“X” isn’t a game!

 Posted by (Visited 39671 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Mar 132012

I called this out as one of the trends I saw at GDC. Last year, people were saying that Farmville was not a game, and I argued that it was. This year, I wrote about narrative not being a mechanic and had to extend my comments on it because of the controversy, and Tadhg Kelly bluntly said “Dear Esther is not a game.” At GDC, the rant session featured Manveer Heir saying that it was arrogant and exclusionary not to consider it a game, and arguing that the boundaries of “game” needed to be large and porous. Immediately after, Frank Lantz gave his own rant, which used sports extensively as examples of games.

The definition of game that most people — and I am particularly thinking here of the layman’s use of the term — is basically something like “a form of play which has rules and a goal.” Lots of practitioners and academics have tried pinning it down further. I’ve offered up my own in the past:

Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.

Some see this as a “fundamentalist” approach to the definition. But I use it precisely because it is inclusive. It admits of me turning a toy into a game by imposing my own challenge on it (such as a ball being a toy, but trying to catch it after bouncing it against the wall becoming a game with simple rules that I myself define). It admits of sports. It admits of those who turn interpersonal relationships, or the stock market, or anything else, into “a game.”

Basically, I see this whole issue as this Venn diagram. I group sports, boardgames, and yes, videogames under “game” because all of them are susceptible to being broken down and analyzed with game grammar. They all have rules. They all have an “opponent” that presents varied challenges to the player. They all have a feedback loop. They all present verbs to the player. They all present goals. The fact that some use real-world physics as the opponent, some use the human body, some use dice or boards, and some use a computer is not even relevant when you break down the game atoms. I can group these easily because I’ve dug into them so much that I know there is something there in common.

That isn’t to say it isn’t a very wide net — I wrote about games that fall on the boundary and seem lacking in goals altogether years ago, and still lumped them under game.

This doesn’t mean I dislike all the huge potential that is in the other side of the diagram. On the contrary — Andean Bird began over on that side, and arguably was more successful there than as a game. And anyone who has followed what I’ve written over the last fifteen years knows that I believe that games can be art.

The question is whether that entire red area should have the name “videogame,” which is what some are advocating. And I am resistant to that, in part because I suspect a Powerpoint slide deck could live over there. The unifying factor seems to simply be “displayed on a computer” to me. Mind you, I have great sympathy for the notion that a digital platform enables great new things for art! On the other hand, I also know that computers are not solely electronic, so even that boundary line feels a bit awkward.

So we could call all that stuff “game.” Or alternatively, we need a name for what Dear Esther is, and that seems to me a simpler problem than renaming the category that encompasses baseball and tiddlywinks, which have both been called games for a very long time.

That said, I don’t see any reason why that should be regarded as dismissive, exclusionary, or derogatory. Videogame designers have been crosspollinating with digital artists for a loooong time now — I think for example of Zach Simpson’s work — and I think that the game developer community is certainly welcoming enough to things that live at the boundaries of either game or interactive art.

In short — there’s no reason to call each other names. But naming things is still a valuable exercise, and I’d hate to lose precision on something that we are finally able to pin down.


  74 Responses to ““X” isn’t a game!”

  1. “Interactive art” isn’t a great label (and is imprecise; the words don’t imply being on a computer, your Venn diagram is wrong, we’d have to extend it to some mouthful like “digital interactive art” for clarity). Plus then you get that whole “are games art” debate resurfacing which is just as absurd as this one.

    I posted about this a little while back, last time it came up: http://mightyvision.blogspot.com/2012/01/definitions.html
    The problem is kind of political; places like GDC and IGF have been using the word “game” for a very long time too, and shouldn’t start excluding not-games because they’re, well, not games. When you say “this isn’t a game”, at a place explicitly dedicated to games, people take it to mean “this doesn’t belong here”. And of course it does.

  2. I agree it isn’t a great label. My point being that there basically ISN’T a label for that side of things and that is why people are trying to co-opt “game” for it.

    I’d be comfortable with calling all of that circle “games” if we could extend the theoretical understanding of gameness in such a way that includes them.

    Names are always political. But in writing this, my goal was to take it out of the political and into the practical.

