Extra Credits: What Is a Game?

This week, we discuss the debate over what does and doesn't qualify as a "game".

Episode video is on YouTube

Show Notes:

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Recent Comments:

  • Interesting news! I've found a ten year-old article arguing in favor of much of what I utilize as the basis of my above thoughts. It's always a bit disappointing (even when you're partially expecting it) to figure out that someone has already had some of your ideas, but in another way it's reinforcing.

    My terminology -> article's terminology:
    story state -> narrative paradigm
    game state-> ludus form
    experience-system paradigm -> simulation paradigm, paidia form
    with the implication that the prior two are inherently limited methods of/paradigms for understanding the medium.

  • the best way I know to discribe a game is that it has a failure state, and a success state, and that the player's actions directly influence which the experience leads to.

    Pong: having less points is the failure state, and having more is the success state.
    Tetris: getting a low score is the failure state, and getting a high score is the success state.
    Final Fantasy: getting a game over is the failure state, and reaching the end goal is the success state.
    Farmville: Plants withering and wasting coins is the failure state, and harvesting plants and getting rewards is the success state.

    Lonelyness is not a game, because you cannot be "good" at Lonelyness. You can make a game OUT OF Lonelyness by making up your own rules when interacting with it, but within its own rules it is the same whether you only walk forward, break every group, or avoid them all. It does not acknowledge your actions for good or ill at any point, so it is not a game.

    Maybe we can just give not-games the monkier of "digital interactive experience" and let games keep their identity.

  • Gonzalo Frasca is pretty darn cool, imo. I think ludology has too strict of a systems bent to deal well with traditional games, but it's very illuminating stuff.

    Edit: I've been researching this Burgun guy you brought up, and while I think he's got some interesting ideas, his attempts at defining games don't really function as a game ontology (like, his interest isn't in considering what games are) but in game design (considering how games are made).

    I think game design is a great subject to consider, and if you're looking at working in game design and production it's mandatory, but that it's distinct from thinking about what games are outside of establishing or building a poetics of games. His might be a useful approach to game design (especially designing in video games where the material of ones' designs are systems and user inputs that take the form of decision making), but there isn't much of interest when it comes to his ideas about the category of game (he mostly rehashes Sid Meier's oft-quoted statement of poetics and Chris Crawford's taxonomy). (The fact that he calls his "Game Design Theory" a "lens" also betrays his indebtedness to Jesse Schell, who also focuses on game design as opposed to other topics in the study of games).

  • So I'm going to put my opinion out here even though I know that this video is weeks old, because I feel that it is worth hearing.

    The main argument of the video was that the question "What is a game" is divisive or generally not useful. I recognize that, for the majority of the population of gamers, this is true. However, in the bigger picture, I don't feel like it is a bad question for designers, as de facto interactive experience policymakers, to ask.

    I am a design lead at a small pen-and-paper game studio. We released our game two years ago and have begun working on a few expansions. A developer on my team noted recently that the actual resolution of actions in a turn, the "stack," has never been fully formalized. Upon proceeding to formalize that stack, we realized some important things that were missing in our game.

    The nugget of wisdom that I feel is behind all of this is that the formal elements of any system should necessarily be defined before they can be mastered. At the game company I work at, we created something that was beautiful and fun, but we had not established an understanding of its inner workings. While something that is built organically can be beautiful, it is still necessary to understand what it is that you are omitting and why you are omitting it when you choose to forego formal analysis of a subject in the creation of a piece of art. It is like any art: In order to break the rules elegantly, you have to first understand them fully.

    This connects with the argument being made in that designers are in the process of defining terms and curriculum for video games so that people can begin to master the art of creating games; in doing so, we are having to analyze what goes into each term. Anybody who chooses to produce a gamelike experience (Loneliness, Minecraft, gamified advertising, etc.) should understand precisely what rules they are breaking so that they may break the right rules to produce a successful experience.

    What we need to be doing in regards to people criticizing things for not being games is making people aware that they are making a no-true-scotsman/appeal to purity argument; because something is truly not a game does not lessen its quality as an interactive experience.

    As an example to illustrate why formalized definitions can be a positive force, take Minecraft and other similar sandbox-building-style programs. It has been said that these are not games, which is true if you accept the precept that a game is a series of rules/boundaries and a goal. This allows us to re-define Minecraft; if it is not a game, then what is it? I would argue that it is an abstract gaming platform; a space where rules and boundaries are supplied, and the rules are sufficiently complex that a person can produce their own goal and therefore play a game which they have invented without having to modify the rules of the space. So, if Minecraft is built to be an abstract gaming platform, and has that as its intention, then it can be built to do best what it is intended to do.

  • As an example to illustrate why formalized definitions can be a positive force, take Minecraft and other similar sandbox-building-style programs. It has been said that these are not games, which is true if you accept the precept that a game is a series of rules/boundaries and a goal. This allows us to re-define Minecraft; if it is not a game, then what is it? I would argue that it is an abstract gaming platform; a space where rules and boundaries are supplied, and the rules are sufficiently complex that a person can produce their own goal and therefore play a game which they have invented without having to modify the rules of the space. So, if Minecraft is built to be an abstract gaming platform, and has that as its intention, then it can be built to do best what it is intended to do.

    I suppose the proper definition of terms like "game" are highly dependent on the context they are used as well as what you wish to communicate.

    Minecraft advertising itself as a game communicates something specific to a particular audience.

    A game designer using the term more precisely in order to augment its meaning, and thereby communicate complicated ideas elegantly, is something different. Similarly, the more general definition of "game" could also be used with augmented meaning for similar communicative purposes but in different settings.

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