When I was in college the cutting edge thinking about artificial intelligence was what they called “scripting”. Although it seems kind of silly now, the idea was if you could map out everything a computer would ever have to do in any social situation, and give it a corresponding set of actions and reactions based on the structure of the event the machine could essentially be indistinguishable from a living being.
But as archaic as that may seem, I’m finding it disturbingly similar to a lot of the writing and discussion that’s currently going on around game design.
Much like the search for the smallest particle of reality ultimately leads you to a quantum reality where energy and matter are indistinguishable, I think we’re quickly coming to the end point of the usefulness of continued reductionism in game design. While it may be very useful for filling up text books and giving teachers in college courses something to hang their hats on, I’m not sure that it’s really going to help us create more talented interactive designers.
Certainly there are useful techniques we can learn from understanding the hows and whys of player interaction. And if you do have some talent then it’s likely that they’ll be able to use that information in a way that will simplify the process and possibly (but not definitely) increase the chance of the game connecting with an audience.
At the same time I think there’s a huge gap between the basic skills needed to design games and the point at which this kind of theory is useful. The gap is wider than the average player’s ability to jump across it, so they end up falling into the abyss. Reload, retry…
Ultimately the trick to being a great designer is thinking like a great designer. Is it possible to learn that kind of skill? Not for everyone. Which is a good thing, since a world full of game designers would be a scary place to be. But for the motivated student of design it means developing the kinds of instincts and thought processes that are going to give you the ability to quickly and effectively parse games and gameplay ideas.