August 12, 2014

Defined by Committee: Games and the Language Thereof

The Challenge of Talking About "Talking About" Games

It's futile. That is what a lot of people say when I, or many others, start to get all big-wordy when the subject of game analysis or critical review, or other forms of game-related theorizing and pontificating take root. The argument is that (1) we're never going to agree on terms, or (2) this topic has been endlessly debated before, or (3) why do you think you are right, or (4) even if we all agree on terms not everyone is going to use them correctly, or (5) what a waste of time.

My opinion is that without talking about the language we use to discuss games, we are going to be challenged to actually talk about games in a way that opens the door for critical analysis or discovery If we don't advance the language we are in a holding pattern. And even if any particular conversation doesn't yield something tangible and applicable, the discussion nevertheless helps with knowledge building and working towards a common understandings - or at least framing our disagreements and differing perspectives.

The thorn in my side though is that so often we (i.e. I) often just want a high volume of unfettered opinions on something. If one were to ask in a general forum thread, "What is a Worker Placement Game" before too long the discussion isn't even about worker placement games and its definition - it degenerates into some argument about symentatics and how things were said, etc. Such is the nature of the interwebz.

Fortunately the interwebz also offers up a variety of tools for collecting this high volume of responses/perspectives. Enter, "The Web-Survey!" After having a lively conversation in another post about what we meant by the term "Fiddly" I decided to make a Google Form Survey to ask that question. While I was at it, I asked a bunch of other questions too! Like what is a Game? Or What is Complexity? Or What is depth? The survey was going to be how I planned to cut the meta-debating of semantics off at its proverbial meta-knees.

You can check out the survey HERE (if you want to take it), or look at the results summary HERE.

"Game" Defined by Committee!

The "Big Question" that rises to the surface of the gamer-debate-o-sphere as often as the tides comes in, is the question of "what is a game?" So I asked that question and took a stab at analyzing the results for this conversation.

Now, one of the painful parts of this exercise is in drawing some objective conclusions out of open-ended response questions. Its tedious, but not impossible. The common wisdom that I've employed, drawing from both my professional experience in assessing surveys and reading up a bit on the subject, is to identify common "themes" in the responses and quantify the occurrences of those themes across the responses.

First, one has to actually read all the responses. You can't claim to have "read the responses" unless, you know, you actually read the responses! While taking the first pass, start to identify key words or phrases that are part of the response you come across. After reading through everything, distill your list of key words/phrases down into a more manageable list of major "themes" in the responses. Now go back and read them all again, and track which major theme(s) each response relates to. You can now tally that up and summarize occurrences or even do some basic association type analyses.

Design by Committee?

So in asking people, "What is your definition of a game?," at the time of writing this post I had collected 82 responses that I analyzed for themes. My short-list of themes is as follows (ordered by number of occurrences:

42 - An Activity or Pastime or Type of Play
38 - Has Rules or Structure or System of Working
33 - Is Fun or Entertaining or Pleasurable/Enjoyable
25 - Has a Goal or End-Trigger or End-Condition
20 - Has a Win/Loss condition or Scored/Ranked Outcomes
18 - Is Competitive
17 - Is Social
08 - Requires Skill or Is Challenging
08 - Requires Components
07 - Is Cooperative and/or Competitive Against "The System"
06 - Requires non-trivial decisions
04 - Non-Essential for Survival
03 - Is Not a "Sport"

Curiously, if we were to build a definition using the top 4 or 5 or the 13 themes it might be something like this:

A game is an entertaining activity with rules, goals, and evaluated outcomes.

It doesn't get much simpler than that. Of course more detailed reactions to this Committee Definition are in order!

First, I think we can all agree that games are in the broad realm of what is considered an "Activity." I could see amending activity to "contest" instead, suggesting some sort of conflict or interaction, but I think that's being nitpicky. Moving on...

Next is that after much contemplation, I do feel that "Entertainment" (e.g. "fun") is important to the definition of games. The "entertaining/fun" descriptor puts games in a non-essential or non-basic needs category and into one of entertainment and pleasure-seeking. We play games, by and large, for pleasure or entertainment however we chose to derive that. Some people have fun by laughing at other people, others have fun by scratching their beards in deep contemplation.

Of course, for some people, playing games IS a means to their livelihood (e.g. professional athletes, poker players, etc.), and it's worth mentioning that counterpoint, but professional sports exist nevertheless to provide entertainment to the audience.

