Playing games for "research" (vs for fun)

The most repeated advice to aspiring writers is to read like one, do any of you have similar tactics for analyzing games? I’ve been working on a project for a few months now that compares & contrasts theme park design philosophies with that of video games, themed entertainment design was a big interest of mine as a child and I’ve amassed a bit of niche knowledge over the years (I actually started college with the intentions of getting an MFA in the subject before switching trajectories, realized pretty quickly how much money I would be wasting lol). My hope is to go beyond the common points of “weenies” and environmental storytelling with a more technical approach, as I’ve chugged my way through a few titles I couldn’t help but wonder how other people go about dissecting the inner workings of games (either for critique or inspiration).

My main method has just been documentation- scribbling notes or taking captures of things that expand upon/counter certain ideas, supplemented by GDC talks, blog posts, public design docs and so on. Would love to hear your own experiences with this or something similar, I have no one in my life with an interest in these sorts of things and am always curious about how other people engage with games beyond leisure!


Scribbling notes and having some sort of dictaphone recording is the ideal for me. These days I tend to bounce off a passive observer or a friend that’s also playing the game.

Fundamentally though if I am going to write something with everything that I have I ask myself some questions that will help set some direction for what I want to capture rather than try to capture every single thought from every different angle. I try to have one or two very simple and broad questions for myself - what do I want to achieve? Is it good? - and a couple that are more specific or left field - does this game improve or influence its genre? How long does this cinematic game feel cinematic?

Fundamentally, setting a specific goal for myself makes note taking a whole lot easier and let’s me focus on answering questions in aid of the goal. Not that helpful advice but it works for me!