  3. PS, you say in your blog post, “I kind of wish “game” wasn’t the general term for interactive software art.” I rather think it ISN’T, except in the minds of a very few, right now. The fact that those very few happen to be attending GDC and IGF doesn’t really win against centuries of usage of the word… common usage is a very hard thing to fight. Even at the IGF, the vast majority of titles aren’t “notgames.”

  4. I don’t quite see why video games overlap with interactive art, but board games don’t: take something like Gloom http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12692/gloom in which half the fun is the stories that people tell, rather than the mechanics of the game.

    Similarly, take something like an pencil and paper RPG, which is primarily about creating a story that is fun for the players, rather than producing winners and losers.

  5. Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.

    This definition in my opinion is too inclusive. I would add the word “simulated” right before “framework”. By doing that you exclude things like stock-markets, and interpersonal relationships, and war.

    And by excluding those things, it’s much easier to discuss games, game design. and theory.

    By “simulated” I simply mean that there are no real-world consequences that result from playing the game. Or that any real-world consequences can only be observed in the meta-game (I’m happy now that i played that game!).

    With the stock-market, the systemic framework does not simulate anything.

    Think about the difference between this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_exercise

    and this:

    Biologically speaking, don’t animals play games to simulate conflict of some kind? Lion cubs wrestle because it serves as practice for the non-game reality of hunting or being hunted.

    Whatever games are, surely they simulate.

  6. Get a random person off the street, put them in front of Dear Esther or Proteus, they’ll describe it as a game. Maybe after playing for a bit they’ll question whether it is, but the first response will be “oh what’s this game, what do you do in this game?”.

    And as @edclef just mentioned on twitter: “Also interesting (& complementary) that according to the formalist definition, most of any given videogame isn’t a game.” Dear Esther isn’t some crazy new invention – it’s what considerable stretches of Half Life and similar games have been like for some time! So it’s extremely natural to refer to as a “game” something where you spend all of your time doing the same thing you spent half your time doing in something else you called a “game”. This *is* common usage now, whether we like it or not!

  7. My 2 cents: If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, and moves like a duck, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a member the Anatidae family of birds.

    In the same way if something looks like what’s already been called a game, if it sounds like what’s already been called a game, if it moves like what’s already been called a game then changes are someone will call it a game. And sometimes you gotta dig deeper to discover the truth.

    But like you said, it’s an interesting exercise, but nothing to argue about.

  8. I’d agree with the basic pattern of the diagram but think the “placement” would be more gradiated as far as how much the experience of a given video game multimedia experience is predicated on the mechanics of your definition of ‘game’. Some video games are certainly more “game-like” than others. Rather than being able to definitively declare something like Dear Esther on either side of a line, it would probably be more agreeable to classify as “a poor example of a game” or maybe “having little in its nature similar to game”.

  9. I agree with brog, and don’t see how definitions of Dear Esther as a ‘non-game’ can stand up. Tadgh Kelly claims that it is not a game because there is no capacity for “meaningful change”, and when questioned on the word “meaningful” in the comments, he points to his Primer entries on ‘busywork’ and ‘action’. The former defines busywork as an action that does not create a loop, yet cites MMO grinding as an example even though fighting and killing an enemy clearly constitutes a loop (as does slowly gaining experience points from doing it many times). An ‘action’, meanwhile, is something which causes a change in the game-state…which walking around (updating the player doll’s position) and triggering audio logs (updating their tally) clearly do.

    Likewise, Raph, while I’m not quite sure whether you consider DE to be a game under YOUR definition, you mention it as if it may not be. And yet…please forgive me if I’m misunderstanding your definition, as a search for some explication of its key terms came up short, but… DE has a “defined systemic model”. The player takes actions by walking around and the game feeds back on those actions based on certain rules. It is a challenge situation too; it has an ending, a ‘win’ state, which you can only reach if you do certain things.

    Beyond this, a lot of what’s said about challenges and winning rather confuses me. If a game being winnable just means there has to be some end-state which is only reachable by certain methods over others, then DE has one and Minecraft doesn’t, despite the latter having more agency. Likewise, STALKER stops being a videogame if its final objective cannot be completed due to a show-stopping unfixable bug. Seems a pretty arbitrary standard. If a game being winnable means its end-state has to be positively ‘branded’, on the other hand, that means all a game has to do to stop being a game is have a downer ending on the (non-essential) plot level. By the same token, if I make a map for Half-Life that includes no weapons and no useable objects, is HL (with this map) suddenly not a game? If an exploit is discovered in Dear Esther which adds some element of skill, do we reclassify it as a game (ignoring the fact that walking around and navigating a 3D space is a skill test, albeit a trivial one)?

