“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.
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THANK YOU. You’ve done more reading on this point than I (which isn’t surprising), and have pointed out some interesting stuff I didn’t know about. But, moreover, you’ve put to words in a much more complete and eloquent fashion an opinion on the matter I largely agree with. (Largely.)
I have found the trend toward exclusive definitions of “game” strange and usually so vehement as to seem disingenuous on a certain level. But rhetorical methods aside, it seems to be a response in large part to the increasing prevalence of story-based games, whether a Mass Effect or a Dear Esther. I think some designers are feeling threatened by this “nongameness” for some reason, though I’m hard-pressed to see gameplay experiences going away because someone figured out how to tell a story. Otherwise we’d just never play video games and only watch movies. But I digress.
I do find it useful for my own purposes to have some simple guidelines for the nature of a thing (I like Schell’s toy-puzzle-game setup), but frankly I don’t lose sleep over whether everyone’s definitions fit my own, or whether objective definitions are even necessary. In my experiences with designing games with other people who might have other opinions, we’ve never gotten stuck on what we mean when we say “game”, because we all mean…well, similar things, at the very least. Nobody has ever just thrown up their hands and been like, “Heck, guys, we can’t make this! It’s a TOY, not a GAME.”
So I kind of wonder what the stakes are in this conversation anyway. But then, what would academia be without arguments that seem kind of pointless to everyone on the outside?
So, Amanda, when Dan said we should stop talking about “what is a game” your immediate reaction was to go off and write an article about what is a game. =) You know, I really, really, wasn’t going to write a comment here after writing A Theoretical War and getting mired in Jonas Kyratzes’ comments on this topic. I’ve written too much on this.
But here, this is my restatement of Dix’s point. What are we actually fighting against when someone tries to lock particular concepts or properties out of the “game box”? That is, in Raph Koster’s theoretical framework, if he eliminates Dear Esther as a game, well, who does this impact? Why do we get so worked up about this? It’s not going to get banned on Steam. Customers will still buy it. Game sites will still look at it.
It’s not like we’re competing on theories (the ludology thing in the early 2000s was about trying to mark territory with academic pee, to push literary theorists out) but about accepting as many different types of games as possible. That’s not precisely a formal position – I know you have laid out a set of tools here, but your intent seems less about a game litmus test and more about embracing everything we can. More succinctly, the opposite position to defining games is to not define them. But no one is stopping you calling anything you want a game.
Now, when I got into this thing with Doug Wilson and Raph Koster on Twitter at the start of the year over that narrative is not a mechanic business, one of the things Doug dropped is that defining a game has political consequences and he referenced IGF. I’m still not sure what he meant by that and he mentioned this again recently. There’s no award for writing in IGF and interactive fiction isn’t included: this may be consequence. I don’t know. But there are clearly concerns that if a particular definition of game becomes canon it will have an industrial effect. Raph Koster believes this particular future is coming.
I don’t have a problem with people having their own personal definition of game (hello, Dix’s other point). Sid Meier’s definition led to his particular style of game. Raph Koster is building a theory based on his (if it is widens it, then there’s less you can formally say). I even have my own private (kinda vague) definition of what I consider a game: I don’t need to tell the world about it, but it serves me. As I said on Jonas’ discussion, the issue would be whether you think it was unfair that the word “game” was chosen for their definition rather than some neutral word which wouldn’t stir the hornet’s nest. There is that.
And Dix, these discussions about “X is a game” are everywhere these days. You don’t need to engage an academic to get involved in one. And, technically speaking, Raph Koster is not an academic but a practitioner.
Homework exercise: If I decide I don’t want to take the train to work today, is this a game? I have a goal, to reach work by 7am. My rule is that I cannot take the train. My lusory attitude is that I have decided to be adventurous and not take the train; I don’t need to do this and in fact is quite a challenge. Is this a game… or a mid-life crisis?
So, Amanda, when Dan said we should stop talking about “what is a game” your immediate reaction was to go off and write an article about what is a game. =)
Yup. I guess in this respect, I’m a slow learner. 😉 I mean, I understood his point to be, “look, this doesn’t really matter,” but then I saw people still arguing about it! A lot.
But here, this is my restatement of Dix’s point. What are we actually fighting against when someone tries to lock particular concepts or properties out of the “game box”?
