Life Design needs a book of lenses, just like the one Game Design has.

by Brooke Allen.

Starting in 2005 as my eldest son was preparing to leave for college, I began asking the question, “What do you have to learn that isn’t taught in school?”

Soon it began to dawn on me that schools don’t teach the really important things. But if they can’t do it, how could it?

Then, in 2011 I read The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. I soon realized that this book showed the way. He posses 100 questions you should ask yourself about the design of your game. He called these questions “lenses” because they let you focus on your design from various vantage points. It was then that I realized that we needed a similar set of questions to ask yourself when designing a life. What follows first appeared here.

Game Design as Life Design

by: Brooke Allen

Jesse Schell has taught game design for ten years at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, founded by Dr. Randy Pausch and Dr. Donald Marinelli. He is a former chairman of the International Game Developer’s Association, and was the lead designer of Disney’s Toontown Online. He is the CEO of Schell Games, the largest game studio in Pennsylvania.

Jesse wrote The Art of Game Design and in it he says “Game design is the act of deciding what a game should be.” The book presents 100 “lenses” which are collections of questions to ask yourself during the design process.

As I read the book, I was reminded of something my artist/businessman father told me, “Everything is about everything.” Even though I am not a game designer, everything in the book seems to apply to some aspect of my life.

Here are a few examples:

From: The Secret of the Gifted (page 6)

You might have noticed that skilled game designers seem to have a special gift for the work. It comes easily and naturally to them, and though you love games, you wonder if you are gifted enough to succeed as a designer. Well, there is a little secret about gifts. There are two kinds. First there is the innate gift of a given skill. This is the minor gift. If you have the gift, a skill such as game design, mathematics, or playing the piano comes naturally to you. You can do it easily, almost without thinking. But you don’t necessarily enjoy doing it. There are millions of people with minor gifts of all kinds, who, though skilled, never do anything great with their gifted skill, and this is because they lack the major gift.

The major gift is love of the work.

From: The Deepest Theming (page 460)

You might think it is easy to listen to yourself. But our subconscious mind holds many secrets. We often do things, and we don’t know why. Why, for instance, is game design very important to you? Do you know? You might think that the time for this kind of self-reflection can come later. But it can’t, because life is very short. In a blink, you will look up, and realize you don’t have any time left. For time destroys everything, takes everything away. Like Poe’s raven, it mocks you, crackling “nevermore” as it glides into the night. You can’t stop it. Your only hope is to do your important work now, while you still can. You must run like death is behind you because death is behind you. Quick – take this lens so you don’t forget.

From: Lens #99: The Lens of the Raven (page 460)

To remember to only work on what is important, ask yourself this question

  • Is making this game worth my time?

From: Lens #100: The Lens of Your Secret Purpose (page 461)

To make sure you are working toward your one true purpose, ask yourself the only question that matters.

  • Why am I doing this?

I wrote to Jesse and asked if I might interview him. Here is an excerpt from my email:

It feels like I can convert your book into a handbook for life by simply doing a global search and replace of “game” with “life.”

So, your new book becomes The Art of Life Design.

Hence, “Life design is the act of deciding what a life should be.”

We’ll need a new word to replace “player” to refer to both you and the people you interact with in your life. For now, I’m going to coin a new definition of the word “lifer’ to mean someone who is committed to playing this game we call life for the duration.

And it seems like a good idea to design one’s own life as a fun one worth living for intrinsic reasons while delivering endogenous value to other lifers who interact with you. You make an excellent case for educating oneself broadly, and for developing the major gift: the love of one’s life work.

Although we start with our genes, we become the sum total of our life experiences, so it is useful to focus on life in terms of the experiences one creates for oneself.

In the interview I’m going to ask you to comment on some of your lenses with these substitutions made. Examples:

#3 Lens of Fun:

Fun is desirable in nearly every life, although fun defies analysis. To maximize your life’s fun, ask yourself:

  • What parts of my life are fun? Why?
  • What parts need to be more fun?

(Are you saying everyone is a lifer and it sure would be a shame to reach the end and say, ‘Boy, that was no fun.’)

#6 Lens of Problem Solving

Think about the problems you must solve to succeed at your life, for every life has problems to solve.

  • What problems does my life ask me to solve?
  • Are there hidden problems to solve that arise as part of lifeplay?
  • How can my life generate new problems so that I keep coming back?

(Are you saying problems are good? A reason for living?)

Anyway, you get the idea. To be honest, I haven’t read the entire book yet, but so far I have not found a single lens that doesn’t apply to Life Design, but I’m sure you are aware of that because I’ve skipped to the end and read your #100: The Lens of Your Secret Purpose.

Why did you write this book?

I think I’ve uncovered your Secret Purpose.

Jesse responded:

Hi Brooke-

Heh — you figured out the secret of the book, all right! … I look forward to talking to you.

The next day I drove to Pittsburgh and interviewed him.

If you have the slightest interest in improving some aspect of your life, be it the amount of fun, meaning, success, profitability, excitement, or even beauty and elegance you experience, then I strongly recommend you buy The Art of Game Design, read it, and then apply what you learn to designing your life. And, if after you read it, you can’t figure out what to do, then give the book to someone who can, and then watch with envy what they make of their life.

After you’ve ordered the book, while you are waiting for delivery, watch excerpts from my interview with Jesse here. He will explain why, “Game design is bigger than all other kinds of design because everything can be part of a game.” You knew this when you were a playful child; now you can relearn it as an adult.


Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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