“We need to stop asking whether something is a game or not.” This was a point made by Dr. Daniel Pinchbeck, during his GDC Microtalk, “Things we need to stop talking about.“ Likely, he was inspired by the reception to his own work, Dear Esther. The game is critically acclaimed, but critics can’t seem to decide if it’s “really a game” or not. Pinchbeck’s point was that it didn’t really, ultimately, matter.
In spite of this, it doesn’t seem like “what is a game?” is a conversation that we’re going to stop having any time soon. Game academics, or, ludologists, if you prefer, have been working on nailing down just the right definition for the fuzzy word “game” for decades. In academic papers, it is generally important to define one’s terms, particularly if those terms are critical to a thesis. However, these definitions are also often used to define not simply, what a game is, but also, what a game is not. Once a formal definition is decided on, many things which are popularly considered games, are not games after all.
Now, we have reached a point where, in critical commentary, “That isn’t a game” is appearing the same way “that’s not art” appears. Not as an expression of a formal definition: but as a value judgement. “Not a game” has become a bludgeon used by academics, game designers, or just anyone, to describe something that they do not like, which someone else has called a game.
A small sample of these objections:
- “That’s not a game, exactly; it’s more of a toy.”
- “That’s not a game; it’s not hard enough.”
- “That’s not a game; it’s just gamification.” (More on that later.)
I’m going to go ahead and make a very bold claim. It’s all games. That thing you don’t like? Still probably a game.
I’ve spoken before about my favorite definition of a game, which was written by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. It’s often misquoted or truncated from the original, though, which causes people to be confused by it. The short version is “Games are the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
This definition is certainly debatable, but to address this single sentence is only arguing against a very short form and not the entire definition. In order to understand the full argument, one has to read The Grasshopper, and it doesn’t seem to be really easy to stumble across for some reason. I’d dig an e-book version myself.
What’s missing from the short version of the definition is critical to its understanding. I’ll give you the longer definition:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].
(I got it from Nigel Warburton’s review, by the way, because I don’t have the actual book handy. A good link to check out for more insight on the original book.)
An example Suits uses in the book is the game of golf. Golf is a game; I think there is no disagreement on this, no attempt to redefine golf as something else anywhere that I can see. The goal of golf is to get a ball into a small hole. The roundabout way you go about doing that is to hit the ball with a club. Surely, the easiest way to get the ball into the little hole is to drive my little cart over, and just drop the ball in by hand. But that wouldn’t be playing a game. Why don’t people just walk over and drop the ball in the hole, if that’s the point of golf? Because people have a lusory attitude, which means they’re interested in trying the more difficult method, just for the sake of the activity. The lusory attitude is what ultimately creates the game.
Here we have the necessary elements of “a game”:
- Lusory Attitude
Most people don’t disagree on the first two elements, but you only see them in the long-form definition. The lusory attitude is admittedly a slightly fuzzy concept, so it’s rarely mentioned at all (even though it’s such a darn great phrase). The short form of this definition of a game is also the definition Jane McGonigal prefers in her book, Reality is Broken. Her rephrase of the definition, “Games are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle,” has 272 Google hits at the time of this writing. Suits’ original phrasing has, currently, five. This causes some confusion, because while her phrasing is fine, it’s still the short form of the definition, without the long form of the argument that comes with it.
The article, “Thank You, But It’s Still Not a Game”, by Jeremy Monken (writing for The Escapist), is part of what inspired me to tackle this topic myself. I haven’t actually played the Oprah game (despite trying to track it down: links to it just lead to Oprah’s main site now), so I’ll just address the article itself. Monken uses the McGonigal version of the definition of games in his rebuttal, so he’s not arguing against a robust definition, just the short one.
Monken writes: “By that definition, not getting my oil changed so I can deal with car repairs in the future is a game.” To which I reply, if you approach it with a lusory attitude (“Let’s see how many miles I can go before I break down!”) then yes, it’s a game. “Maybe that is a game, but it certainly doesn’t sound very enjoyable,” he continues. He understands that this exercise in car maintenance might, in fact, be considered a game by someone, but it is not a “fun” game. I believe, however, that any truly acceptable definition of what a game is should not try to base it around the concept of fun.
Fun is another word that is difficult to define; to attempt to would require another essay. One interesting conversation about this is happening on Gamasutra. Suffice to say that fun is subjective. I, for example, do not think Arkham Horror is fun. Sorry, I tried, but I think it’s overly complex and a little tedious. I am sure any gamer can come up with an example where something that is obviously a game was not causing pure fun and enjoyment. Games can cause boredom (when is it my turn?), frustration (I just got ganked!), rage, fear, anxiety, and lots of other emotions. They do not stop being games during those times, even if they stopped being fun.
Here are a few other things that I do not believe are prerequisites for something being considered a game:
Challenge. A game does not have to be difficult. Some games are easy.
An opponent. Raph Koster argues that an activity needs an opponent for it to be a game, even if that opponent is an AI. This works depending on your definition of an opponent, but it’s not really critical to any definition of a game. There are such things as cooperative games, where players are competing against some exterior obstacle, such as a timer. If we have to stretch the idea of “an opponent” out to include static obstacles, it just goes back to the unnecessary obstacle part of the original definition.
Lack of solvability. The argument is that if a game has one true way of playing it, then it is more of a puzzle than it is a game. But really, if a game is solved, that does not make it not a game anymore. It just makes it a solved game. Some examples of games that are solved include Tic-Tac-Toe, Pentominoes, Connect Four, and Checkers.