    Apologies, I’ve sort of ended up thinking aloud, and I don’t necessarily mean to address these questions to Mr. Koster as if he has made some pronouncement on them. But they are indicative of the problem in general. I don’t have any insurmountable beef with some things being declared “interactive art” and others “games”. Nor am I actually very interested in DE as an artwork (seems like a dead end to me). So far, however, I’m left questioning whether claims to exclude it from the category of ‘game’ have actually managed to demonstrate its categorical difference from Dwarf Fortress or Monkey Island. I plan to email Kelly some of these questions, but wanted to respond to this post too!

  10. I actually described Dear Esther as a game over here: https://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/26/narrative-isnt-usually-content-either/

    In games designed to cause the player to put together stories, such as Sleep is Death, Facade, or Dear Esther, there is a system there, an algorithm — and then there is the statistical variation that is fed into it. And that statistical variation, the content, is actually little symbols and narrative moments, ones that are often impressionistic or disconnected. The “problem” the player faces is that of arranging them into a coherent whole.

    The fact that symbols and moments and memories are profoundly intangible things does not mean that they can’t be manipulated in this way; fiction does so readily, as we have seen. From a mechanical point of view, though, they have much in common with the particular hand of cards you have been dealt, or the set of Scrabble tiles on your rack. You end your interaction with the system by making sense of them, which is different from finding a word in the tiles only by a matter of degree. Dear Esther‘s mechanics could be replicated with a different setting and group of symbols — to radically different emotional effect. When analyzed by the game grammar, we’d find two very different experiences to be the same game.

    I don’t quite agree with Tadgh’s criterion of “effect change in the game world.” That doesn’t really fit with the way that I look at the “machine” that is a game. Moe a matter of models not fitting together than actual disagreement, I suppose. But still… not the way i would approach the definitional issue.

  11. I have always viewed the classifications a little further out. I break them into four parts, which are Analog, Digital, Games, and Media. All four overlap, however Media and Games cannot escape Analog and Digital.

    Where you intersect media, games, digital, and analog is what I would classify Video Games as. Analog is your input device(s) used to interact with the digital world. Media is your medium for presentation of the game.


    You can have analog interactive/non-interactive media and the same for digital. Art itself has to be delivered with a medium, so I find it an alien concept to attempt to simplify the diagram without including media.

  12. Ah, thank you. That’s an effective way of looking at it, I think, and clears up my confusion at the tem ‘statistical variation’. Out of curiosity, what do you suppose a non statistically varied challenge situation would look like?

  13. what do you suppose a non statistically varied challenge situation would look like?

    Well, it’s one where there is only one challenge possible. Once mastered, it’s over and done. These tend to be things like “press a button.” 🙂

  14. I’m a bit surprised that you got through all that without mentioning Wittgenstein, who wrote a very famous and influential treatment of this topic more than fifty years ago.


  15. Funny enough, Wittgenstein used games as his example, but all the games he used actually DO fall under my understanding of game grammar. 🙂

  16. Is WAR the card game a game? Ask any kid! Yet there is no decision making, you just keep turning over the cards.

  17. […] “X” isn’t a game! [Raph Koster] gdcraph kostergdc2012  Discuss  Share  Tweet  Email  More get_count_post('http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/03/when-is-a-video-game-not-a-video-game/','post-495548'); Next post »« Previous post […]

  18. Ha, I wrote a piece about this topic last week, then bumped it then because it was GDC week and I didn’t think it’d get noticed, and bumped it again this week for a critique of Journey. So I guess this means my reply to this will appear next Wednesday. 🙂

    Best wishes!

  19. Have amended the post to cross-refer to this piece – might as well roll you into this discussion. 🙂 Hopefully you’ll see it when it goes up – I’ll try and remember to drop by and leave a link.


  20. Would be curious to know where you place Role-Playing Games (and MMORPG) wich come from a psychiatric technique and/or actor-playing, and simulations games (wargames and others) wich can be board games.

  21. The reason that I ascribe the ability to cause unscripted change in the game world (through player action) is that without it literally anything can be labelled a game.

