Working With Intertextuality in Game Design | Part 1: Non-Digital Games

Game design as a discipline and field of study is at a crossroads. On one hand, you have people studying and creating games from a variety of backgrounds: English, architecture, economics, computer science, psychology, film studies, etc. On the other there are the bevy of schools that are adopting game design, art and production programs that produce graduates with degrees in the field of game design. All this, of course, is occurring in a cultural environment where games themselves struggle to establish legitimacy as mainstream media.

In many ways, the diversity of backgrounds among professionals and professors has given gaming one of the richest bodies of knowledge in design. This knowledge base only grows as more people enter or comment on the field, with each lending their own unique outlook on the gaming industry. Indeed, gaming benefits from each new perspective on the topic, so how do we avoid this growth diminishing as people earn degrees focused on game design itself?

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Game design continues to evolve

According to game designer Jesse Schell, well-rounded game designers should have knowledge in animation, anthropology, architecture, brainstorming, business, cinematography, communication, creative writing, economics, engineering, history, management, mathematics, music, psychology, public speaking, sound design, technical writing and visual arts – certainly more knowledge than any one college curriculum can instill. This is where perhaps the most important skill a game designer can possess comes into play: the ability to be a lifelong learner. Gamers and game designers who become lifelong learners have an incredibly powerful tool at their design and commentary disposal, intertextuality.

Intertextuality is the shaping of media’s meanings through references or inspirations of other work. In design, it takes the form of precedents, previous works that serve as examples for your own projects. When viewed as representational media, gaming can learn from other works in the same way that books, films and works of art can do the same with one another. In this article, I will describe how immersing oneself in media outside of video games themselves can have immense benefit to the way we design and play.

Non-Digital Games

Let’s begin with a simple one: non-digital games. This group includes board games, card games, role-playing, collectable card games, party games, casino games, outdoor games and yes, even sports. Video games are a young medium and as such, the library of seminal “texts” that it contains is very much still in development. Each generation also has its own ideal of good gameplay, causing previous hits to be retroactively labeled as “overhyped” and flops to find new audiences. Video games, however, as ludological entities; that is, entities that pertain to the study of games and play; can be analyzed much in the same way that non-digital games are

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Settlers of Catan

Games have been around for thousands of years and are an intrinsic part of human culture. Sociologists and historians have found game analysis to be incredibly helpful when studying historic cultures, since games are often made to practice what is important or escape what is unpleasant about a people’s society. Board games especially, as a commercial industry of their own, can become a valuable precedent for video games.

In many ways, board games are the father of video games, with elements of play carrying over from that medium to ours. While like other games, board games are ludological entities, they also have the ability to add narrative contexts and themes to this play that other game types, such as standard card games, cannot. Board games have also developed to the point where they take on a wide variety of mature (read: intellectually interesting, not full of gratuitous blood, gore, nudity and raunchy humor) subject matters, such as settling an island, pre-WWI politics, power-grid management, disease control and a plethora of others.

If board games are the father of video games, then video games can be said to be in the early college years when they are reading way too much French existential literature and trying to appear intellectual in front of girls. Indeed, the dichotomy between highbrow gaming experiences like Braid and Limbo (i.e. the existentialism and smarty pants behavior) and the mass-market games such as Halo and Call of Duty (i.e. video games doing beer bongs at frat parties) is one of extreme opposites – and it should not be. While this is certainly an improvement over gaming’s teenage years where it hid in its room and wallowed in rebellion for rebellion’s sake through titles such as Duke Nukem and Mortal Kombat, (author’s note: don’t get me wrong, I love these games) video games will need to eventually make the jump to tackling grown-up issues. Board games can teach game designers and gamers how that is possible.

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Zombies!!! takes mechanics common to the FPS genre and redefines them to create a tense experience.

By playing more non-digital games, those interested in game design, from both the commentor and creator’s point of view, can understand how even the most seemingly mundane actions can create good gameplay. For designers, this can also help in creating non-digital prototypes for game projects to ensure that gameplay of a final product matches the original vision of the designer. For game reviewers or enthusiasts, this focused study of all games non-digital can make them more aware of mechanics outside of the typical “point and shoot” games that now flood the market.

This gaming outside the box can make even teach us how to make the most gun-laden video game power trip that extra bit sublime. A board game like Zombies!!! for example, while tackling subject matter that is not above the realm of video games, provides a somewhat refreshing take on a typical zombie shooter by making the humans incredibly weak against their undead foes. Entering buildings to hunt for supplies becomes a huge risk and tension builds as zombies hordes flood the board, cutting off access to health, ammo and liberation. By understanding the mechanics of these games, can gamers and game designers push for even the most stereotypical of video games, the first person zombie shooter, to begin discussing the human condition and the survival of the species?

COMING UP IN PART 2: Film & Live Performances

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  1. Mikky J says:

    Great article. I like how you weave in the concept of intertextuality.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

  2. Rick Nordal says:

    Very interesting arcticle !

    I invented a game called Connect Score.
    Connect Score is a paper and pencil game.

    Jesse Schell’s book ‘ The Art of Game Design ‘ is a great read.


    Rick Nordal – Vancouver, BC, Canada

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