Playing With Design


Several weeks ago, the most successful entertainment product of all time launched — earning a whopping $725 million during its three-day opening weekend. Was this a new Marvel or Star Wars movie? No. It was, perhaps surprisingly, the launch of Rockstar Entertainment’s newest videogame Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), a Westworld like simulation of a seemingly alive Western world.  

The game itself, drawing on numerous westerns for inspiration, is a sprawling narrative built around the concept of identity. Naturally, there is plenty of violence in the game, but every choice of violence comes with significant consequences for the player. Morality, and how the user constructs a sense of morality, is a centerpiece of the game and the narrative.  Giving the user such free reign to construct the narrative is perhaps the game’s greatest feat.  

To produce such a world, the production took seven years and a team of 1,000 developers, artists, designers, and writers (and a budget of likely over $250 million). The script for the main story alone – excluding the numerous other scripted elements in the game – runs an astounding 2,000 pages. The game is truly a marvel of design.

Perhaps the most interesting element of all, though, is the idea of “play” that RDR2 evokes. Obviously video game designers design with the idea of “play” in mind, in terms of having fun. However, there is another important element of play which RDR2 brings to mind. That is, play not in terms necessarily of having fun, but “play” by the user in actively experimenting with the product to create new meanings out of it than what was either intended or originally thought possible. RDR2 is essentially a designed morality platform that users can experiment with to design their own experiences. It is open for new designs to be layered on top of it.

There are other examples in design. Legos are another platform of “play” that allows users to continually create new meanings out of the product. Music sampling is another important example. As digital platforms proliferate, and as digital experiences become increasingly nuanced, it’s natural to wonder how other experiences can be designed to engage the user as a creator and not merely a consumer. 


Greg VanderPol