Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

18 October, 2006

Richard Bartle’s definition of a game
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:50 PM

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?







5 Comments »

  1. I was thinking more about this after reading the “The View From the Top” blog entry by a former self-admitted high-end WoW player. This has echoes to the ever popular “It’s like a second job!” complaints we see on a regular basis. I was thinking about how there seems to be a definite transition between when people play the game and are having fun compared to when they suddenly feel that the whole thing is a bunch of work they have to pay for. What happens at this point? Do they stop having fun? Or, in Bartle’s words, do they stop playing freely and feel obligated to play for whatever reason? This is an interesting way of thinking about this.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 October, 2006 @ 12:04 PM

  2. >I think that one of the formal rules in a game can have is what constitutes winning/losing.

    Yes, it can. I’m saying something more than that, though: if you can’t lose, then it’s not a game. Your approach admits the possibility of a game in which there’s no possibility of losing, in which case what makes it a game?

    >On the other hand, the definition of “losing” is not as easily defined as he seems to believe.

    Ah, you noticed that I did’t actually define it, then?

    Yes, it is hard to define. For me, it’s something that’s relative to the point of view of the player. The player has their own definition of what it is to “lose” a particular game, and this is the criterion they use (whether the rules formally state it or not).

    >Can you have play or a game that is not fun? I don’t think so.

    Yes, you can. You can play it because you get something else from it that you want. Example: Thomas Malaby’s reference to games they play in Greece to determine which of the children of a farmer gets to own the farm (because if the farm were split up it would be too small to be viable). The children could insist on getting their fair share, but they don’t: they play a game of chance, freely entered into, in the hope that they’ll win the farm. The game isn’t fun, although I suppose winning would be pleasurable; the reason they’re playing it is for the prize at the end, though, not the fun of playing it (just as well as there isn’t a great deal involved).

    Would you call that kind of activity a game? Or work? Or something else?

    >if you do something and have fun, it is play; otherwise the same activity becomes work.

    But many people find their work fun most of the time. That means it’s not work? You’re saying that play and fun are basically synonyms.

    >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.

    Yes, this is what does often happen. It doesn’t ALWAYS happen, though, and when it doesn’t happen, would that count as losing? All I said was that it was a game if you could lose; that doesn’t mean you lose the whole time.

    >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’m aware that it’s a vague term, yes. I wanted to convey the impression that you were hoping to get something out of the game when you started to play it.

    >These are all benefits for me, but no two are really related

    Well, they’re related in that they’re why you were playing the games. You may have many reasons to play a game, from passing the time to having fun to trying to impress your opponent, but in all cases you hope to get something out of it. I called this a “benefit”; there are probably better ways of putting it.

    >Really, is there anything you do in your life that you can’t say you derive some benefit from, no matter how small?

    Perhaps not, but the point I was trying to get over was that the game and the benefit were linked. You played the game to get the benefit, and you wouldn’t get the benefit if you didn’t play the game.

    Richard

    Comment by Richard — 21 October, 2006 @ 4:45 AM

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Richard. :)

    Your approach admits the possibility of a game in which there’s no possibility of losing, in which case what makes it a game?

    According to my original definition, it would be the formality of the rules. What’s the difference between playing Cops and Robbers vs. playing a game like Laser Tag? I think that part of the difference is the formality of the rules (which can include the winning/losing conditions). Cops and Robbers depends on the imagination and creativity of the participants to see how the activity moves forward. Laser Tag has more formal rules for what constitutes a hit, how to score points, how a winner is determined, etc.

    I’m still not comfortable with your definition. If people played a sport like Soccer without keeping score, thus eliminating the winner/loser status, would they still be playing a game? I think most people would say “yes” and be correct.

    Later you said:

    All I said was that it was a game if you could lose; that doesn’t mean you lose the whole time.

    I think this makes your case weaker, IMHO. You can define arbitrary “losing” mechanics to any activity and this doesn’t make it a game. A game of Cops and Robbers mentioned above could be lost by getting your foot caught in a hole and breaking your ankle. Or the lose could be the one that gets bored last (or first). The fact that I have assigned a losing condition to this doesn’t elevate it to the status of “game”, IMHO.

    But, the more I think about this, the more I wonder if the distinction between “play” and “game” is really all that important for our work. I’d be happy to hear arguments to the contrary.

    Example: Thomas Malaby’s reference to games they play in Greece….

