Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Game Designation

I've decided to offer my definition for the word "game" to the greater internet, for scrutiny.

This is such a contentious debate and it's been built up as this unattainable holy grail to one day know what a Game Truly Is as if it's quantum physics or something.  I think the main reason people have this problem is that they create their definitions not to understand more deeply, but rather to support their own ideas of what things are games and what things aren't.  To that end, they start creating lists of features games need, like win conditions, challenge, blah, blah, blah.  A difficulty curve!?  Ugh.

The result is a muddy debate and definitions that can't be used in place of the word itself, which defeats the point of having definitions.  You should be able to remove the word and insert its definition without changing the meaning of the sentence.

I'm not covering all the definitions for the word, just the one that describes a type of activity.  There are other meanings, but this is the one of interest.

So, here's my definition:

Game (n): an inconsequential, voluntary activity with arbitrary rules.

Let's break that down.


None of that.

"First guy to die loses."  That sort of thing.  This particular example is known as a lose condition.


Musical notes are apparently code for "getting messed up".

Arbitrary as opposed to ontological.  "First guy to die loses," for example is a fairly ontological rule, flowing from the nature of combat.  "First person to reach the finish line lives," is arbitrary, assuming of course that the finish line is just a line and not for example a weapon.


You do stuff in a game.  I don't think I really need to break this down, do I?  It's the object on which the rest of the definition hangs.  I couldn't think of anything that had all the other attributes of being a game but failed for being passive.  However, games are activities, so this word has to be here.


Start running.  You'll know when to stop.

Participation is optional.  "We must race to the finish line or they will kill us all," might be a game for somebody, but not really for the combatants; for them it's survival.  "Let's take turns drinking shots and stamping on this land-mine; first guy to die wins," is voluntary.  Anyone who doesn't want to play has the opportunity to leave.  Now.


Oh no!  Their number is bigger than our number!  They have too much number!

It doesn't actually matter what the outcome of the game is.  This really does invalidate every example used so far.  Even in landmine-roulette, where you could safely assume that every player will die in the end and the winner is just the first dead as judged by a high-speed camera, it certainly matters whether the game ends.

However, we could take the death-race and make it inconsequential if the race itself is considered one thing, and the reward another.  Then you win the race by crossing the finish line first, which is both inconsequential and arbitrary.  If we assume the participation is voluntary then it's a game.  Your reward might be a ticket on the last spaceship to evacuate a doomed world.  This is the story behind the classic arcade racer P.O.D.

In P.O.D, the competition is characterised by unrestrained murder.  People are killed in the course of the race all the time.  However, the outcome of the race is about who gets across the line, not who dies in the process.  Dying before you reach the finish line is more of an ontological failure state than an arbitrary one, but whether you died or were just too slow doesn't affect the outcome.

The Implications

Let's look at some examples and see how they hold up to this definition.  In no particular order:


FAIL:  Consequential

The stock-market isn't a game according to this definition because its operation and outcome involve the transfer of actual property, as may be inferred by the word "market" in its title.

Darwinian Evolution

FAIL:  Consequential, mandatory and ontological.

You have to participate.  Refusing to participate is simply a form of fail-state.  It matters because it is about survival.  It is ontological because it's just a description of what happens when organisms either succeed or fail at reproduction.  There's nothing arbitrary about the rules.



Remember, this is about the race itself, not about...


FAIL:  Consequential.

See: Stock-Market.  You can break slot machines down into the (crappy) game part, and the gambling part.  In theory it's possible to play the game part without any money riding on it, but that would reveal the mind-numbing boredom of the game itself.

Reading A Book

FAIL:  Ontological

The only thing you have to do in order to read a book is look at the words and absorb them.  There are no other rules.  You don't have to read in a particular order; you don't even have to comprehend the meaning.  Either you read it, or you don't.  That's all there is to it.  There is not a single arbitrary rule to be found.  You could argue that a novel is intended to be read front-to-back, so reading the last chapter first is breaking an arbitrary rule, but you're still reading the book.

