What?s in a Game?


I thought I’d start the column off with something big: What is a game? If it isn’t really what we thought it was, then what is it and how can a new definition help developers? Or rather, and let’s be honest, how can it result in more net awesomeness in the games we play?

The book the Rules of Play looks very deeply into the definition of a game, and I think they reach a pretty good conclusion as to the most complete definition: “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” I think most game developers would agree with this. The problem with it is that besides constraining the notion of what can or cannot be a game in Ludology, it’s not too practical for game developers.

A good rule for a creative field has to be a workable constraint that can be broken by appropriately skilled developers – a benchmark to ensure quality but one that doesn’t discount experimentation. Like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, he forgoes most punctuation and uses run-on sentences to great effect. He’s very obviously writing “incorrectly,” but he knows enough as a writer and a poet so that he knows which rules to break and when.

What sort of rules a game will follow or break are, mostly, decided when a game is pitched (this is a normal shooter, this is a shooter with a gimmick, this is a game where you play as a marshmallow, etc), but game development is rough, ever-changing work. The rule you thought you’d be able to be break in a cool way just doesn’t work in reality. The single-save system you thought would create tension might make the game too hard and cause players to save constantly, turning your expected gameplay on its head. Sometimes it’s because of the technology available, but most often the things that are reworked the most are the things players touch the most, and thusly many studios put an emphasis on playtesting. A working definition of what a game is has to include the influence that the act of playing has upon the game and its defining characteristics.

What’s interesting to note also is that many purists don’t consider gambling to be a game. Some people add the stipulation that a game, as a sort of make-believe, ceases to be a game once it affects the real world. This constraint rules out the more abstract and less useful musings of Johann Huizinga as having a place in a working definition. In his fantastic book, Homo Ludens, he argues that war and even life itself can be defined as a game; it makes sense, since many games mimic the rules of real life situations. But maybe this sort of crazy talk actually has more bearing than the sterile definition. Playing chess may very well improve the tactical aptitude of a king on the actual battlefield, and perhaps flight sims can prepare people to pilot drone planes.

But the purists and the Huizinga-ites each sort of teeter into their own extremes. The fact is that games do have some impact on real life, but not so much that one could theoretically say that life itself is a game. When my roommate jumps up from his chair and speeds to the kitchen to develop a meal at whirlwind speeds, he’s doing so because in one minute he’s going to be fighting the undead with twenty four other people. When I surprised my parents by ordering a pizza for dinner to eat by the computer, late into the night, I was doing so because I was involved in an important clan match and couldn’t let down my team by leaving. So to say a game cannot impact reality is a bit misleading. While it’s true my gun might not be pumping bullets into a real Nazi, I am really spending three hours pretending to pump bullets into a Nazi, and that happens in the real world.

There can’t be any question that games have an effect on reality – it’s what makes us gamers. I can tell stories about exploding shurikens, backflips and ninjas. I’ve pulled off shots I never thought possible, and just barely made some landings. I’ve pulled ahead in a race and broken into a sweat countering punches. These are the real experiences that our medium generates whether they’re designed with intent or not. Just as this column should impart something to the reader, a game has to say something and create a certain experience. This is the sort of end result that should be helpful for game developers to study, or at least they should know what end result they’re aiming for and how to achieve it.

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But that’s not the end of it. Just as well, reality can influence games. Games aren’t played in a bubble, and we already use a borrowed term in game development called ‘metagaming’. Min/maxing, grinding, power leveling, wall hacking, bunny hopping, dolphin diving, exploiting, multi-boxing, speed hacking, glitching, using cheat codes, playing a game in a cheap manner that strains or manipulates the rules, or using previously learned information such as watching game replays or reading a guide are all examples of metagaming. I think this sort of behavior plays a larger part in the experience of game playing than most would like to admit, because it sure isn’t accounted for too often in game design.

Something like this, then, might be a better working definition for what a game is, taking into account that games can influence reality and vice versa: A game is a system comprised of rules, and these rules are followed or broken in an agreed upon fantasy arena. The objective of the game may be quantifiable or it may be directionless play, and the players can decide which by varying their use of the rules given.

This definition opens up myriad different games that could be pitched that might not have met previous requirements. Some of this is already happening thanks to achievement systems. Now players can play games under a separate set of optional rules: try to get 100 melee kills, 25 head shots, survive a round without dying, drive around the track without ever touching the barriers. Of course, players always had the option to do any of these things, but it’s just now that these options are actually being incorporated into game design – these extra player-influenced rules are now part of a game’s pitch and inception.

Nonetheless achievements are hardly a large part of any game, save the witty Flash game Achievement Unlocked (a game composed almost entirely of achievements). But with the success of achievements and the acceptance that players like to game the game, who knows, we could end up seeing games that use metagaming as a core mechanic. Well, it’s either that or we don’t realize the important step that achievements represent, and games will simply have tacked on achievements for the next few generations. I sincerely hope, for the sake of awesomeness, that it’s the former that comes about.

What I want to make sure, as a young designer talking about big things, is that I’m not talking to myself – if I’m worth my weight I should be reflecting what the development community is thinking about. I was surprised to see some little 140-character Tweets that seemed to echo this sentiment about games growing up a bit (not in maturity of content, but in complexity on all levels as a medium for entertainment.)

Here are a couple of choice quotes that I think are worth sharing:

“There are about as many different definitions of ‘Game’ as there are for ‘Art,’ ‘Love,’ and ‘Truth.’ I usually use ‘directed play’.” — Fred Zeleny, Designer at Bethesda Softworks.

“I completely agree. It’s sad to see people clinging to rigid definitions when the industry has so much potential to explore.” — Christy Sawyer, Lead Artist at Powerhead Games in New York.

It would be irresponsible to predict any sort of future, and the ways in which games could expand in complexity would fill a lot of pages, and there’s no reason why several of those ways couldn’t all become a reality together. But what I do know is that constantly asking ourselves the simple questions like what games are, and how are we making this, who are we making this for, can only serve to stimulate the sort of conversations that are going to bring about this sort of change on any meaningful scale. If game development isn’t constantly checking up on itself, it will never notice the sort of trends or slumps that it falls into. We act like the groundwork has been set and everything that’s been done has been done to death, but I’m not sure we can really even say we understand (and not just come to an agreement on) what a videogame is or should be yet.

Nick Halme is a freelance writer/designer who thinks whomever reads this deserves an award, because man did he put a lot of text in front of your poor, poor eyes.

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