    I think this falls more into the category of gambling, though, which has its own particular quirks. For example, gambling can be quite “fun” up until the point you realize you’ve lost it all. But, I question if this example is really a “game”, or simply a more involved way of drawing lots/straws. For our use, I don’t think this example is particularly useful, since I don’t plan on making a product primarily to help parents determine which kid will inherit the farm. ;) So, for my use as a game developer, the aspect of “fun” is an important one.

    But many people find their work fun most of the time. That means it’s not work?

    I think you’re confusing “work” and “job” here a bit. A job can be fun, but work is generally considered the opposite of play. I think the important distinction in the work/play continuum is the fun element.

    Don’t get me wrong, I find my job to be many positive things: challenging, rewarding, meaningful. But, I’d hesitate to call the bulk of what I do “fun” in the sense we usually mean. I will admit: brainstorming initial game concepts can be fun, but that’s a very small part of a game developer’s job, as you know.

    You’re saying that play and fun are basically synonyms.

    In some cases, yes. More precisely: play is defined by fun.

    You played the game to get the benefit, and you wouldn’t get the benefit if you didn’t play the game.

    Okay, so you’re saying that you play the game for a specific benefit. I think this is clearer, but I’m not sure I agree 100%. The first problem is that it denigrates games a bit. The most widely played computer game is Windows Solitaire, according to conventional wisdom. Yet, most people play that game to pass the time. So, are games primarily time-wasters since that’s how people play the supposedly most popular game?

    Then there is the question of intention. I think that if the benefit is part of the game, as game designers we need to make this a consideration in our games. Given that we’re still groping around trying to define things like “fun” and “play”, worrying about intention seems to be well out of our grasp. The other problem is that this is hardly straight-froward. The player can define their own benefit, which may be outside the original intention of the game. For example, in The Sims, people enjoyed killing off the characters in different ways. Did Will Wright really set out to make a murder simulator? I suspect not, it was just possible given the tool set he provided in the game. Also, as you point out in your own blog, sometimes learning is incidental to the game itself. A game about memorizing facts is boring. A game about traveling between countries that happens to teach facts can be more fun.

    Some interesting things to think about, at least.

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 October, 2006 @ 11:42 AM

  4. I object to any definition of “game” which requires you to “have fun” while playing it, for the following simple reason: If I’m playing a game, it might be fun some of the time and not fun other times. It might be fun for you all the time and never fun for me.

    Regardless of how fuzzy you make the threshold, I think each activity you consider is either a game or not a game, and which one it is should not depend on the temporary perceptions of the participants.

    How do writers use the words ‘play’ and ‘fun’ when they write about the transition? E.g. I’ve read novels where the protaganist was playing some sort of game, and one of the participants did something violent (or whatever), and not only did the protaganist “stop playing” (i.e. “stop having fun”), but suddenly things turned serious (“this is no game”). But in every example I can think of, the [b]activity[/b] changed, and the new activity did not have the same game status as the old activity. For example, the protaganist thought he was playing a game with civilized rules, but one of the other participants did something uncivilized, and the protaganist realized that (in effect) the “rules had changed” to something not fun for him. But that doesn’t change the fact that the original activity with the original rules was a game.

    Comment by moo — 21 October, 2006 @ 3:28 PM

  5. I actually thought Richard’s definitions were pretty good.

    I’m still not comfortable with your definition. If people played a sport like Soccer without keeping score, thus eliminating the winner/loser status, would they still be playing a game? I think most people would say “yes” and be correct.

    “Losing” doesn’t have to be formally defined. It also doesn’t have to be permanent, or occur at the end of a game activity–you can have temporary (even fleeting) “losing” or “winning” experiences while playing, and continue playing.

    If we stop keeping score in a soccer game, you can still experience “losing” for a moment when your team gets scored on–or even when the other player evades your tackle and gets away from you. Likewise, “winning” could include momentarily breaking away from a defender and making a good pass.

    Its similar to AD&D, actually: a character dying is “losing”, but it’s usually not the end of the game session, and you can always roll another character and play again. Making it to the end of a scenario (or even a single battle) counts as “winning”.. perhaps even defeating one enemy in the middle of a battle.

    Both soccer-without-scoring and AD&D are still games by Richard’s definitions. The player engages in them hoping for the benefits of “winning” and “having fun”, but they also accept the risk of “losing” even if its only losing in small ways. Taking that risk can be a source of fun too (why else would people gamble?)

    Comment by moo — 21 October, 2006 @ 3:48 PM

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