Sunday, August 10, 2014

Game design lessons from my high school days in Don Bosco

I often hear the argument that the things we learn in school are virtually useless in adult professional life.

From bewildered schoolboys wondering to themselves about the practical value of knowing the precise location of iron ore deposits in Bihar to self-styled reformers ranting about the outdated and archaic education system, there seems to be a prevailing opinion in modern society that our school system, outside of teaching basic language and arithmetic skills, offers nothing that will prepare young boys and girls for the trying times when they have to be actually productive.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Today, I make games for a living. I use several skills I learned in school on a daily basis. And, on the rare occasion, even things like language, math, science and history come in handy. However, the lessons that are most useful are those that I learned while playing all manner of games in school - both inside and outside the classroom.

Of course, I am not referring to the major 'mainstream' sports and games that gave us celebrities of the stature of Vijay Amritraj and Vishy Anand - men so famous that even Maria Sharapova would have no trouble identifying them if suddenly asked by a sneaky reporter.

I am referring to the lesser known, non world-famous but immeasurably more Kvlt games that took up so much of our time - Crocker, Conquering The Land, Battleships and several others that didn't even have names, but I fondly remember as "tear the other guy's pocket", "crawl behind the other guy and then have a friend push him over" and the evergreen favourites, "Kumaraswamy / Chinnaswamy Wars".

Crocker, of course, needs no introduction here. A game characterised by the fundamental tenet of "No waits in Crocker" made it a game of frantic pace and non-stop excitement - leading to the modern proverb "Time, tide and cocker players wait for no man". K.Srikkanth, deprived of the time to conduct his bizarre rituals between deliveries, would have failed miserably at it. Lalit Modi would have hated the game's pacing which leaves little or no time for ad breaks. Probably just as well it has never caught on as a spectator sport. The game design lesson here? Adding a single mechanic (time pressure) can make a formulaic game immeasurably more fun.

"Conquering The Land" was another interesting game design, come to think of it. It remains fairly unique in that it combines the traditional board game mechanic of capturing territory on a board with the more physical, schoolboyish activities of running, stretching and throwing sharp sticks at one another. Excellent idea - combine cerebral and physical skills to create a game that can only be won by players who have both. It's the same thought process that probably led to the development of Chessboxing. (Never heard of it? Shame on you)

My memories of school are also littered with enjoyable sessions of indoor games played during class. Notably, the old pen and paper classic, Battleships (later made into, for some reason, a film staring Rihanna). While the short-sighted may perceive this as mischievous and irresponsible behaviour, in fact I was acquiring crucial life skills - such as finding a way to entertain myself while looking reasonably industrious during boring sessions where other people talk about things I did not really understand or care about. This serves me extremely well today in the numerous meetings I am forced to attend with execs and other business-types who will give any history, geography or science teacher a run for their money in boring people to the point of death.

There were several others - a scouts game called "message relay" which combined the charms of Chinese Whispers with the thrill of the 100 metre dash with amusing results, assorted pen and paper games in which the chief skill was "firing" a pencil across a paper gameboard by flicking it with your forefinger, and amazingly imaginative "paper video games", ingenious game designs that used folded paper to create a gameboard on which you could "control" a small paper ball by pressing down to tilt the board. All imaginative game designs which I enjoyed very much and are possibly the reason I became a game designer. That and the small fact that I never finished a college degree and hence had very limited choices.

See? I did learn things in school that directly helps me in my career today. In addition to all the great stuff that was in the textbooks. 

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