18 October, 2006
The exceptionally brilliant Dr. Bartle posted a bit over on his blog about What’s in a Game? As some of my loyal readers know, I did something similar a while ago. I found it interesting to examine Bartle’s thinking and compare it to my own.
I think one can make some interesting comparisons because we both had similar goals: to define basic terms in a simple manner. Richard and I are also both technical-minded, coming from a programming background in each case. Of course, Richard does have significant experience over me. ;)
You can see from the start that Richard starts with the same two words that I did: play and game. Although we agree games are a subset of play, we arrived at different definitions. I defined a game as play with more formal rules, whereas he defined a game as play you can “lose”. I think we’re both right. (This is a problem with trying to keep things simple when talking about something with a fair amount of subtlety.) I think that one of the formal rules in a game can have is what constitutes winning/losing. On the other hand, the definition of “losing” is not as easily defined as he seems to believe. I’ll get to that in a minute.
The most interesting thing missing from Richard’s definition is the center piece of mine: fun. Can you have play or a game that is not fun? I don’t think so. Although I think the inclusion of “freely” in Richard’s definition is intended to take care of this. The assumption here is that you would not freely play a game that is not fun. Richard addresses this in his “Criticisms” section where he compares play to work. I think the “fun” definition fills in better here: if you do something and have fun, it is play; otherwise the same activity becomes work. Although, Richard does bring up a case where you may play “a game” and not necessarily have fun: when playing with a child. You may be playing a game which has no challenge for you, but you participate anyway in order to entertain the child. In my opinion, you’re still playing a game if it matches the other criteria, even if you’re not having fun given the restrictions of playing with the child. I could see how you could extend this to other areas: a game where someone is severely beating you, etc. So, perhaps my definition involving “fun” isn’t so useful.
So, going back to the definition of “losing” and looking at Richard’s example of Dungeons & Dragons as being a game you can’t win but can lose, I’m not sure I agree 100%. Character death, even a party wipe in D&D isn’t really a loss. If your character dies, you often just roll up a new one and that’s considered part of the game. And, character death can be an important part of the story. I think you only really “lose” at D&D when you fail to have fun. An idiot DM will kill the game faster than a Tarrasque.
It is also interesting to see Richard talk about playing a game for a “benefit”. For me, I think you would have to define “benefit” so broadly that it loses importance. I might play solitaire on a portable system to pass the time, or play a game I’m not fond primarily for the social experience, or I might really get into a game because I want to evaluate more of the mechanics. These are all benefits for me, but no two are really related, IMHO. Richard does address this somewhat in the “Criticisms” section, where he ponders if the benefit has to be intrinsic to the game, or a side-effect. Again, I think that the definition is too broad to be meaningful. Really, is there anything you do in your life that you can’t say you derive some benefit from, no matter how small? Few things in our lives are truly selfless.
Finally, Richard stats that some games are limited. His example is Snakes (Chutes) and Ladders. The reason this is not really a game is because there is no meaningful choices the player makes. The point of the game is almost purely mechanical: the manipulation of the pieces of the game. This gives young children with less refined motor coordination skills the ability to refine them in the context of the game. One could also argue that the game reinforces counting ability, since most games have numbered squares, and you count out your movement after rolling the die. But, without the decisions as part of the gameplay, the “game” seems empty to people who have mastered motor coordination (relatively speaking, in some cases) and counting.
Of course, Richard covered some elements that I did not. The most notable is “hope”, which means that you do not know what the end will be. This is something I didn’t include in my definition. This makes sense, because if you know what all the steps will be, it is no longer a game but rather a performance. Note that this doesn’t always have to be a random element: chess does not necessarily have a set outcome because the possibility space is very large and valid moves that do not necessarily lead to failure conditions are numerous. You could, however, exactly play out a classic game between two players and easily know the outcome of that performance.
Overall, I found Richard’s musings to be interesting. Although I don’t agree with it 100%, he obviously put some thought into it, and I think it’s worthy of discussion. I’d also be interested to see if he turns around and applies his thinking to online games, like I did. What are your thoughts?