Choices, strategy, or decision-making. Yes, here I’m going against Greg Costikyan and Sid Meier on this one, despite my respect for their work. I’m taking the side of real-world colloquial usage instead. It is not necessary for a player to make decisions for something to be considered a game. Games with no decision-making are not very interesting games, but that is a separate judgement.
Candyland, for example, is easily recognizable as a game, and most reasonable people would call it a game. But detractors would say Candyland is not really a game, because there are no choices to make. Candyland is absolutely a game. It’s just a primitive, uninteresting one designed to appeal to young children learning colors, and not of much interest to adults.
What else might not be called a traditional game? How about: “The Game.” This is an interesting case, the case of a game that is unwinnable. The Game only has three rules. The Game is definitely a game, and it’s interesting because it inadvertently spells out the purpose of the lusory attitude very clearly in its rule number one: “You, along with everyone else in the world, always is, always has been, and always will be playing The Game. ” You can write that rule, but, actually, if I stop caring about whether or not I “lost the game,” I stopped playing it, too. If you do care about if you “lost the game,” congratulations, you have a lusory attitude toward The Game. And by the way, you lost.
Last week, Raph Koster and Anna Anthropy had a disagreement, which was taken to Twitter, about whether Anthropy’s very personal work dys4ia is actually a game. Well, I say it is. dys4ia, as a work, is covered nicely by the broad Suits definition of a game: It is a series of unnecessary obstacles (maneuvering pieces across a screen for example) which I approach totally voluntarily, for the sake of learning about a personal story. It’s evident that Koster believes creating a more exclusive definition of what counts as a game is somehow valuable. I disagree, and believe that an inclusive definition is more valuable, and, makes us as designers more open-minded with regard to how we can approach the design of new games.
Let’s examine House. Not House, as in, a TV tie-in on Facebook, but House as in a game that is played by little girls. This doesn’t seem like a game to many formal definitions. But the game does have rules, and a goal. The goal is a performance, and the rules have to do with staying in-character during that performance. Suits not only acknowledges that this is a game, but wondered (in 1978) why more adults weren’t interested in such performance-based games, when children found them to be fun distractions. In doing so he inadvertently predicted the rise of roleplaying games, without being aware of the simultaneous development of Dungeons & Dragons.
Discussing “playing house” brings us neatly to The Sims. The common wisdom is that Will Wright himself believes The Sims is really a toy, and not a game. I guess I can concede that The Sims can be a toy, but it can in fact still be a game.
What’s missing from The Sims (and here, I mean just the original Sims) is a prelusory goal. A copy of the Sims is like a dollhouse. It is an artifact from which games can be created. The moment a player comes up with a goal, such as, “I’m going to see how many rooms I can add on to this house before I run out of money,” or “I’m gonna see how many Sims I can drown in this pool,” The Sims is now a game.
If a player doodles around in The Sims without any purpose, that player is what Suits would call a trifler. But playing The Sims without coming up with a goal is a bit like moving pieces around a chessboard without playing chess. In this case, it’s an (admittedly mind-bending) matter of separating the activity called a game, from the physical artifacts of that activity, which can also sometimes be called a game, but, other times, a toy. Where it comes to later versions of The Sims, all bets are off: some versions such as Sims 2 do come packed with a goals system to structure the play in a more game-like way.
Is “Gamification” a game? Well, gamification is an awful word; let’s start there. It’s poorly and vaguely defined. Its existence leads to the utterance of nonsense like “all games are gamified,” (a real quote from the PAX East Gamification panel, that made me want to take my head off to make sure it was still screwed on the right way). And it’s frequently troubling and exploitative. Despite these objections, though, some types of what is broadly defined as gamification might become real games… if the players let them.
Let’s take Jesse Schell’s popular, Huxlean example of a world where everyone gets “points” for everything they do, such as brushing their teeth. If I brush my teeth, and then I get points, does that mean I’m playing a game? Not yet. It literally just means that I got arbitrary points for brushing my teeth. There was no unusual voluntary obstacle, because brushing my teeth was something I was going to do anyway, for hygiene reasons.
However: let’s say I’m interested for some reason in those points. Suddenly, I have a prelusory goal, “Get points,” and a roundabout, stupid way of going about getting them: “brush teeth.” What changed? A lusory attitude was brought to the table. In other words, I have buy-in, and suddenly, the “toothbrush game” is a game. It’s not a very deep game, but it’s still a game.
All of this seems to wind down to a sort of wishy-washy “something is a game if I say it is.” But that isn’t, really, quite right. A better way to express this would be, “something can be a game if I make it into one.” Another great philosopher, one M. Poppins, once phrased it this way: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and, Snap, the job’s a game.” This is presumably because “In every job that must be done, you can place unnecessary obstacles in your way toward its completion; combine this with an attitude that you’re tackling these new obstacles voluntarily and, Snap, the job’s a game!” is a little unwieldy in verse.
My final point is this. If we force ourselves, as designers, ludologists, or pundits, to develop a very narrow definition of the word game, we are making the unfortunate mistake of excluding people who want different things out of games. And often, those people who are excluded by these formal definitions are people not interested in games with direct conflict or opposition. They are also often people trying to explore the boundaries of the medium, creating exploratory works. I believe we should be open-minded, and invite this experimentation. There is no reason to lock people out of the medium with “that isn’t a game.” If we look at even unpopular game styles, such as “gamification,” with an eye toward them as games, we can start improving them. We can stop asking if something is, or isn’t a game, and instead can all have, and make, better games.
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org