Defining games (the cheapo way)

Many books on game design have a chapter, usually early on, that wrestles with putting a definition to the term “game”.  Since that’s something for which we all have a pretty intuitive sense, it’s surprising how broadly our definitions of it can diverge.  Try it!  You’ll find it’s pretty difficult to come up with that ideal string of words that are true for everything we call a game, but which also clearly exclude those things that aren’t games.  For example, you might say:

  • “A game is a fun activity.”  Hmm, well I’ve been to parties that were fun activities but that weren’t games.  I’ve also played some games that weren’t fun.  When I was in fourth grade all of the boys in my class would spend recess simulating pro-wrestling matches, which I personally found to be just plain painful.  But I’d have to admit that the shortage of fun didn’t stop it from being a game.
  • “A game is a rules-based form of play.”  It’s certainly true that all games have rules, no argument there.  But so do computer programming languages, highways, and sessions of Congress.
  • “A game is a frivolous diversion from the real world.”  No, that can’t be right.  Militaries stage games to simulate conditions of war, which is about as far as you can get from a frivolous pursuit.  A blackjack table is a game, but since the players are putting up real money it can have very tangible impact in the real world.

I think the difficulty stems from impulse to tackle the problem using a straighforward Webster’s / OED approach, which only works until you find one example to the contrary.  I vow never to try to do that.  Instead, it’s a little easier to describe the characteristics that, taken together, comprise a gameplay experience (sort of a cheapo approach).  In the past, I’ve found some success with these three characteristics of all games:

  1. Static objectives. One or more explicit, measurable conditions that all players are trying to reach.
  2. Environmental constraints. The things and places that enable play.  Think of cards, dice, checkerboards, and football fields.  These set hard limits on what people can do: a deck of cards only has four aces, no matter how much you might need a fifth one.
  3. Formal constraints. AKA, the rules.  These are the intangible limits on what people can do.  There’s nothing that keeps the players following these constraints, except for the fact that they all agreed they would.

That’s it.  Those three things are true of any game under the sun.  Also, anything where those three characteristics are present must necessarily be a game.  You’ll notice that makes it a pretty expansive way of thinking about games, and the characteristics could easily encompass things we wouldn’t normally identify as games.  Education, financial planning, and even work would be caught in a net that wide.  That’s by design!  I really believe that many mundane, everyday experiences can be understood as games, even if we’re not used to thinking of them that way.  And in turn, they can benefit from the elements of design that make games compelling and enjoyable.

Jesse Schell (who wrote a fantastic book called “The Art of Game Design”) gave a very future-looking presentation at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas last week, where he suggested integrating game design into the littlest things people do every day.  Brushing your teeth.  Eating breakfast cereal.  Riding the bus.  Reading a book.  He suggests that all of these things can be detected through sensors and engineered to earn you points, achievements, or tax credits.  Absurd?  You bet.  Schell’s deliberately overshooting the mark to invite us to stretch our imaginations beyond the traditional, limiting definitions of “game”.  Somewhere short of remote toothbrush surveillance is a much more compelling way to do Quicken, Outlook, or Craigslist.

If Schell’s proposals seem absurd, it’s more because we’re unaccustomed to them than because of any real-world barriers to actually bringing them to fruition.


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