I think “That’s not really a game” can be taken as a devaluing statement. Check out this article here (which I would’ve linked had I not found it after this article was already ready to go): http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2012/07/i_hate_sports_my_lifelong_abhorrence_of_rule_based_zero_sum_competitions_.html
At some point I suggest, “Why don’t we play Puppies and Kittens?” There’s some interest in this proposal, until I explain how Puppies and Kittens works: Everyone just crawls around on the ground pretending to be a puppy or a kitten. “That’s not a game!” everyone scoffs.
…Sure it is. And why the hell are we locking people out of “games” just for hating the competitive kind of game? Here is a person who was convinced she hates games, altogether, when in fact she just hates a certain sort of them.
Homework exercise: If I decide I don’t want to take the train to work today, is this a game? I have a goal, to reach work by 7am. My rule is that I cannot take the train. My lusory attitude is that I have decided to be adventurous and not take the train; I don’t need to do this and in fact is quite a challenge.
I may be misremembering, but I believe Suits addresses this exact scenario, or something like it (taking the long way home) in his own book. I think you’d be better off reading his explanation of when this is and isn’t a game than my paraphrase and memory of it. I do think it’s a game as you describe it, since you’re doing it ‘just for the sake of doing it’ rather than some ulterior motive such as ‘need to take a detour to buy eggs’.
Puppies and Kittens: the MMO, by Terry Cavanaugh! I’ll have something substantive to say sometime, but I just wanted to point that out. We should do a T-R session sometime.
(Yeah, the game I just linked has a score, but that’s not the point.)
I agree that the problem with calling things “not a game” is that it seems to have negative connotation, and indeed, with or without this debate I think there’s still a struggle toward inclusion for things that at least fancy themselves games but don’t operate the way some industry people would like. Again I mostly point out story-driven titles as major victims here, since many quarters of the industry still barely acknowledge the importance of game narrative (while still employing it, poorly).
Of course, then we have award-winning “games” like Minecraft, which is by most proposed formal definitions no more of a game than Dear Esther, and while I’m sure there’s somebody at there fuming about its popularity as “a game”, I get the general vibe there’s less push-back against it. (I wouldn’t call either of them “games” in the pure sense, myself; I think Dear Esther, in particular, is something else entirely, something which would arguably be held back by the “game” label.) It’s one of those debates I want to see resolved to put it to rest, though I don’t know that anyone that talks about it much is someone that I want to “win” it, since the discourse on the topic tends to devolve pretty quickly to flame-war-like levels most places I see it.
Wouldn’t it work to define a ‘game’ as simply an ‘arena for play?’ Play being that neurologically measurable state of brain wave activity indicating unconcentrating enjoyment. The state of play being pretty much wrapped up in the lusory attitude definition anyway. When I watch my kids, it appears to me they start an activity (such as setting a series of books on the floor spine up to form a series of jumps for their plastic motocross figures) with ‘play’ coming first, with codification of the rules of the emerging game coming after.
Perhaps that would explain why Far Cry 2 seemed to receive bipolar reviews. It didn’t lead me to a state of play (nor Steerpike apparently) what with it’s incessant irritants, but other players found it really fun. I would not associate the oil change game with the state of play, since knowing the cost of an engine replacement would interfere with my enjoyment, but my kids might (not being on the hook for the cost or the hassle of repair), and I might like to play the game with someone else’s car.
On the topic of Minecraft, I may refer you to http://www.minecraft.net, which begins with: “Minecraft is a game…”
I actually know there is disagreement as to whether it qualifies as a game. I think it’s possible to “trifle” with Minecraft (that is, play it with no goal in mind), in which case, you are not really playing the game of Minecraft. But I doubt that playing it that way would be interesting for very long and I think a goal (and thus, a game) would be pretty likely to emerge almost all of the time.
I generally agree, but “unconcentrating enjoyment” is where this falls apart, because a game isn’t always fun and often requires concentration. If we use that definition of game we need another definition of play. I don’t think Far Cry 2 stops being a game when I stop enjoying it.
On-topic, but scattered: I was so psyched to see a picture of Candyland at the top of this post. Costikyan’s definition of games bothers me because it excludes the very games that we give children to teach them what games are and how to play them. That can’t be right.
