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Interview with Scott Nicholson, Professor of Game Design and Development

Scott NicholsonThere’s a lot to be learned from studying games. Some researchers go beyond what makes a game good or bad. Instead, they examine what it is about games that compels us to want to engage with them. What is it about the structure, content, or activity of games that drives us to them? Scott Nicholson (SN) is such a researcher. As Professor of Game Design and Development and Director of the Brantford Games Network and the BGNlab, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada, it’s fair to say he knows a few things about games. He’s now setting his sights on the concept of “Play”, and he graciously lent Controlled Area Gaming some time to answer a few questions.

CAG: What is the concept of “Play” you’re exploring at the moment?

SN: Play is a word that has many definitions. We talk about playing games, so I can understand there might be confusion with the concept of introducing more play into games. Play is best thought of as comprised of many aspects, and for today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on one of those aspects.

When we play, an important part of playing is the concept of boundaries. A pocket definition I carry around for the term play is that it is the freedom to explore within boundaries. So, when we play a game, we are allowing ourselves to explore a space, and the rules are providing those boundaries. Our social contract with each other is that we will stay within that space and won’t cheat by breaking those boundaries. If we are interacting with each other within those boundaries, then we can do things to each other (such as lie) within the magic circle of the game space that we normally wouldn’t do outside of the game.

What I want to focus on today is the concept of free play. Free play is different from games in that the players are encouraged to create their own boundaries and change those boundaries to make the play more interesting. It’s the difference between placing meeples on the board when playing the game of Carcassonne, and playing with your meeples when it’s not your turn. In both cases, you are taking meeples and putting them down somewhere, but in the game, you are following the boundaries set by the rules. In front of you, you can place them however you would like. You might decide to give yourself the boundary of only allowing one to touch the table while the rest are stacked up high, or to create something symmetrical, or create a narrative between different meeples in your head. This is free play – you are creating the boundaries for yourself, and then exploring that space with those boundaries.

We engage with free play easily as children, but as we grow older, we are less comfortable with the idea and prefer to play within the boundaries that someone else provides. As I learned about these concepts when studying play theory to write about gamification, I thought about how we could bring more free play into board game design. I also have explored using it in assignment design for my teaching, but that’s a discussion for another place.

CAG: How does this relate to designing games?

SN: A key element of free play is that the designer has to give some of the control of the game to the players. The reality is that players always have control of tabletop games – if some rule or some aspect isn’t enjoyable for a player group, they can change it! The social contract for board gamers is that we play by the rules (or the interpretation the one person who read the rules came up with) for a full game, but then afterwards, some groups are willing to explore adjusting the rules of the game. Other groups would never consider adjusting the rules, so this is where the concept of the social contract comes into play.

My inspiration was to add some element of free play to my tabletop designs when possible. This was one of the inspirations behind Going, Going, Gone! The element of that game that most people enjoy is that the players control the pace of the live-time auctions in the game. In the original design, I used a timer for the auctions, as that’s the “proper way” to create a boundary. The game designer tests a variety of timing options and chooses the one that best fits the player experience (then the game publisher prices out timers and finds that the 30 second ones are much cheaper, so then that goes in the box instead…).

When I was thinking about concepts of play and free play, I was inspired to think about what element of the game could I give over to the players to control. I knew from testing that the time allowed for an auction dictated the player experience, so rather than control that aspect of the experience, I decided to let the players make that decision.

Another route I could have gone was to allow players to agree upon a time length for the auctions for the whole game. But I found that different players liked different auction paces – some wanted it slow, which usually results in people bidding more on everything – and others like it chaotically fast, which usually results in cubes flying everywhere and breaking down in laughter. Rather than force the group to decide which experience they will have for the whole game, I decided to let each player have that control for at least one round of play.

What I found is this also introduced a wonderful tension in the game, as the players don’t know what the pace of the auction will be until the auctioneer begins to count. Players have to adjust immediately once they realize the pace of the auction, and this creates more opportunities for players to lose their cool and overbid. As the core experience I wanted to create for Going, Going, Gone! was being at a real auction where people get caught up in the moment and overbid, then this decision moved me closed to that experience.

Now when I make games, I step back and think about what part of the activity I’m willing to let the players control. As the designer, I don’t have to dictate every aspect of the player experience – if players have the ability to control some of their own experience, then players are more likely to enjoy the game.

CAG: What first drew you to exploring this aspect of game design?

SN: The person most responsible for opening my eyes to the importance of play is Bernie DeKoven. I would encourage anyone wanting to think more deeply about this to explore Bernie’s work at His writings on the topics of fun and play have been an inspiration to me as a designer.

