of us get to a better, clearer level of communication, then I wouldn't deliver any response in the first place.

In a recent post I described my adventures at GDC and how it was still difficult to find conversations on game design on the high level that I operate on. I used to think that the root of the problem was reading comprehension and that others merely needed to spend more time reading slowly and closely to reach a higher level of understanding. I also used to think that not having a clear language held many back from making clear statements that support larger ideas. But now, I'm not so sure the problem is so simple.

I fear that the real issue is a matter of the heart. But let's not go into that theory yet. Instead, let's continue with the topic of standards and use a model to better illustrate what I mean by a "high level" conversation. Blooms Taxonomy for classifying intellectual behavior when learning is a useful model for understanding the standards that I bring to my writing here on Critical-Gaming. There are 6 levels and many consider that learners go through the first three in order while the last 3 sit equally in the hierarchy on the 4th level. With definitions from wikipedia, consider the following.


  1. Knowledge: Exhibit memory of previously-learned materials by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts and answers
  2. Comprehension: Demonstrative understanding of facts and ideas by organizing, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions, and stating main ideas
  3. Application: Using new knowledge. Solve problems to new situations by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way

On the most basic level of cognitive ability, one must be able to remember things. It's great to have a game design dictionary in your head and pull up definitions verbatim. But memorizing terms isn't as important to a conversation as remembering the details from your own personal gaming experiences. For the same reason that the DKART knowledge skills focus on the recall of information (LTM, MM, STM), it's clear that holding data is the foundation of all cognitive ability. From here being able to paraphrase or restate a concept in one's own words reflects that one actually comprehends the concept. After all, just being able to memorize something only proves that you can repeat sounds/symbols in a particular order when prompted. And beyond comprehension, application is taking the core understanding of the concept and using it to understand situations you haven't encountered before. This is an important and distinct stage beyond comprehension. For what good is knowledge if you can only apply it to things you've already experienced. That would be like walking backwards your whole life blind to what lies just ahead of you. 

In my experience, many game design conversations never get past these three levels. And I think there's nothing wrong with that. If one hasn't had the time to truly comprehend certain concepts, there's no rush to begin applying it. Where many struggle to communicate is when they try to operate on too high of a level. To me, having a successful conversation only requires that all parties recognize the highest level they share, and rarely going beyond that threshold. It's the difference between being smart and trying to be smart. Trying doesn't get us anywhere. Staying within one's range makes all the difference. 

For example, I've had many conversations where all we do is list things that we remember from games that we like. "Oh you like that? That reminds me of this." or "What happened in this game? This and that and those." These are great conversations. I've had other conversations where the only thing we do is rephrase definitions of terms in our own words to find some common ground with our language. And I've had many wonderful conversations where all we do is take a design term and apply the concept to games in order to consider possible design improvements.

The following 3 levels are the highest levels in Bloom's Taxonomy. Some arrange them in hierarchical order. Others have them sit side by side. Regardless of the way you prefer, it's clear that these levels are far more cognitively demanding than the previous levels. 

  • Analysis: Examine and break information into parts by identifying motives or causes. Make inferences and find evidence to support generalizations
  • Synthesis: Compile information together in a different way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions
  • Evaluation: Present and defend opinions by making judgments about information, validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria


I realize now that being aware of this hierarchy will help me contribute to more successful conversations. In other words, when I ask people to break down their statements (analysis) or to consider my counter argument, that I'm really asking them to do 4th level cognitive work, which requires competency with levels 1-3. It's no surprise that being an intuitive learner who automatically breaks concepts and experiences down into parts also makes me better at analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. 4th level cognitive ability comes so naturally to me that I've set up my home here at Critical-Gaming around such ideas. And I feel that being able to teach what one knows is at the highest level of understanding. For students come with diverse perspectives, preferences, and problems. You really have to know your stuff to carefully guide them to your level. 


Such is my method. So are my standards.  

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Reader Comments (9)

any publishing plan ?

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

Wow, your notes are so much cooler than mine. The drawings cover a diverse range of styles and are really accurate. The writing itself is much more direct and short-form. I tend to write my observations in key sentences, some of which make the full transition into the article. Sometimes even paragraphs go in.

Good to get a peek at some of the posts in the pipeline too (Skyrim "needs fricken Z-lock on"). You wrote notes on Watchmen as well, we'll have to talk about that sometime. The second time I read it I literally spent 2 minutes mulling over each panel and flicking through to previous sections of the book to suss out the subtext.

Bloom's Taxonomy - I've never heard of it before, but it's just the kind of thing I've been trying to find for a while. Geeze, thanks for mentioning this.

To diverge a bit: The main reason I started writing this Wario Land 4 book is to improve my analysis skills and understand the critical glossary. I think that the key concepts (interplay, counterpoint, dynamics etc) are easy enough for anyone to understand and apply fairly well. I'm finding some of the more exact details a bit harder to pin down though. Although I can't always explain somethings in precise language, the examples and analysis of those examples, I think, do quite well. So I strongly agree with the points you make in recent posts about how people need to have the right attitude.

You might have noticed that in the edits to my blog I made clear reference to "game analysis". I'm thinking that this label might be a good fit for us. With this book I'm turning it into an agenda. In the introduction I talk about how the book isn't about Wario Land 4, but propaganda for clear language and example. Maybe we can rally around this notion, might be good for the cause. ^_^

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed


Depending on how things fall into place in the very near future, I may pursue a publishing deal and work on putting my blog into a book.

Otherwise, I may end up working on some gaming/multi-media type projects with some help from kickstarter.

Whichever it is, good luck, and there's a big chance I'll contribute financially in either of the projects!

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAva

@ Ava

That means a lot to me. Thanks for any future support.

Seeing all those notes gets me interested to see any future articles you might do on them. Though good luck dealing the reaction if you ever there into the battlefield that is Other M!

March 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS


Other M reaction? lol

I doubt there's anything I could write on this blog about Other M that would start a scuffle let alone a battle. Zelda is where the war is happening right now. And that's where I aim to enter the war!

From what I could glean from your notes you don't loth the story. That right there? Holy war. things have not simmered down that much over Other M.

Though seeing your full thoughts on Zelda is something to look forward too, but war? Strikes me more as the usual kerfuffle that crops up with EVERY new Zelda game. though now that I think of it their is some cross over on the talking points. Linearity, exploration, and that their is more then one type of non-linearity and exploration which tends to lead to lots of cross talk.

March 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

Thank a lot

July 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjames henry

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