Getting Philosophical About Games

I intend to make this the last post on the question of what is a game, at least for a little while, so I thought I’d bring another book to your attention: Jesper Juul‘s “Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds”, 2003, ISBN 0262101106 (“official” book website, read the first chapter, or via Amazon or Google books).

Juul defines a game as follows:

A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.

Compare this to the definition I gave in Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1′: A game is a directed activity played for entertainment that consists of an aim or set of objectives, which are achieved using specific components by means of a set of rules.

The major difference between the two lies in the notion of components, which I didn’t really justify when I originally gave the definition. At their most obvious level, components might correspond to playing pieces in a board game – or even the board itself. In a computer game, the components might correspond to the instances of objects that are defined by the game rules.

Of more significance is a six point model that elaborates in more – and graphical – detail the attributes that characterise a game. The model was originally described in “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness“, which is well worth a read if you have half an hour to spare.

Before you read on any further, can you spot six characteristics of a game in Juul’s definition?

Using the new ‘create a form‘ feature on Google spreadsheets, I created a form for you to record your answers (or you can post a comment): Juul: “Six characteristics of a game” definition quiz. I’ll make the (anonymised) results (if any!) public in a day or two…

As well as reviewing several classic definitions of a game (see also Salen and Zimmerman’s definition comparison chart referred to in a comment to an earlier post; if you have your own blog, you may like to write a post about these definitions, and how they differ…) Juul offers this diagram that captures in raw form the model he develops more completely in his book:


Appears in: Juul, J., “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”

The six defining characteristic features of a game, that provide the basis for his definition of a game, are shown in the inner wheel of the diagram.

Several examples of “not games” are given in the outer wheel of the circle. Can you think of any further examples of “not games” that feature different subsets of Juul’s six defining characteristics of a game?

Using graphical techniques like this is one powerful way of clarifying a definition. If you did come up with a definition of a game of your own, can you describe it in a graphical way?

(If you want to try drawing your definition, gliffy.com is an online drawing package that allows you to easily share your drawings with other people – as well as collaborating with them on the production of the image…)

If you’d like to hear from the man himself, here’s a video recording of a lecture Juul gave at MIT in December, 2006: Half-Real: A Video Game in the Hands of a Player.

Inside the Magic Circle

To wrap up this topic (for now!), I like to briefly return to the notion of “play”, the psychological stance we often (always?) take towards a game…

Yin/yang symbol on a go board
“Yin and Yang on the Go board”, by Kakadu (click through the image for full attribution).

The act of play itself has been the focus of much serious philosophical study. Johann Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, likened the act of playing to ritual (Formally speaking…).

Drawing on Huizinga’s original idea of a “play-ground”, a hallowed area “within which special rules obtain” and within which “an absolute and peculiar order obtains”, Salen and Zimmerman popularised the phrase “magic circle” to describe “the boundary that defines the game in time and space”. (See the quote in context here: What is going on in these examples…)

The idea of the “magic circle” holds popular sway for many people, and is often thought of as a bubble of ‘altered reality’ within which the game world exists. The “magic circle” is experienced by the game player when they are immersed in a game. This may be a purely psychological space, or it may extend into the real world, as for example in a board game, or a sports pitch.

When inside the magic circle, the game becomes, to a large extent, ‘reality’, although it is possible to step outside the circle, pause the game, and pop the kettle on…

…which is exactly what I’m going to do now :-)

Here’s something I’ll be pondering as I do so: what is the relationship between “games” and “play”? Can I do anything with a game other than play it? (except make it, of course! ;-)

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8 Responses to “Getting Philosophical About Games”


  1. 1 louise March 11, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    “what is the relationship between “games” and “play”? Can I do anything with a game other than play it? (except make it, of course! ;-)”

    You could cheat at it, which I would say isn’t ‘playing’ it because a person doing so isn’t following the rules and is unfairly influencing the outcome.

