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The Definition of Game

Before moving too much further into design and iteration, we should probably clarify what we're talking about when we use terms such as game and game design. Many very smart people have tried to accurately define the word game. Here are a few of them in chronological order:

  • In his 1978 book The Grasshopper, Bernard Suits (who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo) declares that "a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."5

  • Game design legend Sid Meier says that "a game is a series of interesting decisions."

  • In Game Design Workshop, Tracy Fullerton defines a game as "a closed, formal system that engages players in a structured conflict and resolves its uncertainty in an unequal outcome."6

  • In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell playfully examines several definitions for game and eventually decides on "a game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude."7

  • In the book Game Design Theory, Keith Burgun presents a much more limited definition of game: "a system of rules in which agents compete by making ambiguous, endogenously meaningful decisions."8, 9

As you can see, all of these are compelling and correct in their own way. Perhaps even more important than each individual definition is the insight that it gives us into the author's intent when crafting that definition.

Bernard Suits' Definition

In addition to the short definition "a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles," Suits also offers a longer, more robust version:

  • To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.

Throughout his book, Suits proposes and refutes various attacks on this definition; and having read the book, I am certainly willing to say that he has found the definition of "game" that most accurately matches the way that the word is used in day-to-day life.

However, it's also important to realize that this definition was crafted in 1978, and even though digital games and role-playing games existed at this time, Suits was either unaware of them or intentionally ignored them. In fact, in Chapter 9 of The Grasshopper, Suits laments that there is no kind of game with rules for dramatic play through which players could burn off dramatic energy (much like children can burn off excess athletic energy via play of any number of different sports), even though that is exactly the kind of play that was enabled by role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.10

Although this is a small point, it gets at exactly what is missing from this definition: Whereas Suits' definition of game is an accurate definition of the word, it offers nothing to designers seeking to craft good games for others.

For an example of what I mean, take a moment to play Jason Rohrer's fantastic game Passage: http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/ (see Figure 1.2).11 The game only takes 5 minutes to play, and it does a fantastic job of demonstrating the power that even short games can have. Try playing through it a couple of times.


Figure 1.2 Passage by Jason Rohrer (released December 13, 2007)

Suits' definition will tell you that yes, this is a game. In fact, it is specifically an "open game," which he defines as a game that has as its sole goal the continuance of the game.12 In Passage, the goal is to continue to play for as long as possible…or is it? Passage has several potential goals, and it's up to the player to choose which of these she wants to achieve. These goals could include the following:

  • Moving as far to the right as possible before dying (exploration)

  • Earning as many points as possible by finding treasure chests (achievement)

  • Finding a wife (socialization)

The point of Passage as an artistic statement is that each of these can be a goal in life, and to some extent, these goals are mutually exclusive. If you find a wife early in the game, getting treasure chests is subsequently more difficult because the two of you together are unable to enter areas that could be entered singly (however, moving a step to the right now gains you two points instead of one). If you choose to seek treasure, you will spend your time exploring the vertical space of the world and won't be able to explore as much of the scenery to the right. If you choose to move as far to the right as possible, you won't rack up nearly as much treasure.

In this incredibly simple game, Rohrer exposes a few of the fundamental decisions that every one of us must make in life and demonstrates how even early decisions can have a major effect on the rest of our lives. The important thing here is that he is giving players choice and demonstrating to them that their choices matter.

This is an example of one of a number of designer's goals that I will introduce in this book: experiential understanding. Whereas a linear story like a book can encourage empathy with a character by exposing the reader to the character's life and the decisions that she has made, games can allow players to not only understand the outcome of decisions but also to be complicit in that outcome by giving the player the power and the responsibility of making decisions and then showing her the outcome wrought by her decisions. Chapter 8, "Design Goals," explores experiential understanding and other designer's goals in greater depth.

Sid Meier's Definition

By stating that "a game is a series of interesting decisions," Meier is saying very little about the definition of the word game (there are many, many things that could be categorized as a series of interesting decisions and yet are not games) and quite a bit about what he personally believes makes for a good game. As the designer of games such as Pirates, Civilization, Alpha Centauri, and many more, Sid Meier is one of the most successful game designers alive, and he has consistently produced games that present players with interesting decisions. This, of course, raises the question of what makes a decision interesting. An interesting decision is generally one where

  • The player has multiple valid options from which to choose.

  • Each option has both positive and negative potential consequences.

  • The outcome of each option is predictable but not guaranteed.

This brings up the second of our designer's goals: to create interesting decisions. If a player is presented with a number of choices, but one choice is obviously superior to the others, the experience of deciding which to choose doesn't actually exist. If a game is designed well, players will often have multiple choices from which to choose, and those decisions will be tricky ones.

