Reader Questions About Chris Crawford

May 3, 2010

Chris Hendrickson, founder of the Ithaca College Game Developers Club, recently sent me a couple of questions about my work, and my perspectives on game industry legend Chris Crawford:

Q1) You’ve referenced Chris Crawford a few times in your newsletters; when in your development as a game designer did his approach inform your own process? How do you think your own approach to game design is influenced by the ‘grand-daddy of game design’? I’ve noticed that both of you draw from separate yet integrated perspectives in talking about and designing games; not limited to visual arts, business, literature, history, as systems, programming, and psychology.

Chris Crawford’s games were slightly before my time as a videogame player – or if there was any overlap, his projects were for PC when I only knew console/NES – and I first found out about his work through Ian Bogost’s 2006 book Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. I found Crawford’s early book on the art of computer game design sometime over the next year. More was said (I think) in Bogost’s 2007 book Persuasive Games. During my InteractionArtist micro-projects is when I found the 1992 GDC (then the CGDC) “Dragon Speech”, which very much struck a chord with the spirit of what I was up to at the time.

I think the main influence was in reading about one of the game over states for Balance of Power, a game where the player is tasked with managing international affairs during the Cold War era. For context, this was not a historical game, it was relevant to present day – it was released in 1985, and the Soviet Union didn’t collapse until 1991. If the player’s decisions lead to nuclear war, the game displays this message: “You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.”

balance of power map of earth

Balance of Power by Chris Crawford

This runs contrary to so many things that we’re used to seeing in modern videogame design – were this a modern videogame, the player would expect options to win by raw military might, as an alternative to diplomacy. This “you can be good or evil” idea entered mainstream videogames between 2001 and 2004, with the release of games like Black & White, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Fable, although it has a longer history in RTS (in Command & Conquer, being able to play as the Nod terrorists instead of the GDI peacekeeping forces) and indirectly (from my limited understanding of pen and paper games) through the traditions of Dungeons and Dragons. It was heralded as a breakthrough in game design for increasing player choice, but silently brought with it a muting of the developer’s authorial statement.

This videogame asserted itself. Its author – not “developer”, but “author” – asserted himself. The breakout of worldwide violence, according to this videogame and its maker, is not a viable alternative to diplomatic stability. Shocking.

If a user has and acts on childish (or worse: mannish) tendencies, it does not accept those as appropriate ways to address the situation, and it would not offer even a visceral reward, let alone unlock additional gameplay challenges for that behavior. In so many words: everyone dies, there’s no way to win thermonuclear war, this course of action is intolerable.

Crawford explains that he sees his objective as a videogame designer to communicate principles. This is, of course, profoundly different than the modern conception of videogame design which is merely to entertain, or to offer something to play with for its own sake.

Here’s a short video on SCRAM (a computer “game” about basic nuclear reactor dynamics):

A longer and more inspiring video, parts of which have Crawford talking about Excalibur:

Screenshots of Excalibur for Atari 800, a game by Chris Crawford, Larry Summers, and Valerie Atkinson:

Screenshots from Excalibur game by Chris Crawford

This videogame was made in 1983. To say that it was ambitious and ahead of its time is an understatement.

Q2) Crawford was around since the beginning of modern computer gaming, but a lot has changed since then. The discourse in his books was much less focused on new technology or industry trends as much as individual game development issues based in more traditional, 2D computer games. Many of the popular games emerging from companies and individuals right now have complex problems that need to be addressed. How relevant do you believe Crawford’s perspectives are to the next generation of game designers who are trying to create solutions for game design issues?

You are correct that Crawford’s writing, unlike the majority of writing about videogame development since, was not focused on new technology or industry trends (except, to say, that at the time of his writing, videogames were a new technology, and a trend of sorts).

Very little of his writing has anything to do with traditional computer games in particular though. It’s often just as relevant for developing or discussing something like StarCraft 2 or Just Cause 2.

“Illusion of winnability”, “smooth learning curves”, “triangularity”/”asymmetric games”, “actors and indirect relationships”, “pace”, “limited information”, and “balancing solitaire games” (that’s 1985 for “single player” – not the card game) are still relevant. Those are the headings from Chapter 6: Design Techniques and Ideals.

