Kate offers “Some sort of interactive activity on a computer – usually including some form of goal to achieve. Not a complete definition, but a start maybe?”, Loiuse reckons “participative goal-oriented entertainment” and Andy suggests “definitions can get in the way sometimes.” ;-)
So what is a game?
There have been many types of games across the centuries; the earliest recorded game play dates back over 5,000 years ago, and there are those who would argue that this demonstrates that game play is a definable characteristic of human beings. Whilst we all know that dogs can play happily for hours on end, fetching a stick that has been thrown for them in the apparent hope that it will be thrown again, is the dog actually playing a game with us? Or are we playing a game with it?!
I make no claims at all about my knowledge of “game studies”, so working under the assumption that this is a question that I’ll keep coming back as I learn more about the nature of gaming, I’m going to step back from the question for a moment and use the approach we took in a traditionally presented course I’m also involved with, T184 Robotics and the Meaning of Life, where we asked a similarly tricky question: what is a robot?.
In that case, we looked for a set of common properties that something appeared to need in order for us to class it as a robot. In this case, I’m going to start off by looking at a few games to see what they have in common, and also ask myself what it means to play a game…
To get in the mood, here are some slideshows of different sorts of games on flickr:
Those images suggest that activities as different as Hopscotch, The Sims, Yahtzee and Football might all be considered to be games, although they are very different types of game. At first glance, a childhood pavement game, digital “god” game (where the player is only loosely in charge of apparently independent characters within the game world), a traditional table game and an international sport seem very different activities indeed…
…but what do they have in common? Winning, or playing ? Entertainment, or pleasure? A set of rules or a defined play area? In order to think more deeply about the common characteristics of games, perhaps we should ask what is not a game? We are almost playing a game if we simply have a ‘kick about’ or throw the dice just to see what number turns up; that is, we are definitely playing at something, but there is a degree of aimlessness to our play. Is it a game?
Perhaps a good game must have an aim, objective or goal, as Kate hinted? Or can an aimless activity, even within a set of rules, motivate game play?
For example, the highway code provides a given set of rules and the UK road system and a car (or even just Google Maps!) provide a reasonable set of “playing pieces” but without a treasure hunt to provide a reason (albeit an arbitrary one) for an otherwise pointless journey, driving around the backraoads of deepest Norfolk probably would not be classed as a game.
Some sort of aim or objective seems to be a common feature of a game. Only when some aim is introduced do we feel fully engaged in game play. So, irrespective of the differences between childhood fun, computer media, gambling and sport there must be some commonalities in the structure of game play towards achieving an aim.
In his seminal (that is, thought of as important!) work, Homo Ludens (1938), (from the Latin, meaning ‘man as player’:-), Johan Huizinga defined the playing of games as follows:
Play is a voluntary activity or occupation, executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary” life.
Does this mean that to create limits or rules to achieving an aim creates amusement ? Or maybe a game provides a context within which arbitrary obstacles to performing an otherwise easily achievable task create the possibility of play rather than irritation.
In the game of football, this might mean having a goalkeeper obstructing the easy scoring of a goal, for example.
This obstacle or impairment is a limit, or boundary, and maybe another defining component of a game. Indeed, game playing was described as using ‘less selection of inefficient means’ to achieve a particular goal by Bernard Suits in the article ‘What Is A Game’, that appeared in issue 2 of volume 34 of the academic journal Philosophy of Science in 1967.
To give that reference more formally, using the rules of academic referencing:
Suits, B. ‘What Is A Game?’, Philosophy of Science 1967, Vol. 34(2), pp. 148-156. [Open University members can access it here directly; you might also be able to get access to this article through your own, local library’s electronic books and journals collection.]
To play any game, then, is actually to engage in a ‘directed’ activity towards achieving an aim or set of aims that are usually entirely arbitrary and only make sense within the context of the game. Directed activity is a process of set tasks with a specific set of aims. For example, in the games mentioned above, the directed activity was variously:
• to hop and jump without standing on the square with the stone on it (hopscotch)
• to develop a successful social scene (The Sims)
• to throw the desired score on the dice (Yahtzee)
• to kick more balls into the net than an opponent (football)
These aims, however, have to be achieved within the bounds of a set of specific rules to constitute game play.
For example, in “the Beautiful Game” (i.e. football, though I can’t stand it, personally!), without the constraints of the off side rule, scoring a goal would be much easier and perhaps less engaging. So it is true to say perhaps, that the rules constrain the activity in such a way as to create a dynamic possibility; the rules define the game play in pursuit of the aim.
This first attempt at a “model” of what we need to make a game identifies an aim (or goal – literally or figuratively speaking!) and some arbitrary obstacle as important characterstics, as well as a play area in many cases. Rules also seem to be relevant…
Anyway, I’ve rambled on for far too long today, so if you’ve made it this far, here’s something a little more light-hearted…
Watch the first part of the interactive tutorial on “Understanding Games” at http://kongregate.com/games/pixelate/understanding-games-episode-1.
As you do so, try to spot what the character identifies as the key features a game must have.
Watching Myself: I was just fooling around with a CD, when I noticed how my hand looked holding it. The painting in the background is “The Return” by Magritte. It’s hard to describe the moment. I actually wanted to take a pretty picture of myself, and it ended up like this. Little Lushie
If you’re feeling really with it, try to watch yourself watching the animation and ask yourself: how is the publishing medium itself (i.e. the animation) is being used to communicate the message it contains?