Tracy Fullerton's Definition

As she states in her book, Tracy is much more concerned with giving designers tools to make better games than she is with the philosophical definition of game. Accordingly, her definition of a game as "a closed, formal system that engages players in a structured conflict and resolves its uncertainty in an unequal outcome" is not only a good definition of game but also a list of elements that designers can modify in their games:

  • Formal elements: The elements that differentiate a game from other types of media: rules, procedures, players, resources, objectives, boundaries, conflict, and outcome.

  • (Dynamic) systems: Methods of interaction that evolve as the game is played.

  • Conflict structure: The ways in which players interact with each other.

  • Uncertainty: The interaction between randomness, determinism, and player strategy.

  • Unequal outcome: How does the game end? Do players win, lose, or something else?

Another critical element in Fullerton's book is her continual insistence on actually making games. The only way to become a better game designer is to make games. Some of the games you'll design will probably be pretty awful—some of mine certainly have been—but even designing a terrible game is a learning process, and every game you create improves your design skills and helps you better understand how to make great games.

Jesse Schell's Definition

Schell defines a game as "a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude." This is similar in many ways to Suits' definition, and like that definition, it approaches the definition of game from the point of view of the player. According to both, it is the playful attitude of the player that makes something a game. In fact, Suits argues in his book that two people could both be involved in the same activity, and to one, it would be a game, whereas to the other, it would not be. Suits example is a foot race where one runner is just running because he wants to take part in the race, but the other runner knows that at the finish line there is a bomb she must defuse before it explodes. According to Suits, although the two runners would both be running in the same foot race, the one who is simply racing would follow the rules of the race because of what Suits calls his lusory attitude. On the other hand, the bomb-defusing runner would break the rules of the game the first chance she got because she has a serious attitude (as is required to defuse a bomb) and is not engaged in the game.

Ludus is the Latin word for play, so Suits proposes the term lusory attitude to describe the attitude of one who willingly takes part in playing a game. It is because of their lusory attitude that players will happily follow the rules of a game even though there might be an easier way to achieve the stated goal of the game (what Suits would call the pre-lusory goal). For example, the pre-lusory goal of golf is to get the golf ball into the cup, but there are many easier ways to do so than to stand hundreds of yards away and hit the ball with a bent stick. When people have a lusory attitude, they set challenges for themselves just for the joy of overcoming them.

So, another design goal is to encourage a lusory attitude. Your games should be designed to encourage players to enjoy the limitations placed on them by the rules. Think about why each rule is there and how it changes the player experience. If a game is balanced well and has the proper rules, players will enjoy the limitations of the rules rather than feel exasperated by them.

Keith Burgun's Definition

Burgun's definition of a game as "a system of rules in which agents compete by making ambiguous, endogenously meaningful decisions" is his attempt to push the discourse on games forward from a rut that he feels it has fallen into by narrowing the meaning of game down to something that can be better examined and understood. The core of this definition is that the player is making choices and that those choices are both ambiguous (the player doesn't know exactly what the outcome of the choice will be) and endogenously meaningful (the choice is meaningful because it has a noticeable effect upon the game system).

Burgun's definition is intentionally limited and purposefully excludes several of the things that many people think of as games (including foot races and other competitions based on physical skill) as well as reflective games like The Graveyard, by Tale of Tales, in which the player experiences wandering through a graveyard as an old woman. Both of these are excluded because the decisions in them lack ambiguity and endogenous meaning.

Burgun chooses such a limited definition because he wants to get down to the essence of games and what makes them unique. In doing so, he makes several good points, including his statement that whether an experience is fun or not has little to do with the question of whether it is a game. Even a terribly boring game is still a game; it's just a bad game.

In my discussions with other designers, I have found that a lot of contention can exist about this question of what types of things should fall under the term game. Games are a medium that has experienced a tremendous amount of growth, expansion, and maturation over the last couple of decades, and the current explosion of independent game development has only hastened the pace. Today, more people with disparate voices and backgrounds are contributing work to the field of games than ever before, and as a result, the definition of the medium is expanding, which is understandably bothersome to some people because it can be seen as blurring the lines of what is considered a game. Burgun's response to this is his concern that rigorously advancing a medium is difficult if we lack a good definition of the boundaries of what that medium comprises.

Why Care About the Definition of Game?