When I was a visiting professor at MIT, I was studying gamification, which is the use of game-based elements to motivate someone to engage with something that isn’t a game. I was quite bothered by the primary approach to gamification, which was adding extrinsic rewards like points and levels to something, so I was exploring why that was problematic and coming up with my own model of meaningful gamification. The goal of meaningful gamification is to help someone build their own internal reasons for wanting to engage with something through playful and gameful design. If this is successful, then people will be more likely to continue that behavior for a longer time.

One of the six elements of meaningful gamification is play, where you give someone the freedom to co-create boundaries and explore something on their own volition. Play has to be optional to be play, so if someone is forced to play a game (such as with game-based assessment in schools), then it’s no longer a game – it’s a simulation.

As I thought about the difference between play and games, I found myself wanting to engage with games in a more playful way. This then inspired me to think about ways to give players that freedom to play in the boundaries I created in a board game. The reality is that the players and designer are co-creating the player experience when a game is played; I’m choosing to give more of that responsibility to the player.

CAG: Are there any games available right now that you feel are using the concept of Play well? Are roleplaying games more suitable for integrating this?

SN: Part of the popularity of the Legacy series of games is that they incorporate playful design by allowing the players to co-create aspects of the experience. Writing on the board and cards, naming things, and using stickers to change the game boundaries empowers players to create a play experience more to their liking. Now, this can result in some game worlds that don’t thematically make sense, as Ramboh, Hairy Potter, and Doowhat Itellya work together to stop the horrific spread of Better Dead than Red, but if that’s the experience the players want to create, then the Legacy games allow that.

One of the reasons that Dominion is popular is that it allows the group to create their own play experience based upon the types of cards they choose to use in the game. This is another way to bring in concepts of free play into games, where you let the players co-create the experience with the designer.

Another playful activity in games where the designer creates a space for players to then explore are games that encourage and require lying and cheating. Social deduction games like Werewolf or the delightful Cheating Moth create spaces where players do things that normally would not be allowed in games. The design of the games creates a space and the players are expected to push against typical game norms and explore new spaces.

This is where board games cross the line into roleplaying games. Tabletop RPGs can allow for a free play experience, or they can be a tactical miniatures battle with little free play. I would encourage anyone wanting to explore where RPGs are going to look at the indie RPG movement. Apocalypse World and Dungeon World share a system where the players co-create the world with the gamemaster. The Quiet Year has players working together to create a map of a region, and tell the story through the location in which the story is set. Fiasco is a three hour one-shot GMless roleplaying game based around exploring the relationships between characters more so than the characters themselves. There are amazing risks being taken in the indie RPG space, and it’s catapulting our understanding of what an RPG can be in a way we aren’t seeing in any other form of game development at the moment.

CAG: Allowing for Play in a game seems to open up the possibilities. Doesn’t this mean more rules are needed?

SN: It may require more rules, or different types of rules. In Going, Going, Gone!, the game would have been simpler if it had a timer. As it is, I have to have guidelines for behavior of the auctioneer – the counting has to be at a steady pace, and there are specific words that need to be used when doing the counting, and someone has to manually end the auction when the counting is complete. (One version of the game that was tested was with a mechanical device that would snap closed at the end of the auction.)

As the game designer, you have to create the space with boundaries and tools for the players to use to explore the space. Not only does this mean more rules, but this also means more testing! You need to test with many different types of people to see in what ways people bend your boundaries and when they break out of your space. Sometimes those breakouts can be great and inspirational, and sometimes they help you realize you need to confine the space a little more.

It means that as a designer, you are creating a system instead of a rule for a situation. Instead of developing the one rule to dictate something, you are creating a small rule system that, when explored, will generate something that will then work with the rest of the game.

CAG: Do you feel the business of game design and publication gets in the way of integrating certain concepts into games?

SN: When I talk about the health of the games industry, I compare the top 10 video games to the top 10 board games. Almost every game in the top 10 video game lists has a number at the end of it. The AAA industry is quite unhealthy, as the studios require each game to sell so many copies that taking risks on new franchises is not worth it for most of them. On the other hand, the list of the top 10 board games for a year has very few sequels. If I look at the BoardGamegeek GeekBuzz from Essen 2016, there are two sequels out of 10 games. Conversely, if I look at the top 10 selling video games from September 2016, there are three games that are not sequels (although two of the three are Collections of previously released games). Only one, Overwatch, is a unique title. The effect of this is that the AAA video game design industry is stagnant, and there are no signs of improvement.