    As an example, if you’ve ever visited Madame Tussaud’s in London and walked through the serial killers exhibit then you experience a moody environment with a strong storysense which uses media elements. There are sounds, text, things to see and snippets of audio conveying the tale, screams and so on. It is mechanised promenade theatre.

    Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, The Passage and similar are essentially the same thing, but in digital form. Manveer Heir, Dan Pinchbeck and others seem to want to cast the game net over all of these works either because they’re digital or because they believe games are experiences, which is a statement I don’t entirely agree with.

    I’ll be posting more on this on my own blog a little later.

  22. Would be curious to know where you place Role-Playing Games (and MMORPG) wich come from a psychiatric technique and/or actor-playing

    RPGs as a whole are clearly games. They are complex in that they encompass things that are not just games. They’ve got multiple game atoms in them, as in combat, inventory management, team coordination problems, etc. At the far extreme, they can become a form of improvisatory performance with no formal models in them, though, tipping away from ludus and towards paideia. Even there, though, players tend to have built up a construct of implicit rules and tend to have goals in mind.

    and simulations games (wargames and others) wich can be board games.


  23. Tadhg, it’s not that I disagree with you, it’s that the phrase “cause unscripted change in the game world” isn’t one that fits very well with my understanding of the grammar. So it just makes it a bit hard for me to use it as a definition.

    In particular, since I see games as fundamentally systemic models, machines, that means that “unscripted” is an odd word. And “change in the game world” is awkward because even player movement is a change in the overall state.

    But those are picky objections — like I said, it’s not that we disagree, it’s that the terms don’t line up.

  24. Sure, I think we’re on roughly the same page.

    As a sidebar, when I refer to ‘change’ what I generally mean is player-agented changes of state that are more than just positional (unless a change of position is highly related to wins/losses, as in Chess or a foot race). Positional movement is more often simply travelling, as in driving around in LA Noire or walking around in Dear Esther and are not player-agented state-changes.

    For reference (and now that I have a reference to refer to :)), see:


    My new post is up btw, and you’re quoted in it.

  25. I am having, apparently like others, a problem with the “interactive art” aspect only applying to computer games.

    I think of the works of Fluxus or “Anti-monopoly” which very definitely use board games, interactivity and art. Likewise take a game like Blood Bowl which definitely has artistic qualities in its commentary on sports and sports culture which move in artistry. Even a game like “Kill Dr. Lucky” manages a sort of artistic commentary on the game of clue.

    Further, In subjective sports like gymnastics, diving, ice skating, or ballroom dance, it is hard to see a lack of interactive artistry among the players and judges. If one looks at the various ARGs, LARPs and Pervasive games, it really becomes hard to see an artistic difference between that and the works of theater groups like Redmoon in Chicago, or Punchdrunk out of England which I would appear to qualify in an interactive art though not necessarily game diagram.

    There is a subversive quality to play which manifests itself both in games and art which seems to, at every turn, cause a situation where if someone draws these sort of definitions, someone else comes along and does exactly the opposite while still maintaining either the art or the game.

    I notice that puzzle apparently can get lost in your proposed definition of game while something like dance or yoga could very well be included.

    It all reminds me of trying to limit definitions of genre in fiction, or whether an work of art is or is not with say a grouping like impressionist or modern. It seems that in these cases the logic of the Venn Diagram does not actually present the reality. I would say the same is true with games. There is no Platonic ideal that can be found here, and attempts to do so lead to Procrustean beds of weird prejudice that lead to poor solutions. A bigotry over what does and does not fit.

    The definitions of art and games are those of rough shared quality. Not the hard edges of Venn Diagram Logic.

  26. I think that’s a fair comment. There are many tabletop RPGs that are more art project / improv drama than games as such. Where would they sit?

  27. I am having, apparently like others, a problem with the “interactive art” aspect only applying to computer games.

    I really did mean “interactive digital” as others called out. I may need to edit the image. 🙂

  28. All games require tests. Dear Esther has no tests. That ends the discussion for me.

    In my understanding, games are either just an encapsulated structure of tests or a system that generates tests.

  29. […] “X” isn’t a game! games […]

  30. So, video games are digital art, where other games and sports might be art or interactive, but just not digital?

    Seems like a tautology to me at that point that leaves the Venn without any real meaning.