In his 1953 book Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed that the term game, as it is used colloquially, had come at that time to refer to several very different things that shared some traits (which he likened to a family resemblance) but couldn't be encapsulated in a single definition. In 1978, Bernard Suits attacked this idea by using his book, The Grasshopper, to argue very stringently for the specific definition of game that you read earlier in this chapter. However, as Chris Bateman points out in his book, Imaginary Games, though Wittgenstein used the word game as his example, he was really trying to make a larger point: that words are created to define things rather than things being created to meet the definition of words.

In 1974 (between the publications of Philosophical Investigations and The Grasshopper), the philosopher Mary Midgley published a paper titled "The Game Game" in which she explored and refuted the "family resemblance" claim by Wittgenstein not by arguing for a specific definition of game herself but instead by exploring why the word game existed. In her paper, she agrees with Wittgenstein that the word game came into being long after games existed, but she makes the statement that words like game are not defined by the things that they encompass but instead by the needs that they meet. As she states:

  • Something can be accepted as a chair provided it is properly made for sitting on, whether it consists of a plastic balloon, a large blob of foam, or a basket slung from the ceiling. Provided you understand the need you can see whether it has the right characteristics, and aptness for that need is what chairs have in common.13

In her paper, Midgley seeks to understand some of the needs that games fulfill. She completely rejects the idea that games are closed systems by both citing many examples of game outcomes that have effects beyond the game and pointing out that games cannot be closed because humans have a reason for entering into them. To her, that reason is paramount. The following are just a few reasons for playing games:

  • Humans desire structured conflict: As Midgley points out, "The Chess Player's desire is not for general abstract intellectual activity, curbed and frustrated by a particular set of rules. It is a desire for a particular kind of intellectual activity, whose channel is the rules of chess." As Suits pointed out in his definition, the rules that limit behavior are there precisely because the challenge of those limitations is appealing to players.

  • Humans desire the experience of being someone else: We are all acutely aware that we have but one life to live (or at least one at a time), and play can allow us to experience another life. Just as a game of Call of Duty allows a player to pretend to experience the life of a soldier, so too does The Graveyard allow the player to pretend to experience the life of an old woman, and playing the role of Hamlet allows an actor to pretend to experience the life of a troubled Danish prince.

  • Humans desire excitement: Much popular media is devoted to this desire for excitement, be it action films, courtroom dramas, or romance novels. The thing that makes games different in this regard is that the player is actively taking part in the excitement rather than vicariously absorbing it, as is the case for the majority of linear media. As a player, you aren't watching someone else be chased by zombies, you're being chased yourself.

Midgley found it critical to consider the needs that are fulfilled by games in order to understand both their importance in society and the positive and negative effects that games can have on the people who play them. Both Suits and Midgley spoke about the potentially addictive qualities of games in the 1970s, long before video games became ubiquitous and public concern emerged about players becoming addicted. As game designers, understanding these needs and respecting their power can be incredibly useful.

The Nebulous Nature of Definitions

As Midgley pointed out, thinking of the word game as being defined by the need that it fills is worthwhile. However, she also stated that a chess player doesn't want to play just any kind of game; he specifically wants to play chess. Not only is coming up with an all-encompassing definition for game difficult, it's also true that the same word will mean different things to different people at different times. When I say that I'm going to play a game, I usually mean a console or video game; when my wife says the same thing, though, she usually means Scrabble or another word game. When my parents say they want to play a game, it means something like Alan R. Moon's Ticket to Ride (a board game that is interesting but doesn't require players to be overly competitive with each other), and my in-laws usually mean a game of cards or dominoes when they use the word. Even within our family, the word has great breadth.

The meaning of the word game is also constantly evolving. When the first computer games were created, no one could have possibly imagined the multibillion-dollar industry that we now have or the rise of the fantastic indie renaissance that we've seen over the past several years. All that they knew was that these things people were doing on computers were kind of like tabletop war board games (I'm thinking of Space War here), and they were called "computer games" to differentiate them from the preexisting meanings of game.

The evolution of digital games was a gradual process with each new genre building in some way on the ones that had come before, and along the way, the term game expanded further and further to encompass all of them.

Now, as the art form matures, many designers are entering the field from various other disciplines and bringing with them their own concepts about what can be created with the technologies and design methodologies that have been developed to make digital games. (You might even be one of them.) As these new artists and designers enter the space, some of them are making things that are very different from what we think of as a stereotypical game. That's okay; in fact, I think it's fantastic! And, this isn't just my opinion. IndieCade, the international festival of independent games, seeks every year to find games that push the envelope of what is meant by game. According to Festival Chair Celia Pearce and Festival Director Sam Roberts, if an independent developer wants to call the interactive piece that she has created a game, IndieCade will accept it as one.14

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