    I was thinking about this yesterday after finding a bug in a facebook game I’ve been playing for a week or two. If I exploited this bug, I could probably ‘win’ any game I played, assuming the other person didn’t also know about it, and the game has lost some appeal as a consequence.

  2. 2 Rebecca March 11, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    <>
    Win it, lose it, complete it, end it, give up on it, extend it, enjoy it, hate it, organise it, sell it, become addicted to it, get paid for participating in it, pay to watch it, pay to take part in it, volunteer to take part in it, appreciate it, progress in it, become expert in it, train for it, practise it, teach it, learn it, vary it, develop it, try to make sense of it, regulate it, define it… ;-)

  3. 3 Tony Hirst March 11, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Re: exploiting bugs – isn’t this just playing the game as presented, rather than as the game was designed?

    In computer games, rules are often “architectural” in the sense that the way the game is programmed limits the actions the player can take, necessarily enforcing those rules. For example, in a game of computer chess, it may be impossible to make an illegal move. The computer ‘knows’ what all the possible legal moves are, so if you try to cheat, or attempt to make an illegal move accidentally, it will prevent you from doing so.

    But if there’s a bug – you have a choice as to whether to play with the rule as implemented, even if it is ‘broken’ or ‘buggy’, rather than as the designer maybe intended it to be implemented, and as it is described in the game manual?

    Writing about the notion of ‘law’ in the book Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Code-Other-Cyberspace-Lawrence-Lessig/dp/product-description/0465039138?tag=ouseful-21 ), lawyer and activist Larry Lessig identifies four possible constraints on behaviour: law, social norms, the market and ‘architecture’. I guess we could look at these notions later, e.g. if we get to explore persistent, online virtual worlds, but for now just consider the ‘architecture’.

    ‘Architecture’ may be thought of as ‘natural laws’, or game rules that really do constrain what is possible in a computer game. in the catch a Clown game, the ‘walls’ are no more than coloured areas of the screen, although as a game developer we can imbue them with properties that make them solid as far as a game character is concerned, and we could even use them to inflict ‘damage’ on the character if they collide with the wall…

    Playing a game using “rules as implemented” vs “rules as intended by the designer” is quite an interesting one, and maybe introduces asymmetry in a game where a bug exists depending on whether the players know about it, and what their attitude towards exploiting bugs is…

    On the topic of ‘doing X with a game’ – how might you appreciate it other than appreciate playing it…? Does this introduce any ideas wrt different things that we ‘as designers’ might want to get out of (or put into…!) a game?

    PS Lessig actually has quite a famous presentational style, if you’re interested in such things – e.g. http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2008/03/larry-lessigs-l.html

  4. 4 louise March 12, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    “Re: exploiting bugs – isn’t this just playing the game as presented, rather than as the game was designed?”

    Am I still playing the same game if I’ve found — and use — a way to break the stated architecture? At the least, I’d say I’m not playing by the same rules.

    On the other hand, I think it makes a game more interesting if it’s stated that there are exploits to be found, and you can get an advantage over an opponent if you can locate them.

    • 5 Matthew May 3, 2010 at 11:38 am

      All digital games will have bugs and glitches, no matter how many times they are tested some bugs and glitches will be over looked. Call of Duty Modem warfare 2 cost a whopping $40-50 million to develop, there are over 5 known bugs and glitches on each map were players can get themselves wedged between a wall on transported on to a roof to gain a huge advantage over then other plays.
      Of course other players don’t like this as “glitchers” (people that use these bugs) are not playing the game as it was designed, resulting in players loosing there scores.

  5. 6 Deiric Martin May 13, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    I think there must be a marketing oportunity there somewhere (as highlighted by Louise) to actually give incentives for the more investigative players to find the “bugs” or – some might say – “Opportunity Pathways”.

  6. 7 KESTER BISHOP October 3, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Can you do anything at all without ‘playing/making’ it?


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