Play: Katie Salen

© Katie Salen

Katie Salen
Game designer, educator, teacher

Katie Salen is a game designer, educator and teacher. She is Professor of Game Design at DePaul University in Chicago and Founding Executive Director at The Institute of Play, a non-profit design studio, founded in 2007, creating learning experiences rooted in the principles of game design. She is also Co-Founder and Chief Designer of Connected Camps.

An introduction

I was trained at RISD as a graphic designer, and then right out of grad school I started teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in the Communication Design Department. That coincided with the rise of the internet, so I immediately began teaching courses on Interactive Design, which I had never studied, and in fact there wasn't really curriculum around that stuff up to that point. But I was really interested in the aesthetics of interactivity, how people make meaning in the world - how they make sense of things, choices they make to approach sense-making. For me, design was always for me about interrogating that space, and interactive design was an even better space to think about that because here was somewhere you were designing choice.


On games as systems

Games are incredibly explicit about how they are designed for interaction and the choices they ask of players. Their systems must be absolutely clear from the moment you start to play, or the player will leave them. So games have this huge investment in being very clear and articulate and engaging.

© Katie Salen

On learning from games

I've always talked about being interested in games not for the sake of making them - though I do like to make them - but for what games can teach us about the design of other kinds of systems. The ways that games speak about play can teach us how to approach things that aren't games at all.


On the function of play

For me the most compelling thing about play is not that the sort of aesthetic piece of it, but it's actually a state of mind. People who have studied play for a long time, they talk about this idea - an idea that comes from the Dutch philosopher Johann Huizinga. It's only a sentence in one of his books, but he talks about this thing called the "magic circle," and he said that when one is at play, it is as if you step into a space that is separate and apart from the real world. A space in which a different set of rules count, where you're able to be free and do things in a certain way, and things have very different meanings than in the real world. They say that there is actually a change in physiology that happens. Play is a state of mind.


An invitation to play

Play is a voluntary activity; people choose to do it. So how does one develop an invitation to play? What are the kinds of experiences that you create for someone that moves someone across that threshold from being outside the magic circle to inside it? Of course the circle is a very flickery space, it's not like there's a hard boundary; you're constantly moving back and forth being between being in the circle and outside of the circle as you're playing. As a designer, you have to think about how you bring someone into that circle, and how you keep them there. What is the engagement experience you are developing for them, and can they continue to maintain that mindset, grow it, develop it? And then how do you allow them to ease out of it? Games have this mechanic where when you reach a goal, the game is over. The moment when the magic circle kind of dissolves.

© Katie Salen

On potential for play

Simpler systems often lead to very complex and interesting things. So whenever I'm working, I try to remember that: don't over design it; simplify so that you are really getting to the heart of what is going to compel someone to make a leap conceptually.


Bringing people together

Play is at its most profound when it deals with the social dimension. For a long time, board games were things that people, even families, did together as a kind of social lubricant. It gave people an occasion to come together. And because games often transport people into a different kind of space where they might behave in a way that is very different than their normal personality, they give people a chance to socialize, to role play, to try on new ideas and different behaviors. There are games that often deal with really complex issues like diplomacy and risk taking. Or even Spin the Bottle, a classic example of forbidden play, a genre of game that's really important for teenagers that gives permission to a certain kind of behavior.


On the community of play

Today, in the world of people that design (mostly digital) games, what you say you're designing is not the product (the game), but the community that's going to grow up around the game. When people play a game, they're going to tell somebody what happened. People carry those stories, and have conversations with other people. If it's a game they'll play again, people nurture their strategies, read about it. Games are one of these things that people want to get better at. There's also a thing called a meta game that refers to all the play that happens in and around the game other than the game itself. What happens between sessions of play? What happens before? How do you prepare? What do you take away? From a design perspective, you're always trying to think about designing for all of those different spaces - that's where the life of the game lives.

Read all the interviews on Play

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