On the idea of defining games, I’m a Wittgensteinian (and I think you are too, Amanda): We can’t come up with necessary and sufficient conditions on what games are that will exactly match some pre-existing concept of what a game is. The best we can do is “Games are things that are like other things that are games.” If you’re putting forth necessary and sufficient conditions, what you’re doing is expressing a distinction that you want to make; because it interests you, or for some other reason. (I have a cynical thought that Puppies & Kittens and House tend to get excluded from definitions of “game” because there’s no way to monetize them; then again the stuff in that picture wasn’t free.)
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, we can draw a sharp boundary in fuzzy territory for a particular purpose, but it doesn’t mean the boundary was always there.
OK, now to get a little deeper into the intellectual territory-marking, I think Suits has some trouble turning his definition into something necessary and sufficient. I’ve only been able to read part of his book, but from what I could tell he thinks the prelusory goal must be a state of affairs that can exist independent of the lusory means, I suppose because if the lusory means were the only way of attaining the prelusory goal then they couldn’t be an efficient way of attaining it. But this leads him to say, roughly, that the prelusory goal of chess is to arrange the physical objects on the chessboard in a checkmate position. This can’t be right, because it’s possible to play chess without such physical objects — consider double-blindfold chess, where there’s only a position insofar as you’re playing a game. And I think the same thing is true of most computer games; whatever I’m trying to do in Braid, it’s something I can do only by playing Braid. (I guess you could point out that I don’t patch the game so I can cheat it, but that would actually be harder for me than playing it. Though I wouldn’t do it even if I could.)
I’m also curious what he does with sports (unlike golf) that have direct competition; it’s not obvious to me that following the rules of basketball is a less efficient way to for the players to get the ball in their hoop than not following them, because the opponent is also not following them. But I suppose he can point out (and may do so) that each player is taking inefficient means, holding fixed what the other player does.
Someone I was talking about Suits with said that his book appeared at a historically odd moment, just before the computer game explosion, and from your post we can add RPGs too.
[Even less coherent than I’d hoped, because I have to run.]
Thanks Matt w, this is a really interesting comment to unpack (even with the scattered-ness). It seems I have to read some Wittgenstein. I’m woefully undereducated where it comes to classic philosophers.
Your point about a lusory goal without physical objects bends my brain a little but I do see what you’re saying. In most digital games, the simplest way to achieve a specific state is, in fact, by playing the game by the rules given – hacking it to cheat would be harder, so is that really the “more efficient means”? I think what you can say is, the goal in that case only exists or makes sense in the context of the game in the first place. Which is true of chess too really.
My equally-cynical thought about why House or Puppies and Kittens are not included in many definition of games, is because that is stuff “for girls” and stuff girls like is often devalued. Not sure which of us is more cynical there.
Blurg. I had several paragraphs of comment and then my computer decided it needed a restart RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT WITHOUT ASKING, and so I lost it and I don’t feel like retyping the whole thing. The gist: the discussion becomes one of a colloquial definition versus a professional one, wherein the latter has a vested interest in requiring an explicit goal put in place by the designers, even if it isn’t heavily enforced, and this is, I think, mostly for marketing purposes. It is hard to sell a “game” to people without being able to answer “how do you win?” I think this is also part of the reason we see developers cram storylines in when that clearly isn’t the focus, because it’s easier to sell a game on its goal (“save the princess” or whatever) than on its mechanics.
So I see a practical reason to define games in a certain way when you are talking about what people are paid to make and sell. So while Puppies & Kittens is (colloquially) a game, it might not be (professionally) a game, because how on earth do you quantify it to someone who’s never played?
Customer: “So what’s this game about?”
Salesperson: “Players act like dogs and cats!”
Customer: “Oh. Um…how do you win?”
Salesperson: “You don’t.”
Customer: “So what’s the point?”
Salesperson: “Well, it’s…fun, I guess.”
Dix: You can have that conversation about pretty much any roleplaying game. You could say that the game is about trying to gain experience/levels in order to shoehorn it into that definition of ‘game’, but that would be missing the point of the game itself (and that’s without even considering RPGs that don’t have a D&D-style scoring/progression structure).
I’m happy to label the entire medium ‘games’, in the same way that I’m happy to read ‘comic books’ that often aren’t remotely comic. We don’t have a better word, and trying to institute one tends to come across as pompous and/or embarrassed.
What makes a game worth playing, on the other hand, that’s more worth fighting over.
Phlebas: I get what you’re saying, and assuming you mean tabletop RPGs, I think that’s part of the reason they remain a very niche market. I love them dearly, but it’s really hard to figure out what they’re even about or like until you actually play them. Which is the problem I’m getting at. A lot of people who have never played one have a really hard time with understanding how they are “games” that you don’t “win”. (At least in my experience I’ve trying to spread RPGs far and wide.)
