Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fruits and Knowing

Stefan Feld's Aquasphere

I have had a particular phrase on my mind for a while now — "by their fruits yea shall know them." It's a phrase that is somewhat ancient in origins and shows up in a few books that many people cite as religious scripture. But, my recent interest in the phrase is not religious in nature. I am interested in this idea — that you can know someone by experiencing the things that they design. I'm not entirely convince that this is possible but the idea intrigues me. It is one of a handful of concepts that lie near the core of the research that I am interested in doing (and/or that I have been doing). I just had never really thought of it in these exact terms. The phrase (as I am familiar with it) is so interesting to me because of the many things that it does not say. It does not say — by their fruits you shall recognize or be reminded of or have hints about them. It says by their fruits yea shall know them. I accept it's possible that I am interpreting the phase wrong. It may well  be in this case that "know" is equal to "recognize." But, even so, this idea that you can know someone by the things that they create has stuck in my mind. If it's true then what?

I like examples. So, I will outline one here.

Let's look at the board games of Stefan Feld. He has designed many games that I have played and he is often cited as ... that guy who makes "point salad" games. In these games there are many, many ways to score points (i.e. the point salad). Usually, winning a game designed by Feld requires that you focus heavily on two or three of these point scoring mechanisms without entirely neglecting the other scoring mechanisms. Most Feld games also include a pervasive punishment for neglecting very specific mechanisms. These are design qualities or characteristics that I have become familiar with through playing his games or experiencing his designs. So, what can I know about Stefan Feld by playing his games?

Perhaps he is a person who believes or likes the idea that... in the things that we do there are many ways to succeed - and - that success will most likely be found in focusing heavily on a few things. In addition to this it is important to not forget that there are some things that cannot be ignored or we will be punished in some way. I'm not sure that Feld believes these things. If my perception is false then that too seems important. It's quite possible that these things have little to do with life habits and that he simply likes games that provide these types of an experience. But, even if that is the case then it seems that I learn something about him by experiencing his designs. The big question remains — can I begin to really know him by playing, experiencing or studying his games? It seems the answer in some way, shape, form or degree must be yes. I would be interested to hear what other people think about this.

I do believe that it's not possible to know someone with 100% accuracy or entirety through their designs. Firstly because there is just too much to know about another human being. Secondly because in the process of transferring ideas from one persons mind to an artifact (i.e. design) and then from that artifact back into another person's mind there will always be mistakes in the copying process (i.e. mutation). And thirdly because people are constantly changing — I'm not the same designer/person today that I was in the past.

What is the upshot of all this? I'm not sure I know. But, it interests me deeply.


  1. I'm sure there's some truth to this, with the caveat that you need to know why the person made what they did. Was it a labor of love? Was it part of a contractual obligation? Did they need to make _something_ in order to pay rent?

    In this industry--where nearly anything else the designer would do would make them more money, and thus everything on some level is a labor of love--their works are probably a truer reflection of the person than in many other fields.

    I think people can get to know me both by my games and by the systems I help create for my day job, but I'd rather they looked at my games. :)

  2. Hey Carl -- you make a really good point and one that I had not explicitly considered regarding context(s). I think the overall idea still works to some degree but clearly context must be a part of the equation. It seems that with context hardwired somehow into such an equation on both sides of the equals sign it actually becomes even more interesting in some ways. Thanks - G