I am not a Game Designer

The beginning of the academic year always is a pretty brutal time at my job… I point this out because I find myself reading more than writing these days, and only reading when I’m waiting for an elevator in the library…

But recently, I read an old piece that was posted by a Facebook friend – and it was a quality piece by Chuck Wending about how Aspiring Writers need to stop Aspiring. And I don’t disagree with his message. You wanna be a writer? You gotta write. It really is that simple.

Here’s where I pull up short though. Just because you write does not make you a writer. Feel free to disagree. Maybe I don’t like myself enough. Maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I’m too practical-minded and I’m too aware of the academic editorial model…

But I gotta say, I’ve published story I got paid for, published a few I didn’t, have proposals out there right now that I’m waiting to hear back from, gotten rejection letters, and I write all the time. But I don’t call myself a writer. My take is this – If I’m only writing for myself – I’m not a writer. If I don’t have a clear audience that is actually wanting my stories – I’m not a writer. If I can’t pass the bar of editorial review to get published – I’m not a writer. I’m just someone who writes for fun. I am – in fact – an Aspiring Writer. I’m doing the work, I’m writing and trying to find outlets for that work but I am not a writer.

It’s the same thing with game design. I respect the hell out of game designers, just like I do writers. Mr. Wendig’s magic bullet of envy that he mentions is certainly always lurking, though I’ve mostly gotten over that through the years and I can be genuinely envious in a good way of the work of game designers. There are a lot of pretty cool games out right now. Without meaning to I’ve started to morph into a fan of Fantasy Flight’s new Star Wars game – Edge of Empire. I loved reading Numenera and think it is almost perfect (still not a fan of the difficulty system). And there are so many great small press games I read this summer – like Dungeon World for example.

Don’t get me wrong – I love this stuff and read way too many games to be good for me. I also create. I’ve written two games – they live on my downloads page. Both are playable, serviceable games that I’ve enjoyed the heck out of even as I know in my heart that they are far from perfect. But I will never call myself a game designer. I read on another blog a while back – not even sure who it was now, this part just stuck with me – that the writer there was designing and churning out simple games as a way of building a resume. For me that would have been a face palm moment if we’d been talking in person. Don’t get me wrong – the guy can do whatever he wants, but just writing a game does not make you a game designer.

Review, play, enjoyment, and the validation of creating something that sticks are (to me) vital measurements of whether or not you’ve earned the right to call yourself a game designer. You can call yourself an aspiring game designer if you feel it, you can call yourself a hobbyist or an amateur if it makes you happy. Heck – forget it – call yourself a game designer if you like. But I won’t.

I got involved in this discussion at a con a while back and I run into this conversation all the time with artists, gamers, etc. What “qualifies” you to be an Author or a Musician? Is self-publishing really publishing? (I’m not making a judgment call on that one – just saying it comes up). Do only the guys working for WoTC, or Green Ronin, or Catalyst get to call themselves game designers? And if so, why?

I don’t personally “get” his stuff, but I certainly think someone like James Raggi gets to call himself a game designer, for example.

But despite 30 years in the hobby, despite writing and “publishing” two games, despite a lifetime of tinkering and creating new bits… don’t call me a game designer. I’m happy to continue apsiring.

How about you? Am I crazy? Am I wrong? Do I spend too much time around academics? You tell me.

Thanks for reading.


9 responses

  1. I have so many different thoughts about this, all unprintable. Just imagine a too long conversation over a couple of beers.

    But here’s this: There is a great freedom in being a dedicated amateur.

    1. Heh. I hear you. I have no problem with being a dedicated amateur – that’s pretty much what I think and how I see myself. But I don’t want to ever confuse that with saying to someone – I’m a game designer(!) just because I posted a couple of amateur works on my downloads page.

  2. I think that every such ambition–writer, game designer, artist–is less of a merit badge (You’ve reached this point, you gain this title.) and more of a path.

    I majored in philosophy (lol). I noticed, once I started to take 300 and 400 level classes, and the number of students in each began to dwindle, professors stopped addressing us so much as students and more as colleagues. Junior colleagues who needed to be spoken to very slowly, but colleagues. In passing, students at this level (i.e. students who had chosen to pursue philosophy as a goal, and weren’t just taking it for an easy humanities credit) were referred to as “philosophers.”