What I fear is the board game industry moving toward the AAA console market model. We see more publishers creating sequels, expansions, and new versions of older titles. Up to now, there are more new concepts coming into the industry than retreads of existing work, and I hope the industry continues in that way.

I would like to see tabletop game designers consider more deeply the learning outcomes their games could provide, even as a recreational game. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a great example of what can happen when a game designer has a goal of helping players understand a real-life situation while they play a recreational game. Too many board games take an interesting topic and use it as a decorative paint job on top of a game that has players do things that don’t aid in the understanding of that situation. I find that as I’m focused more on making games with real-world outcomes, I get quickly frustrated with games that present themselves with one theme or concept on the surface, but don’t have gameplay that matches the concept.

CAG: Has your research led you to design games for cognitive studies?

SN: At the moment, most of my design work is for games to address specific training or learning needs. Right now, my design focus is more on live-action games, although most of them are designed as games that could be published in a board game format. I’ve been doing a lot of research on escape rooms and Breakout EDU, which is taking the escape room concept into a format appropriate for classrooms. Many people don’t know that my first game publication was as one of the authors of Cthulhu Live, so I have decades of experience with live-action gaming. I’m thrilled to see the rise of escape rooms, as it’s opening up many people to the magic that face-to-face live action games can provide. I recently won the award for Best Non-Digital Game at the Meaningful Play 2016 conference game expo with my Breakout EDU game based on the Canadian election system called Ballot Box Bumble.

This opens up many research paths to understand what methods of live-action games and simulations are better for different learning goals and players. Many escape rooms are focusing on corporate training activities, so I have been creating live-action games designed specifically to teach concepts of teamwork and other common training goals. My research goal is to explore the effectiveness of these games.

I’ve had people ask why I haven’t put out more recreational board games, and it’s because of the Cult of the New effect. A group works for years to put together a board game, it goes out on the market, and most likely is forgotten in a few months as players rush to the next new game. That’s not a good payoff for my design time. If I make an educational game for a museum, that game can run for years and years. A good training game will have an incredibly long life, as the players who need to learn that concept change. As a designer, I would rather create things that are more likely to have a longer lasting impact than to toss something into the river of the New Hotness in our niche world of modern board games.

CAG: Your video series was influential to many video reviewers and bloggers. What do you hope they took away from it?

SN: The message I tried to provide was to encourage people to make up their own minds when deciding if a game was right for them. Over the course of Board Games with Scott, I explored different formats. For a while, I ended with a grade or numerical review, but I stopped doing that, as I found it bothered me to try to affect people’s tastes like that. I didn’t want to be the person saying “Here is the Best New Game, and You must buy it because I said so!” That’s why I always had a message to viewers that they should look for the games that are right for them.

I approached BGWS like a travel show. I see games as designed experiences, which is akin to a travel experience. On a travel show, the host visits the destination, shows some highlights, and works to give the viewer an idea of what the experience would be like to be at that location. BGWS was the same – I wanted to show the viewer around and give them an idea of what the experience would be like to play the game. At the end of a travel show, there might be a few sentences about how great the place is and encouraging people to visit, and I tried to keep my personal review and thoughts about the game to the last few minutes, and downplay that element.

What I regret about the way I did BGWS was not building in a model from the beginning for getting paid for doing the work. This created an expectation of the industry that “someone will make a video for your game for you,” and the most it would cost them would be a free game. Other people followed my model when they started doing videos, and the end result is that most people burn out after a few years of making these time-intensive resources. I have gotten thousands of emails over the years of people telling me that they bought a game because of my review. That benefits the player, as they learned about a game, and the publisher, as they sold a game, but not the person who made the connection. If I could go back in time, I would think differently about the compensation model for these videos, either encouraging the publishers to pay for the video creation (as it what is happening now in Kickstarter) or creating a subscription or advertising model for the consumer to pay for the video content.

All of that said, I have had some great adventures in my life because I did Board Games with Scott. When I would travel around, people would recognize me. Sometimes, that was a little creepy, as they knew more about me than I knew about them. I ended up on regional and national television, and my work drew the attention of the MIT Game Lab. That led to me coming there to talk about board games which then led to me becoming a visiting professor there, which then eventually led to my current position of leading a game design program at a University in Canada. That year at MIT opened up my eyes to what a playful environment could be and helped me to take play seriously, which is what led to today’s discussion!

Professor Scott Nicholson can be found on the web on Twitter @snicholson and Facebook as professor_scott_nicholson


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