  31. Edward, “art” by itself isn’t on the diagram. As it happens, I think you can find art in most all of those. As I said earlier in the thread, the issue is that there is no name for “software intended to create an interactive experience.” That’s probably the most accurate label for that oval that I can come up with, but it doesn’t easily fit on the graphic. 🙂

  32. I updated the diagram 😛

  33. I believe we need a good example of something that takes no art (creativity) to make and then interact with as a game.

    Random numbers that you can interact with still take some form of creativity to generate. It is as close as I can think of to getting to almost no art involved.

    Chaos driving an algorithm might be closer to such an idea, however I’m shooting blindly with that idea. You would still need some creativity to try to observe the results, display them, and then accept input for interaction.

    I still consider software intended for interaction is “digital media accessed by analog input devices”. You can make a game out of anything that can be interacted with and almost anything interacted with requires creativity (art) to make (unless we find a way to have games made for us without intelligent decisions).

  34. we need a good example of something that takes no art (creativity) to make and then interact with as a game.

    Why? The art question is completely peripheral to this entire discussion.

  35. First off the claims of others might be that all form of interactive digital art are games, or even more simply that all forms of interactive art are games. I don’t think the digital or non-digital divide really makes one iota of difference. I think Glenn covered that not all interactive digital experiences are games).

    I think we would agree that there are many forms of art that are interactive in the process of creation, collaboration, which really doesn’t come into the discussion. Really it is a question of whether when art becomes interactive with the audience does it all become a game?

    Or is all art that has an interactive experience as part of its artistic statement (i.e. it is not a collaboration of creation) a game? At that point, it really doesn’t matter what your definition of art, interactive experience or anything else except whether it meets your definition of game.

    Since one can find Art that is just pushing a button, or art that is really just a puzzle lacking the statistical variance, or art that is really more paidiac and theatre-They are not games. Which I think is what you are trying to say- that not all forms of interactive art are games because I can find ones that don’t meet the definition. Which I would whole-heartedly agree.

    The digital/non digital, the boardgames and sports, all this information is just noise. They also might be interactive art. One could have arguments over whether completive Dance Dance Revolution might be a sport (or whether a First person shooter dependent on dexterity skill is) or discuss what happens when Ticket to Ride, Scrabble, or Chess move to a digitally mediated experience do they cease to be boardgames because of the medium. Which is fun- but not really the topic.

  36. My own personal definition, that I do happen to like, is this:

    Games = Toys + Rules

    A toy is anything you can play with. A rule is any condition or constraint that isn’t inherent in the toy itself. The + means they’re being woven together to create something unified called a game. Note that a toy may have a rule that doesn’t “mix” with it: in my mind, a mother telling her child he can’t ride his bike over her flowerbed is attaching a rule to a toy, but not blending a rule with a toy to create a game (at least not intentionally).

    In a case like Dear Esther, there are barely any rules, and what rules there are exist to simulate reality (gravity and physics consistent with expectations, etc.) not to form a game. Both toys and rules are there, but they don’t mix exactly. This… incomplete congealing creates this grey space, I feel, about whether it’s a game or a more passive sort of entertainment.

    But, I like going to maximum abstraction like this, getting as conceptually simple as possible, and I do like the pseudo-Venn diagram (if only because it echoes my own feelings).

    More importantly, though, I think in the abstract that’s where we can refine the line between “games” and “interactive art”: in what rules exist and how they’re woven with the toy being played with.

  37. […] just read a blog post by Raph Koster, in which he explores the problem of trying to find a definition of videogames that […]

  38. I got to thank you Mr. Koster, this has certainly made me think a lot today- it has been stuck in my head.

    I hope you don’t mind but I have one more thought.

    Defining games is more like defining a mental illness like Depression. Depression is really defined by looking at what a patient might be exhibiting (by observation or reports of self observation) and really compared to a set of criteria. Some of these criteria have been somewhat formalized in works like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM). A person does not have to meet all the criteria to be considered depressed, further meeting all of the criteria plus more might actually result in a different diagnosis than depression. On top of all that many trained practicing therapists might actively disagree over whether any of the criteria has been met. It is not really based on the underlying mechanics of the illness, but only the symptoms presented. This doesn’t even begin to discuss the more common everyday ideas people have when they say they are feeling depressed.