Without the entertainment quality, a lot of what we do that has rules, goals, and ranked outcomes fall into other categories; like taking a test, solving design problems, running simulations, conducting experiments, or performing an analysis.

"Rules" are important because without rules the activities in question fall into the territory of free-form "play", story-telling, exploring, etc. There is a lot of lee-way here, and rules could be implied by the nature of the activity (e.g. a game of tag) or in some cases the rules aren't even known by everyone playing the game; yet they are still intrinsic to the activity being a game.

"Goal" refers to the point of the game, what are players attempting to do. Often times this goal also relates to the end-condition of the game or is a combination of end-trigger and win condition. Either way, having a goal suggests that the goal can be accomplished and that players work towards it. Furthermore, it emphasizes that the game is played over some non-infinite period of time (although that's not strictly speaking a requirement).

Last, "Evaluated Outcomes" implies some measurable, transparent or objective assessment of the game's end state, i.e. either meeting the goal and winning or comparing scores/points when the goal or end-trigger is met. Key to this is recognizing that outcomes can be PLURAL, meaning that there is generally no known and pre-baked solution or outcome, but many outcomes are possible; e.g. winning or losing, some people winning other people losing, people winning/losing more or less, etc.

These evaluated outcomes, in conjunction with goals and rules, make games distinct from other activities. For example, playing "tag" is an activity that follows a set of rules (one person is it, has to touch others with one hand to make them it, etc.). Often it is played as an activity with no thought to keeping score or what the goal is. But if we were to keep score (e.g. the player that is "it" the fewest times wins) and we establish an endpoint (e.g. we play until the recess bell rings) it is very much a game in my mind.

If we were to step back a bit and define "structured play" instead of game, we might define structured play as an entertaining activity with rules and goal. Structured play becomes a game when there are evaluated outcomes.

As another example, consider the kid-favorite, "the coloring book." By itself, it is certainly not a game of any sort - you color however you feel like, and who cares how sloppy it is! Yet we could make the activity of coloring into a game. For example, "You have 5 minutes to color the page and try to stay inside the lines. Each uncolored area or straying outside the line gives you point. The goal is to get 0 points (or fewer points than the other kids at the coloring table."

So that's it, five basic elements: activity, entertaining, rules, goals, and evaluated outcomes.

But How Puzzling!

Consider puzzles in relation to the above definition of games. Puzzles (Crosswords, Sudoku, Logic Puzzles, dexterity puzzles, etc.) fit within the above definition of a game, and I think it is reasonable to suggest that puzzles are indeed a subset of this broader definition of games. There are "evaluated" outcomes in puzzles, which is that the puzzle is either unfinished or completed and solved. The goal is of course to complete the puzzle, and the game end trigger is met when the puzzle is solved. In this way, puzzles are a specific subset of games.

Under this notion, Solitaire is clearly a game and NOT a puzzle in my mind, despite having only 1 win condition, because it is also possible to "lose" the game and not reach the win condition. A Crossword puzzle or a maze ARE puzzles (a subset of games), constrained in its definition by the fact that there is only one possible outcome (aside from not completing it).

Wandering the Waste, Minding My Own...

The other genre of games that I wanted to examine in light of this definition are the open-world, sandbox-type games (what Gil calls World Games), which are generally videogames in my experience. The Elder Scroll games come foremost in mind, although "role-playing games" in general also fit. Some people have asked, "Are these even "games" in accordance with the definition above?" Personally, I refuse to believe they aren't games, but at the same time there are some particular dimensions to them that should be clarified.

The open-world sandbox game (OWSBG), typically go on forever. There is no forced ending. No way to "win" and proclaim, "Now it is done!" What a OWSBG does is modify the "goal" part of the game definition to be goals that are player-defined. In a sandbox game, you generally decide what you want to accomplish and then set about taking the steps to get you there. The goals are player-driven, and as a consequence the evaluation of outcomes is also far more subjective, especially when it comes to narrative based outcomes. Do you make Bernadette happy by clearing out the rats in her basement, or do you set the rats loose upon the village? It depends what type of character you are playing and what goals you have set for yourself.

The other aspect of many of these games, particularly single-player OWSBGs, is that there is no death. If you die, you re-load. The lack of consequences, and the ability to infinitely try again or experiment with different approaches pushes the games into the realm of puzzles, at least a little bit. I've tried, and died, and re-tried some encounters in such games dozens of times, trying to find a satisfactory solution that gets me through the encounter alive. Very puzzle-like indeed. Yet puzzles are also games per the broader definition.

But what about X, Y, and Z?!

