Defining Risk in Game Play

I’ve been trying to learn about games lately and talking to folks who are game designers or serious players. Last night I told a game designer that I want to create a game that rewards creative risk-taking. This designer responded, “It would be best if you let the players define risk.” That was deep!

As a design educator (industrial design, not game design), I’ve taught creativity and creative risk-taking in a variety of ways over the past ten years. One of the biggest challenges is to find the sweet spot on a spectrum between prescriptive and descriptive instruction. Too prescriptive and the student or player doesn’t take risks or do much of their own creating. Too descriptive and the student or player gets frustrated and abandons the exercise.

Another challenge is that different players have different tolerances for descriptive instruction. In design school, we graduate students once had a project in which our professor directed us to design something with “A Sense of Garden.” That was it. No further instruction. The project ran for 15 weeks! But my fellow students and I rolled with it, because design students are asked to do this kind of thing over and over until it becomes second nature. However, it’s hard for me to imagine engineering students being happy with this kind of instruction.

Which makes perfect sense. Engineers design bridges and if a bridge fails, the consequences are pretty drastic. People die and get hurt and the engineer may lose her  job or worse.

But do risk-averse people have to be risk-averse in every situation? Are some risk-averse folks irrationally projecting their fear of failure onto every decision they are faced with? If so, how might a game help them?

Perhaps, in addition to a player being able to see where her personality falls on a “prescriptive-descriptive” spectrum, I think there also has to be a way to see where the risk of specific situations fall. There are situations in which taking risks are okay even if you are a person who doesn’t like risk, such as in brainstorming. The outcome of a brainstorm is ideas. Most of the ideas go nowhere, so we might as well take a risk and come up with some crazy ideas. Brainstorming is a situation in which taking risks yields better results.

The game designer’s suggestion is probably right, I need to let the player create their own definition of risk. However, I feel that I should  design something that helps players create that definition. The definition will have two parts. One definition for their personal tolerance for risk; the other definition tied to specific situations.

What do you think?

UPDATE: link to version 2.0. If you play it, let me know how it goes!


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