Games That Aren’t Really Games…Should We Be Concerned? is an article on the Game Informer website (and maybe the mag too, for all I know) that explores the area of games that aren’t really games, such as the recently released Wii Music.
Curiously enough, the article leads off by using A Theory of Fun to try to figure out what a game is. 🙂 They arrived at this definition:
…for our purposes we needed something solid, and settled on several qualifications mentioned in his book. Ultimately, we chose the most important elements and decided that games are formal systems with rules that require choices, are competitive, have explicit goals and quantifiable outcomes. There…that is a little easier to swallow isn’t it?
They note that I myself think many of the distinctions are sort of irrelevant. Why? Let’s say that you have a game with a quantifiable outcome — Quake, perhaps. Now strip all semblance of score or feedback from it, but still track that stuff internally. What you have left is an activity wherein you shoot, but cannot tell if you hit; and if you hit, you cannot tell if you are doing better than other players.
In terms of game grammar, what we now have is an opaque model. All games are these mathematical models and constructs — information is given to us about the inner workings of the model, and we are supposed to figure out how the model works, and then act predictively.
There are some games where you use perfect information, meaning, you are shown everything about the model. Most classic board games work like this. However, information does not equal the actual thing. What we see is a representation of the model, not the model itself, which is abstract.
Now, does that mean that this version of Quake ceases to be a game? Not necessarily. The part that is missing isn’t information about the model — it is feedback on your interactions with it. When we see a game with poor feedback on your actions or choices, we call it a bad game — but a game nonetheless. There may be a threshold where a complete lack of feedback makes something not a game, but very few interactive systems lack all feedback. (A computer that is turned off, perhaps).
Instead, we are faced with a model we cannot comprehend because we lack enough data to assess what is going on. It’s the difference between popping the hood on a car from the 50’s and a car from today — it’s a black box, and the machinations within are difficult to guess.
Another factor that is frequently cited is whether there is a goal to achieve. Many “software toy” style games do not present explicit goals for players, and instead allow you to determine your own. Perhaps we have become accustomed to thinking that self-determined goals make something not a game, simply because software gaming forces you towards goals so much. But we should not forget that most real-world games are entirely based on self-determined goals. Yes, chess tells you that you should capture the king. But there’s a mutually agreed upon construct between the players there which is quite flexible and accommodates such things as making the knights neigh when they move, or galloping around the room pretending they are actual horses.
As software games get more flexible, this sort of breadth of goals is getting more common, to the point that now we have a genre called “sandbox games” which is simply described as “you can pick whatever goals you want, but we have supplied some built-in ones.” Congratulations, Saints Row, you have reached the level of sophistication of tag or hide ‘n’ seek. 🙂
Many of the “impostor” games that are cited follow a different pattern. There’s a model there, certainly. But the goals are entirely externally imposed. You set a fitness goal, a brain age target, whatever. The real world is slow at feedback, you see. How do you know you are actually changing your lifestyle? But the game is rife with feedback — that is the whole point, to hijack the feedback center of the brain. Basically, we get fun from mastering mental models; if we can orient the brain around real world models instead of the synthetic game ones, the logic goes, we can then use the strong feedback capabilities of software to help elucidate the model more, and thus encourage us to take the right actions.
Are they less games because they deal with real-world scenarios rather than fictional or artificial constructed models? I hope not, or else we might have to cease considering all of sports as any sort of game whatsoever.
The article states
While Wii Fit does include many of the features mentioned above – such as personalized workout profiles – the presentation is more similar to a cohesive collection of small games and challenges than a simple training tool.
and in doing so, acknowledges that the part that tips Wii Fit over into being a game in their mind is “the presentation” — the feedback loop.
This is much on my mind right now because on Metaplace I have tossed together a couple of fun games over the last two weeks. One is a simple variant on Tron-style lightcycles called Grid Battle. The variant pieces are that there are AIs that wander the field randomly deleting chunks of the line; and that people can join and leave the game at any time. Very quickly, people asked for a scoring mechanism — and it makes a powerful difference in how you play the game. I chose to make the score be based on how many segments of line you have laid down, which encourages people to fill areas as thoroughly as possible; you take out other people in order to give yourself more room to completely carpet the board.
The typical alternative would be to make the score based on kills of opponents — when you slam into a wall, that person gets credit. This encourages an altogether different style of play, wherein you aggressively go after others, and only carpet areas as a holding tactic.
I also worked on a thing I called HighSeas — a simple little ship-to-ship thing, where you can sail around with a moderately tricky control scheme involding raising and lowering sail, rowing, etc; fire broadsides, rescue drowning sailors before the sharks get them, and so on. There’s no scoring in there at all, yet it feels as fun as Grid Battle does. But sure enough, some players are asking for score.
Is HighSeas an impostor game right now? There is zero code in the model tracking any goals at all. But the feedback for sinking a ship is delightfully strong (oh, there’s slow motion sinking and splashes and then the little sailors bobbing on the water, and the sharks coming in, followed by a spreading little pool of blood…). This drives people to sink others even if there is no direct goal provided by the system. It’s a sandbox, with no score.
Were Brain Age able to place a hologram of your IQ or brain age over your head as you walked about, would it tip over into being a “real” game? Or are all of these distinctions really splitting hairs?
In the case of something like Wii Music, what we have is an interactive system where the feedback simply isn’t crude. Instead of giving you a score by analysing the consonance of what you are playing, or the harmonies, or your rhythmic sense, it lets you be the judge. You are both the action-taker and the judge; you decide how well you did based on whether you like the music you are making. You take on self-directed goals by choosing what sort of music to make.
At this point, it is hard to tell the gamer from the game. There’s a model there, but we evaluate our own sense of progress in understanding it. This may be similar to someone learning any motor skill or even pure mental skill. It is easy to picture a “goal” or “challenge” to overcome with these new learned skills. Play along to a predetermined piece of music. Replicate a particular song.
It’s ironic that we call these mere “activities” or “toys” when in fact this sort of gameplaying gives us the most broadly applicable skills. It’s the method we use most in the real world, when we play.
I am reminded, in the end, of Yeats (because it’s a game for me to work poetry into game design theory). In a poem about school children, he writes:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
How can we know the gamer from the game? “Impostor” games? — nay, these are merely games where the game is us.