Video game RPGs never market themselves as “Earn levels and stuff!” (well, almost never, and when they do it’s usually tongue in cheek) but as “You are the last of the Grey Wardens and must save Ferelden from an ancient evil!”
Dix: Yup, I was thinking of tabletop and live-action RPGs, from D&D to Maelstrom to cops&robbers or puppies&kittens. It’s true that a game without a well-defined win condition (ok, maybe cops&robbers wasn’t a great example) isn’t as easy to explain to outsiders, but I think my point was more that RPG enthusiasts don’t tend to waste so much time arguing about whether ‘game’ is the right word for what they do.
The video game type (with a few exceptions like Tale In The Desert) do tend to be a lot more goal-oriented (whether it’s in terms of levels, treasure, or saving from an ancient evil) and less interested in the roleplaying side for its own sake – they’re more likely to fit a narrow definition than some other genres.
AJ — well, I wouldn’t say you have to read Wittgenstein in general; he’s a neat writer, but a lot of what he’s saying is sort of inside baseball for philosophers, I think. His writing about games might be of interest, though; you can find it starting here (the light gray column on the left is what he wrote, on the right is some commentary that I haven’t actually read). Games aren’t really his main concern, he’s using it as an example to make a general point about concepts, but nothing wrong with taking it as thoughts about games.
I have to confess that I’m a little twitchy about Suits because of an incident or two where the guy who wrote the introduction to the reissue of the book started in on a lot of intellectual chest-thumping about how Suits had shown that Wittgenstein was wrong about everything, and reacted very badly when it was pointed out (about as politely as possible) that he was full of hot air. The idea that Suits’s definition exactly captures everything about games is more important for that pissing contest than it is for what Suits wants to do.
–Oh, something that I meant to say in my original post but forgot: I think one element of games that Candyland and similar games bring forth is what I might call engagement. Or just doing stuff with the game. It’s important that you draw your own cards and move your own piece. From a rules-based standpoint, it doesn’t make any difference whether you roll your own d20 to hit or whether the GM rolls it for you, but everyone wants to roll their own, because that makes it a hands-on experience. Which is also part of the reason that playing puzzleless IF like Photopia isn’t like reading a story.
Phlebas: Ah. I totally agree with you that most gamers don’t really care – they would be amongst the people that use a colloquial definition of game.
My example was relevant not to that kind of definition, but the “professional” one: that is, one that would actually be used by people in the profession of making the games, which also tend to be the (non-academic) individuals involved in this discussion. So it wouldn’t be something your average RPG player would even really care about or notice, for instance, but I think that at least some people who see that player as a potential customer would.
A very thought provoking article Amanda, although I feel a bit conflicted. I’m just going to empty my brain here.
I admire the inclusivity of this definition/box (apparently ‘inclusivity’ isn’t a real word but it ought to be) but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that speed wiping my bottom in under 20 seconds can be as much a game as Chess. I mean, lusory attitude means that anything can be a game.
I started writing a games as art piece a long time ago following the Ebert debacle and started it with ‘My art teacher said that art can be anything, even camel shit’ and that sounds like a similarly inclusive definition. My issue is that these definitions are so inclusive that, in a sense, they’re useless because anything is fair game, so to speak. That’s probably why the whole debate shouldn’t really matter.
This leads me to a comment that I saw over on RPS over the weekend saying how the idea of art doesn’t matter, it’s more about the craft, and I suppose that’s why I’m uncomfortable with the speed bottom-wiping challenge being aligned with Chess. Chess is a rich designed experience whereas speed bottom-wiping is me arbitrarily applying a goal to a mundane task (and being interested in that goal — this is hypothetical, I’m not at all interested in speed bottom-wiping).
If being interested in any imposed goal is what constitutes being a game then it’s an entirely subjective matter in the same way as ‘what is art?’ (anything can be art) and ‘what is fun?’ (anything can be fun) so we’re back where we started. I’m just going to go and lie down in a dark room.
Great piece and I’ll take Suits’ definition over most others.
