A Veteran Video Game Designer on Why We Play
Eric Zimmerman believes that as games become a more accepted part of popular culture, designers will need to encode the values we want in their products
Eric Zimmerman has been at the forefront of game design for 25 years, designing video as well as tabletop games and large-scale game installations. He is a co-founder and CEO of Gamelab, a computer game development company that created the best-selling downloadable game Diner Dash. Now a professor at the New York University Game Center, Zimmerman has written extensively about the importance of play and believes that computer games are not only a fundamental part of contemporary culture, but may also provide some solutions to the most pressing issues we face today.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OneZero: You have studied play extensively. What makes it so valuable?
Eric Zimmerman: I see playing as a fundamentally social, creative, and cultural activity. For me, any game and play are like image-making, story-telling, or playing music. It’s a fundamental human activity, something that’s almost biological and definitely cultural. It’s about meaning and signification, about personal expression, and it’s culturally and historically specific.
It’s true that playing is good for brain and social development, but as a designer, I want people to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of play. If we say that something is only valuable because it facilitates something else — a vehicle for cognitive development or for learning how to win or lose — it cheapens that thing. Gamification or instrumentalizing games can leave the soul of the activity behind. Playing is meaningful in itself. It doesn’t need a justification.
Interacting with systems is part of being literate in an industrialized country, which allows us to create meaning.
What’s happening in games?
There is a big range of things we may call games, from the narrative video games to poker or fighting games. There are…