The Joys of Birding

Today I want to discuss something a little unusual for a game design blog: bird watching.

The long-billed curlew, one of the majestic birds from Birds of a Feather.

The long-billed curlew, one of the majestic birds from Birds of a Feather.

Before you immediately close the tab, let me explain why you might care. My next game, Birds of a Feather, was designed after I thought carefully about why I enjoy birding. I broke down the activity in terms of how people enjoy it, then thought about how to convert some of those joys into a card game. I found this method to be extremely valuable, and you might benefit from it if you want to make games inspired by other hobbies. And, because I was abstract in the way I thought about the activity, the resulting game could have been themed in any number of ways (though I ultimately stuck with the initial inspiration, bird watching).

So join me as I pick apart why anyone would ever enjoy birding, and then explain how I put some of those pieces back together to create an original card game.

Before we delve into how birding is fun, birding is a hobby in which people try to see or hear birds, often aided by binoculars. It usually involves creating lists. If you’d like to know more, the wikipedia entry is fascinating.

Pulling it Apart

Collecting. I’ve written a lot about fun abstractly. One type of fun that I initially missed is collecting. People love to collect all sorts of things, and collecting, in the form of creating lists, is a central part of birding. In many ways, lists act as score sheets, with the goal being to see as many different birds as possible. And just like with all collections, there are many, many possible items to collect with a scaling level of difficulty to make it easy to start collecting, but challenging to complete one. And working towards finishing a collection offers both great short term and long term objectives.

Knowledge. There are more than 800 different bird species in North America alone, each with a unique appearance, song, habitat, and lifestyle. Just like sports fans enjoy knowing an endless stream of statistics, many birders enjoy amassing a huge wealth of knowledge about their chosen subject.

Community. There are many kinds of joys from interacting with other people, and birding provides many of them. You’ll meet new people, collaborate, compete, brag, and even experience a little schadenfreude when you see a rare bird that your friend missed. Note that other sources of joy on this list, like knowledge and randomness, contribute to community by providing lots of information and news to share.

Challenge. If I were to pick a genre for a digital birding game, my choice would probably surprise you: first person shooter. Most people picture older people birding and hyper-aggressive males playing first person shooters, but the skills needed for both activities are remarkably similar. You must use all of your senses to find a camouflaged target, then keep a steady hand as the target frantically moves around in cover. The only thing missing is pulling the trigger. But there are other challenges to keep you busy instead, like paying attention to subtle details to help you distinguish between similar species.

Of course, there are many other types of challenges when it comes to birding, like identifying a bird, which is effectively solving a puzzle. But my point here is there is a lot more skill than most people realize. This not only gives you abilities to improve (like stats in a role playing game), it can lead to moments of flow, one of the most enjoyable experiences known to humanity.

Some of the more impressive locations birding has brought me.

Some of the impressive locations birding has brought me.

Exploring. Once you’ve seen all the birds in your neighborhood, you quickly learn that there are a huge variety still to see… if you’re willing to get out and find them. Birds live in all habitats, and you’ll find yourself exploring many to complete your collections. And just like discovering new levels and worlds in games is rewarding, exploring amazing places in the real world brings great joy as well.

Anticipation. If you’re familiar with behaviorism, you know that one of the most effective motivators is a variable reward structure, where you never know when you’re going to get a treat. This leads to anticipation and suspense, and is used by many games, from Magic to Diablo. Here, a little randomness can go a long way. With birding, every time you walk outside there’s a chance you’ll see something rare, which makes every walk that much more thrilling.

Beauty. Last but not least, we come to aesthetic beauty. From the amazing plumage to the breathtaking landscapes to the impressive behavior, there’s a lot to admire when you’re birding. And it can leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, just like the graphics in the latest digital game or the awesome components of a new board game.

Putting it Together

So how did I turn that list into a fun, simple card game? Before we get there, let’s discuss a couple of things I didn’t do.

First, I didn’t try to simulate birding. Many aspiring designers conflate “simulation” and “game”, and I think that’s a big mistake, as I’ve discussed before. Many games involve simulations, but a good simulation does not make a good game. My goal was to use the abstract types of fun birding creates as the design goals of a new experience, not to recreate an old one.

Second, I didn’t try to recreate all of the types of fun birding causes. I’m sure a game exists that creates all of those kinds of fun, but it’s not the type of game I want to make. I prefer simple, more streamlined games, which means I have to choose carefully what I include.

It was easy to eliminate some of the items on the list. Dexterity games have their place, and maybe one day I’ll create a twitchy digital bird watching game, but that’s not the sort of card game I want to make. Similarly, while many games have huge catalogs of information for players to learn, that tends to make them less accessible, limiting their audience.

Players fill in lists like this over the course of a game of Birds of a Feather.

Players fill in lists like this over the course of a game of Birds of a Feather.

In the end, I wanted the game to focus on collecting. Not only is that one of the most fun parts of birding for me, it offers a great central structure to a game, giving players clear goals.

While collecting ended up being the main type of fun in Birds of a Feather, many of the other types make appearances as well. Exploring in the game is simple, but determines which birds you collect on your journey. And while almost all multiplayer games incorporate some community fun, Birds emphasizes collaboration, as players help each other see rare birds (sometimes unwittingly!).

Anticipation from randomness comes pretty much free in any card game, but Birds of a Feather once again emphasizes community by letting the players mitigate randomness: your hands are random, but players determine the order in which they play their cards.

And finally, we have beauty. This is something I sadly cannot provide myself, but I’m lucky to know a lot of very talented artists, among them my brother Trevor, who is not only an amazing artist but is also about to earn his PhD in biology studying migratory birds.

Other Activities

I can’t tell you how happy I am with Birds of a Feather. Everything has really fallen into place with the game. It feels fresh, unique, accessible, and above all really fun.

If this approach worked for bird watching, why can’t it work for other activities? I believe it can. Off the top of my head, a few hobbies that are ripe for consideration: rock climbing, playing music in a band, cooking, ceramics, gardening. Remember, I’m not suggesting making a game about those activities, I’m suggesting analyzing those activities to understand what makes them fun, then trying to create simple games to achieve those same types of enjoyment.

And of course, that is just a quick list! I encourage you to think about some of your other hobbies or favorite pastimes. Or even better, think about a loved one’s hobbies… maybe you’ll start to understand that person better! Either way, you never know when a little introspection will uncover unexpected new insights into human psychology!

By the way, want to see what I’m raving about when it comes to Birds of a Feather? Drop me a line (teale |at| nothingsacredgames |dot| com or @nothingsacredg) and I’d be happy to share a print and play with you!

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