Other ingredients in the definition of game are worth mentioning, but as we layer on these additional aspects I feel that the definition is getting narrower in scope, potentially alienating things commonly understood to be "games."

"Competitive". Not all games require competition between players, some might be competitions between the player(s) and the game system itself, which can make the game cooperative (generally). While most games can be described as competitive, I don't think it is a necessary component of games. Are role-playing games competitive? Are sandbox video games (Elder Scrolls, Fallout, X3-series, etc.) competitive games? I don't think so, at least not in the way that a great many other games are completive, yet I still consider those examples games.

Secondly, "Social" as a descriptor implies that you generally play games with other humans. This is a broader use of the word social, in contrast to the subset of games that might focus on socializing, e.g. social deduction games or acting games. Playing games with other people implies some level of social interaction, even if that interaction only manifests through the board state itself. If "social" was included as one of the primary criterions though, solo-games or solo'able games would be pushed out of the realm of games and into something else entirely. I prefer to be more inclusive for the definition of games, so "social" is not a requirement.

It's at this point we hit Richard Garfield's definition of an Orthogame: A competition between two or more players using an agreed-upon set of rules and a method of ranking. An orthogame is adversarial (i.e. competitive) and requires multiple players (i.e. social), while having rules and a method for ranking the outcomes (I think the goal language can be implied by the rules). The only thing missing is the "entertainment" dimension, but that could be implied as well.

The last idea I want to address specifically is "Non-Trivial Decisions" . I see a lot of people brandish that requirement around. If it is included in the definition of a game than a great many things commonly recognized as games suddenly don't fit the criteria; gems like Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, LCR, etc. Those games have zero actual decisions you can make, yet you'd be hard-pressed to convince the average person that they aren't games! 
Lord help me if Gloppy get's me again!

Further Ruminations

In comparison to other recent writings on the definition of games...

My feeling is that the basic minimum definition of what a "game" is should be highly inclusive, recognizing that there is a huge diversity of types of games. But if one's definition of game fails the basic test of excluding things broadly understood to be a game, then I think the definition is weak.

If you want to try and draw particular distinctions around groupings of games, I'm all for doing that and discussing it as such. Hence specific definitions like "Orthogame." But every orthogame is also a game. Just as every pseudogame or idiogame is also game.

The one hang-up I have with the Committee Definition of game is with the "entertaining" descriptor. While I admit that most games are meant to be fun, pleasurable, etc. There are some games that maybe give pause. What about military "war games" meant to evaluate probably scenarios? Are these "games" or should be more accurately referring to them as "simulators"? I'm guessing the latter. We could be slightly more specific in our definition and suggest that games are "An artificial contest with rules, goals, and evaluated outcomes" - but you know what?

Sometimes we can just let the committee be right.


  1. This is an excellent analysis and write up! I have never thought to ask, "what is a game?" but now that I have read this I am surprised that I haven't! Thanks for sharing!


  2. Thanks! This "define by committee" approach is of course just one definition that works pretty well I feel.

  3. Excellent article and analysis! (I do have a few, hopefully interesting, nits to pick with the article which I'll post here later, though.)

    I plan on citing this article in a short article on games in the post-secondary EFL classroom in the near future. Are you OK with that, sir?

  4. Sure thing - feel free to cite the article and provide a reference. Also - there has been a lively discussion going on over at BoardGameGeek in mirror posing of this blog entry. Might be worth checking out for some other perspectives. Here's the link:

  5. Excellent discussion! I think you did an excellent job summing it up. I haven't yet ready the discussion on BGG. I'm not sure I agree that entertaining should be part of the definition. While games SHOULD be entertaining, I don't think that does anything to separate games from non-games. It's part of the experience of the game, not part of the nature of it.
    It's interesting that you consider puzzles and things like Candyland as games. I struggled with this a bit. That might be just another element of the experience, like "entertaining".

    1. Thanks for the comments!

      I think the entertaining element, though I struggle with it, is important because games tend to exist for their own sake in way, or the sake of entertainment. Generally, the outcome of a game does not have material consequences in the real world.

      Of course, games can have real world consequences (sports, gambling, tournaments, kudos, bragging rights etc.) but these consequences are a product of the cultural context surrounding the game, not the game itself. But "entertaining" isn't quite the right word to capture that idea either.

      Regarding Candyland + others "non-decision" games. I think if something is generally acknowledged as a game, the definition should be able to accommodate it. Certainly it isn't a "strategy" game, but it still has all the other qualities of a game.