    Does this make the desire to define and codify depression a worthless act? Not by a long shot. But any definition of depression will not fundamental. It will always rest on a large degree of subjective interpretation. To treat it as though it is fundamental is to make a categorical error as to the nature of the definition. It is not logically precise and to treat any single definition as such results in a grotesque mistreatment of the actual conditions that people are suffering. This could change with a better understanding of the mechanics but I bet that it would also be a limiting definition that would change a lot of what we currently mean by it. Common colds, which I currently have, are similar.

    Likewise with games (and for that matter the dreaded A word-Art.) They share that ambiguity. In fact others have said that it is through games that we understand living with uncertainty. This is probably a lesson as true in trying to define games as to play them.

  39. I haven’t played “Dear Esther”, but my understanding is that it is an experience in which the player explores a virtual environment and pieces together elements of the story behind the environment and the player’s place there.

    So to anybody dubious about whether this qualifies as a game, my question would be this: would it qualify as a game if each element carried a point value and the game tracked your score? And if so, why does a concrete numeric score carry more weight that the intangible rewards of exploration and discovery?

    I’m a little out of my depth here: as a simple backwoodsman, your modern design terminology confuses and frightens me. But it seems to me that it’s most useful to use “game” as a broad, inclusive, and somewhat fuzzy category and then, if needed, limit your focus to specific subcategories that are more tightly defined.

  40. I was just trying to point out that interaction without art (creativity) is simply a scientific simulation and not a game, however I must not have been clear. Interaction with art is definitely a video game. So, that being said. Dear Esther is a video game.

    Some of my favorite games have always involved exploration. If you were to remove systemic elements from those games other than movement and geography, you would still have an exploration game (albeit a boring one without risk).

    Dear Esther has exploration as its core interactive element. It has a tree dialog system (some elements must be interacted with before others).

    Dear Esther is much like a choice book that asks to turn to a specific page to read more dialog. I considered those children’s books as an interactive reading game. Dragon’s Lair used the same mechanic of choice, except with a reaction time.

    The ability to die in the game is present, however only with a slight time penalty as its consequence (having to wait to respawn for a couple seconds and listen to “Come back…”).

    I consider Dear Esther an adventure game, however a boring one due to the slow plodding movement and little to no risk. The game will not progress without your choices. It will not play itself for you. It is not passive, because to do so would be to put you on rails without choices (machinima).

  41. @Hanse:

    “Interaction with art is definitely a video game.”

    By this definition, a virtual museum exhibit is a video game, as well as a non-virual exhibit.

    Though, I like the question you raise: if Dear Esther is a video game, is it a -poor- video game? (for the reasons you state: slow movement, little risk, extremely minimized “game” elements)

  42. @Peter S. and @Hanse

    That question is exactly why I raised the question again yesterday on my own blog. I don’t see how ‘games’ like Dear Esther can hope to really achieve their own critical cache while associated with games.

    At some point, someone (and indeed a great many someones) apply the bi-directional association of brand to the thing laying claim to the wider label. It backfires.

  43. Raph, I would love to see you expand (expound?) upon the difference between “playing” and “playing a game”, as that could defuse much of the confusion that followed your original post. Your ball example could do that if you were to differentiate between rolling a ball around and exploring its physical form, properties, implied uses, etc., which are all forms of playing, vs. the ruleset you implied with bouncing it back to oneself. Then it would be a 1:1 comparison of two different “activities” rather than a comparison of an object (a “toy”) and an activity, which are somewhat dissonant.

    And to play devil’s advocate, Dear Esther could be considered a game by your own definition if we consider that the statistically varied challenge is the search for the true backstory (with a varying degree of success, from one player to the next, based upon one’s ability to explore the environment completely and to interpret the intended meaning successfully), with the opponent being the environment (light levels, physical obstructions, hidden triggers for crucial narrative) and the framework being the avatar’s capabilities within the world, which require remote intervention by the player through an artificial controller, in the same manner as operating a robot. Just saying. 🙂

    And thanks for the discussion.

  44. @Peter and @Tadhg:

    That’s why I was trying to quantify the amount of art (would prefer to call it media and creativity to separate the two) that it takes to make a game. I enjoyed museum exhibits and played with them when I was a child, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy them as much now. I do not consider presentations a video game, as most museum exhibits are. You cannot truly interact with a presentation.

