On brooms, screw drivers, DJs, and voided warranties

There’s been some discussion about game design and play on Twitter recently, and my name was briefly invoked. So, as a public service to all, I figured I’d write up this blog post to discuss my views. Also, I’ve not really written here much of late, and it’s nice to have something to say.

So, I’m going to talk about design. Not game design per se, but general principles of design. Or, rather, general principles about the relationship between the designer and the user, as mediated by the thing that the designer has made.

Here’s a simple example. A designer creates a broom to fulfill the purpose “enable the user to sweep the floor”. He selects a shape for the broom, chooses the materials, and lays out how to assemble the materials into the broom. I buy the broom and use it to sweep my floor. Voila! I’m using the broom in a way that matches the intentions of the designer of enabling the user (me!) to sweep the floor.

But then (to pick a totally hypothetical example) something falls behind the stove. Because of the way that it’s wedged into the counter, I can’t really pull out the stove. So I grab a couple of brooms and use their handles like giant chopsticks to retrieve the item that is behind the stove. In this case, I’m still using the broom, but it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly in accord with the intentions of the designer.

What happened in the second example? It’s simple, really. While designing the broom, the designer gave it certain attributes (such as “a long handle”) with the intent that these attributes would allow the broom to fulfill the purpose for the broom (“enable the user to sweep the floor”). However, many of those attributes can also be applied to other purposes (like the “enable the user to retrieve a stuffed animal from behind the stove” purpose).

This isn’t controversial. Repurposing is something that we do all the time.[1] If you’ve ever pried open a can of paint with a screw driver, scratched your back on the edge of a wall, used a newspaper to kill a fly, or stood on a chair to reach a high shelf, then you’ve repurposed a designed item.

In fact, this sort of repurposing is simply an act of design. Usually it’s improvisational, but that doesn’t make it any less an act of design.

So, where does the original designer fit into all this?

This is where my concept of a “voided warranty” comes into play.[2] When I repurpose something, I am moving away from the design work done by the original designer. That’s all well and good. However, it is unfair to then hold the original designer responsible for my design work. After all, he was designing with a different purpose in mind. By tinkering with his design, I’ve “voided the warranty” of the design. The responsibility for making it work now rests with me.

For example, I really struggled to use the two broom handles to retrieve the stuffed animal from behind the stove. But it never occurred to me to blame the original designer of the two brooms I was using. When I repurposed the brooms, they temporarily ceased to be instances of broom design and became an instance of man-sized chopstick design by myself. At that point, any blame for the poor quality of the tool rested squarely on myself. After all, it was my design that was being used at this point, not our distant industrial designer.

And this is how I approach game design. There is nothing holy in the received rules of a game. If you want to tinker, go ahead! The rules of a game are ultimately whatever the group agrees to. Consider all the house rules for Monopoly (and despair). Or, for that matter, all the potential optional rules for Dungeons & Dragons. There’s plenty of room for individual acts of design within a given gaming group.

However, once you begin to tinker, the game that you are playing is now your design, not the original designer’s. As such, you are responsible for making it work. And, if that makes you happy, then far be it from me to stop you. Enjoy your designing career![3]

[1] In fact, being the postmodern kinda guy that I am, I’ll note that the act of making the broom in the first place is itself an example of repurposing. After all, isn’t the designer selecting materials that have pre-existing attributes and then utilizing those attributes in new ways?

[2] As an aside, I’m pretty sure that I picked up on this phrasing from someone else, but I don’t remember who.

[3] There’s a related debate in RPG circles on “playing the game as written” versus “making the game your own”. I see these as two different design philosophies, similar to the portrayed philosophies of Apple vs. Linux. The design aesthetic of Apple is that “everything just works”. The user is sheltered from as many of the details as possible, in order to allow for an elegant experience. In contrast, the design aesthetic of Linux seems to be “make everything open” to allow for maximum hackage. Is either correct? Can’t they both be correct?


One response to “On brooms, screw drivers, DJs, and voided warranties

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Oh, I’m laughing at myself because I wrote an outline for this post which included a short discussion of scratch DJs and the practice of sampling. Then I accidentally overwrote that portion of my outline and proceeded to forget that portion of the discussion. But “DJ” still ended up in my title.

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