Or, consider Chapter 2: Why Do People Play Games? I think that Crawford’s list of Fantasy/Exploration, Nose-Thumbing (overcoming social restrictions), Proving Oneself, Social Lubrication, Exercise, Need for Acknowledgment, and Sensory Gratification still pretty well sum it up, or at the very least provide an impressively modern starting point. There are grad students, GDC speakers, and industry developers running about thinking that they’re making breakthroughs when they realize that videogames can be made for social lubrication or exercise. I know of at least one research paper from a few years ago that seemed to think it revolutionary that videogames might appeal to either Fantasy or to Proving Oneself; Crawford covered that before I was born.

There is an error in the statement, “Many of the popular games emerging from companies and individuals right now have complex problems that need to be addressed.”

They don’t.

And I mean that both in suggesting that the popular games don’t have complex problems, and that which problems they do have in most cases don’t need to be addressed. With precious few exceptions, developers have given up on the really complex problems, in favor of working on a number of problems that don’t need to be addressed. This is a big part of what fueled Crawford’s epic Dragon Speech, and part of what led to my going mad with the InteractionArtist series.

Getting a computer to process algorithms and crunch math for graphics and physics isn’t a hard problem (that’s what computers do), nor is getting humans to interact with one another a particularly hard problem (that’s what humans do). To modernize the case further: nor is getting compulsive people addicted to meaningless things a particularly hard problem (that’s, unfortunately, what compulsive people do). Show me something instead that helps compulsive people not develop harmful addiction to shallow, meaningless things, and then I’ll be impressed.

By comparison, understanding how complex meaning is conveyed experientially from computer output to human user is a nut we still haven’t cracked, and it’s a challenge that encompasses the intersection of so many different fields (to borrow your list: “visual arts, business, literature, history, systems, programming, and psychology”) that most specialists feel that it isn’t their problem to worry about or take on, and that even if it was somehow thrust upon them, they wouldn’t have the right preparation to tackle it.

To return to the question:

> How relevant do you believe Crawford’s perspectives are to the next generation of game designers who are trying to create solutions for game design issues?

Ignorance of Crawford’s perspectives will result in a massive amount of lost time from redundant work, and it already has. Bright, well-connected people burning time discovering and struggling to communicate what he already figured out and articulated very clearly is time wasted that wasn’t invested in investigating something that we didn’t already know.

If we focus on “game design issues” in the modern sense of extreme specialization – people that tune RTS units, build 3D levels, script in-game objectives and manage spreadsheet tweaks for FarmVille – I’m not sure that Crawford’s work will be of much use to people in those roles.

If, instead, we consider Game Designer as Crawford used the title, as it meant in Crawford’s day, like an odd variety of writer that sets out to convey meaning through a different sort of solo composition, one that considers all aspects and assumptions about the videogame malleable (pre-specialization, no part was someone else’s job), then I would love to see more actual Game Designers. Chris Crawford’s perspectives can play a part in that happening.

Late Addition – Question From a Different Source

Feb 22, 2011) I’m writing an article, and am looking for quotes from game designers about how [Crawford’s] work has influenced your own. I would appreciate your response.

Crawford’s work impressed, inspired, and confused developers for the decades that followed. He dreamed up and created so much, with so little to work with, borrow from, or compare his work to. At times he took positions or gave statements that seemed wild when made, most of which seem clear now after others gradually caught up on deriving the same concepts he thought were obvious in the early 80’s.

I appreciate that in his final CGDC speech, he stood before the room and spoke with passion about having a genuine mission. His example made it clear to me that it’s possible to think clearly and independently of the larger movements to instead chase after personal objectives. I’ve strived to work on a similar path.

Most importantly, Crawford worked to create videogames that mean something. Balance of Power embodied a philosophy of international diplomacy. SCRAM and Balance of the Planet were 10-20 years ahead of Serious Games and Sim franchises taking on gameplay as systems exploration. Excalibur is – famously – about leadership. His work wasn’t about explosions, power fantasies, comic violence and escapism, it was about systems and ideas.

When the industry took a turn toward the trivial, Crawford refused to follow. Learning about his projects and ideas prompted me to second guess the nature and direction of my own work. It helped me switch from trying to impress current industry leaders to instead taking baby steps toward exploring new uses and purposes for the medium to benefit future audiences.

Crawford’s work led me to realize there may be a difference between what’s worth doing and what’s currently fundable, that people lost in today often can’t distinguish between forward thinking and wild ideas – that there will always be an audience out there for work with meaning that we cannot allow puerile, short-term interests to drown out.

Chris Crawford inspired me to work with the grain of the medium and against the grain of the industry.

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