    That’s why I have no problem calling myself a writer and game designer. So far I’ve received only a pittance of money for performing those tasks, and it was a long time ago. I have no real contacts, or clear path towards profitability. Actually being able to support myself on these skills is a pipe dream. But I am a writer. I am a game designer. Because those are the things that I do.

    tl;dr I made bad decisions in college and call myself a writer because it requires very little proof, and makes me feel better about myself.

    But seriously, the first thing. >.>

    1. I’ve had a similar grad school experience, the transition from student to junior colleague. And it’s a respectable journey.

      We all encounter the “imposter” syndrome from time to time and I certainly don’t want to put that out there as how I feel about this. But ultimately – at the end of our journey to naming ourselves, we reached different conclusions.

      I certainly don’t want to say you can’t call yourself a writer – and I never intend to say that an endgame has to be making a living with game design. I just see a lot of creative people who are toiling hard (and some who are not) who grant themselves a status before I would personally (for myself) feel it deserved.

      Again, could just be me.

  3. I am with you on this, as many other things. I see a distinction between what I enjoy doing, what I want to do, and what I actually contribute to the community around me. I work in education and my students learn. That makes me an educator. The things I do for myself or my circle of friends and acquaintances are just the pinstripes in my suit~

    1. I lack a clear professional identity. My “job title” is not the same as what I’d actually tell people I do when asked. It frustrates me at times – but who is always happy with their day job?

      So yeah – I see what I do for myself to be one thing… and then there are other things.

  4. I can’t comment on your sanity, because I don’t know you. But I think you sell yourself short. I read Chuck’s post a while back when I first discovered his blog. And I started reading it as an “aspiring writer.”

    Then, as now, I have clients, I write and they pay me… I’m a ghostwriter. But I’m not published, in the traditional sense. I questioned whether I was a “real” writer or not.

    Somewhere in an email or on the comments from that post, I got a reply from Chuck. “You write, you are a writer.” By the end of that day, I was no longer an aspiring writer. I was…and am…a writer.

    Aspiring writers are not writing. They are writing about writing, or about not writing. Or they’re reading about writing or talking about writing. But they are not actually writing anything. No words are produced.

    Just because you’re writing for an audience of one doesn’t make you less of a writer. It only gives you less of a readership.

    1. I appreciate the reply. And I don’t have a beef with Chuck Wendig’s post – I think he’s spot on… the only way to “be a writer” is to write.

      I add that layer of aspiring in between a person toiling away at their writing and a Writer mainly because there are plenty of us who are writing every day but we are not Writers. It may seem counter-intuitive but as I initially mentioned, my own biases lie with the value of editorial review and a “living” audience.

      Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t want to imply that anyone working hard to be better at something (writing or game design) isn’t doing a good thing for themselves. I just have a different mental standard for what it means to decide to label yourself with a title. I think my problem is at that level – that you are making the choice yourself – without external validation of any sort. To me, that way lies delusion.

      You may not actually get the byline but you are a working writer who provides a valuable service and have a clear value attached to your work – personally and professionally. You don’t label yourself a writer – you are one.

      For me, writing for an audience of one (or ten if they are your friends or your writing group) just doesn’t qualify.

      Man I hope that was at all clear…

  5. I think I mentally crossed the line for myself the moment someone outside my individual circle of friends and family members actually purchased a game I created. Suddenly I allowed myself to assume the role (and take on the moniker) of professional game designer (among other related things.) For some reason actually receiving money for a product I’d created seemed to seal the deal for me.

    That said, I think a lot of the issue you raise lies in the nebulousness of being an amateur game designer/developer/creator and a professional.

    Can those WotC guys call themselves professionals? Sure.
    Are their products any better designed than some of the amateurs in my estimation? Not at all.
    Does that make said amateur any less worthy to call herself a game designer? Part of me says no, but admittedly part isn’t so sure.

    I really want the answer to be as simple as: I design games, therefore I am a game designer. And yet, something I can’t wrap my brain around seems to be holding me back from making that leap.

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