I’m not an expert but, in my opinion, the experts are ‘all’ wrong. Now before you start screaming at me, hear me out, please. I believe they’re wrong because they’re trying too hard and over-thinking the whole thing. Attempting to define “game”, they’re adding too many qualifiers and basically putting the proverbial cart before the horse. The word “game” does ‘not’ require such a strict definition. Strictness should only apply to the rules, not the definition. “Game” should have a very ‘broad’ definition and save all of those major qualifiers for type or genre.
This is my suggestion.
Game: (noun) a broadly outlined, to strictly ruled, activity designed for diverting, amusing, or stimulating the mind, and carried out for enjoyment, education, or in pursuit of a prize or goal.
That covers all of the bases I can think of but please feel free to let me know if my foot missed the bag as I was rounding third base.
@Laurie: welcome! Mainly, the reason I wrote about this definition is precisely because it is broad. That’s why I like it. Yours seems sufficiently broad as well.
@GreggB: There’s definitely such a thing as a definition being so broad that it’s pointless (a problem a lot of people have with “art”). But I think we can acknowledge that something is a game and then go ahead and say “this isn’t a very deep game” or “this is a really juvenile game” without using up the word game.
@Laurie: Some of the reason there is a debate about this is that there are a lot of people, both professionals and academics, who feel that the definition MUST be very rigid and concrete. Others are satisfied with definitions like yours or AJ’s. It kind of depends on your worldview, I suppose, whether it even matters.
Wow. That was a wonderful piece of journalism Amanda. I thoroughly enjoyed your argument.
As a bit of a lazy reader, I didn’t follow any of the citations you linked to; but, I relish the fact that they are there, and numerous. Your turn of phrase, coupled with your apparent knowledge of your subject is wonderfully stimulating.
I agree with your view on the definition of games. The importance of arguing over how to define games is an exercise that I would only bother engaging in during party conversation or over a nice aperitif; still, I can see its use in academic circles (what with the need to publish or perish and all). The broadness of your [Suit’s] definition strikes me as something you might need to get out of the way in the first moments of an introductory design class, just so you could get on with the real work of teaching how to design these diversions we call games.
Anyway, thank you for a fun, intelligent read.
In regards to the paragraph about points: What do you think of the karma system on Reddit? Users get points for other users voting on their posts. The points serve no purpose but everyone seems to want them. Since we have an activity and a goal, does that make Reddit a game, even though the points serve no purpose? This seems the same as the brush your teeth game.
@Jordan: I think the litmus test here has to do with attitude. By this definition, something is a game if the obstacles in it exist purely for the sake of making the activity possible.
If the purpose of posting on Reddit is to accumulate points, and you post on Reddit in the spirit of trying to gather as much karma as possible, karma is a game.
If the purpose of posting on Reddit is just to post on Reddit, then posting is an end in and of itself and the points are incidental. Not a game, just a way of ranking posts.
Just my feeling by the definition, though; I’m not a Redditor myself.
@Amanda: Good explanation, thanks for answering my question!
[…] recently, those definitions have shown up in an editorial by Amanda Lange of Tap Repeatedly. To what end is difficult to say. At times, she seems intent on cutting through a lot of the noise […]
Hi thanks for stopping by my site.
I checked out your post and there is a similarity to your post with my view-point.
“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.”
If you say that you feel that the Sims can be a game. That fits into my thoughts about what a definition of a video game could be (which can be found here: http://game-wisdom.com/critical/what-is-a-game-meaning-vs-action ) . The Sims provides the player with an unique scenario with its own set of rules and systems, allowing the player to experience something unique.
What are your views considering pure sandbox titles like Minecraft, where all the goals of the game are purely player driven, and it is up to the player to define what to do in the gamespace. Would you view something like that as a game as well?
Hi Josh! I commented on your essay because it seemed to be saying ‘The Walking Dead might not be a game,’ and that seemed pretty left-field to me. So I’m surprised to see you agreeing with me after all here. Of COURSE The Walking Dead is a game. It’s an interactive story but that doesn’t exclude it from the game label in my mind.
When I initially posted this essay, I got a few “but what about Minecraft?” tweets.
This is the best citation I have on the topic:
First sentence: “Minecraft is a game …”
Well, now, that’s good enough for me. But sarcasm aside, Minecraft is like the Sims; it’s a playset that creates games the minute you derive a goal from it. It gets boring quickly unless you have some kind of prelusory goal. And prelusory goals are often pre-suggested, if not specifically suggested, by the various game modes (survival, your goal is to survive). So, Minecraft is a game most of the time by even narrower definitions. It’s a tool sometimes.