Writing a Book

FAIL:  Ontological

Whilst it appears that there are arbitrary rules about how to write, in the end the rules that govern creative expression are simply conventions.  There is no reason you have to follow them.  They're only guides to help you understand what your audience is likely to expect, and how to make or break those expectations.


FAIL:  Ontological

Stop listing fundamental activities as game candidates.

Choose Your Own Adventure Books


There is a right and a wrong way to read these books, as defined by explicit rules.  You can read them out of order, but then you're just reading a book.  See: Reading a Book.



Playing cops & robbers or throwing a tea-party with no actual tea are activities that pass the test.  There's no real outcome or challenge, but that doesn't matter.  You're defining arbitrary rules to govern the activity, and therefore it's a game.


FAIL:  Ontological

There's a roller-coaster there, and you would like to ride it.  You do so.  Your interaction is not governed by arbitrary rules.  The only way you can ride the rollercoaster is to get on and ride.  The only way you can do it safely is to follow the safety rules.  Arbitrary rule count: 0.  This is just a fancy version of taking a walk or watching a presentation.

Joyriding in Cars

FAIL: No rules

"Have dangerous fun" just doesn't count.  If you're trying to see how close you can doughnut around that lamp post without totalling your car, then you're playing a game, but that's not really necessary to joyride.

Hunting a Serial Killer

FAIL:  Ontological and consequential

If you don't catch them, bad things will happen.  Either you find them or not.  It's not about how.  You could say that certain laws like due process are arbitrary and govern how you need to do things, but I'd say those laws exist to protect people, so they're not arbitrary.

Stringing the Cops Along with a Series of Elaborate Murders


Okay, this requires an assumption, first and foremost, that the lives of yourself and your victims are of absolutely no consequence to you, because you're a sociopath.  Then, this whole exercise becomes just a game to you.  You volunteered for it and the rules governing how you string the cops along are arbitrary.  Hooray!

Physical Education Class

FAIL:  Mandatory

You might play games as part of PE, but the class itself is just a task that you're made to do.  In fact, if you don't make any effort to affect the outcome of the games, I'd say you're not even really playing.  You're just shuffling around the field pretending to play to get your credit.

The Game

FAIL:  Mandatory

The rules of The Game are as follows:
1) Everybody is playing The Game.
2) You lose The Game when you think about The Game.

I always found it infuriating that people insisted that "everybody is playing" just because it's in the rules, as if the simple act of inventing the rules made them true.  At any rate, according to my definition, either The Game is incorrectly named, or not everybody is playing.  I'd be more than happy to remove Rule 1 anyway, since as an exploration of what does or does not constitute a game, it works equally well if you have to opt-in.  I'm certainly not playing The Game.

Mathematical Games (eg: Conway's Game of Life)


At first I thought this would fail because it's passive, but then I realised that the activity part of the game is in the setup.

Exploration-Based Digital Interactive Experiences (eg: Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable)


There have been a lot of people complaining that these titles "aren't really games".  Most of the arguments center around the lack of challenge and the lack of real agency. It doesn't matter that there's no challenge or win-state.  It doesn't even matter that you can't affect the outcome.  That's not in the definition.  The thing that separates this from a roller-coaster is that the rules governing it are completely arbitrary.  Can your avatar fly?  Press buttons?  Walk through walls?  Move at all?  It's all arbitrary.  Therefore:  game.

So That's What This was All About!

No, I didn't come up with this definition solely in response to the "Is Dear Esther/The Stanley Parable a game?" debate, but it did inspire me to write down my thoughts.  I didn't engineer my definition to arrive at this point, but I like that these titles pass my definition, because they intuitively feel like games to me.

You may also want to know whether I liked them.  I found them both to be thought-provoking, and The Stanley Parable in particular was hilarious and awesome.  Yes, I liked them both.  I also find it interesting that most of these interactive experience style games that focus on storytelling through exploration have so far been made in the Source Engine; the same engine where many of Valve's games epitomised this technique.  Just an observation.

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