    You can have a purely mathematical game with no art, but it’s not fun. It turns towards experimentation, simulation and presentation and not a game, even though it took creativity to make it.

    What it boils down to is what is required to cross that threshold of making something fun that we consider it fun (perception of fun).

    Dear Esther does not have enough components for me to consider it fun, but then I’m extremely spoiled (like to consider myself “game educated”) as I play just about everything I can get my hands on. 🙂

  45. Dear Esther could be considered a game by your own definition if we consider that the statistically varied challenge is the search for the true backstory

    I actually made basically the same case in the blog post here: https://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/26/narrative-isnt-usually-content-either/

  46. But Hanse, would you not consider sports fun while you play them?

    I would basically disagree strongly that a purely mathematical game with no art cannot be fun.

  47. @Vasken

    “Dear Esther could be considered a game by your own definition if we consider that the statistically varied challenge is the search for the true backstory”

    The fact is that the player has to do nothing in order to trigger various clips, they just happen randomly. Like many a modern art exhibit that has timed events, the audience may chance upon it at certain times and witness them, and can come back again later to see more of them. Do they have to do anything? No. They just turn up.

    Even in other promenades like The Stanley Parable there are events that the player can witness by making choices, but they are scripted. It is nothing more than “walk here, press X, success”. There is no challenge, no tests, no gameplay of any kind in either.

    These and similar positions are really just exercises in equivocation, as I wrote about yesterday. In this case you’re equivocating on “varied challenge” to prove the point, including that which is not challenging (a repetition of the experience) but just randomly sequenced (the only variation present).

    Which returns me to my original position: It’s just not a game. But also that does not mean it’s a bad thing.

  48. A purely mathematical game with no creativity that is entirely chaotic and, while interactive, is nonsensical with its display (while there may be a pattern, it cannot be perceived by a human through analog means) is what I was getting at. A base line for something that is absolutely not a game and is more a scientific experiment. It has all the elements of a game, but it is not something that could be considered a real game.

    With a baseline, if we identify the elements that make up a game, we can quantify how interactive and entertaining it is from an objective point of view. Of course, everyone has different perceptions of what they consider is entertaining and fun. 🙂

    Anyway, I doubt we could make something so purely without art (media and creativity) that is interactive that could not somehow be considered as a game.

    I’ve played many purely mathmatical games (stock market games were really fun in the 80’s). I would not claim that they cannot be games. I was trying to suggest that there is possibly a way to make something interactive that is without art, but I cannot quite state what that would be. That’s why I said my examples were poor.

    @Vasken: Some of the dialog tree seems random and some of the dialog is triggered by locations. Approach the white cliffs and it will describe them. Walk along the beach to the rocks at the beginning and it will describe them as bones. The game is not purely random. It could be that some locations have keywords that search in the dialog and finds something that vaguely resembles what the keywords are and uses that dialog. Much of the dialog is vague… That is quite creative and definitely something that would lend itself to improving many games for replay value.

  49. I see that you’re defining *play* (the subjective act) rather than *games* the objective things. At what point can we say that a thing has an objective existence as a game?

  50. Raph, you have clearly put a lot of thought into defining solid and actionable characteristics for defining what a game should include. If we once again use Dear Esther as an example, what would be the minimum modification needed to make it into a game? Would a “Story Completion %” gauge be sufficient, because it implies a goal and reflects the player’s progress towards accomplishing that goal by means of their own interaction? Or would it take something more? Feel free to change the subject of the example if you’re getting burned out on the D.E. debate.

    Best regards to you.

  51. @Raph: “I see that you’re defining *play* (the subjective act) rather than *games* the objective things. At what point can we say that a thing has an objective existence as a game?”

    One answer might be: “A toy is something played with, while a game is something that’s played”.

    But the better answer is that I think you did a good job with your original definition by starting it with “Playing a game is the act of…”, as the action personalizes the experience for the reader rather than simply discussing an impersonal object. By sticking to actions, you are engaging your readers even more through summoning personal experience. Your ball example is also easier to understand, by sticking to the action, rather than having to explain what the game “Bouncy Ball” is after naming such. So my hope is that you will continue to focus on action when you transform this new debate into a more formal presentation (because you should, and because you should make it personal!).

  52. I think I figured out my own solution to what I was trying to convey.

    Something is not a game if it does not have an intelligent strategy. At the point that a very basic intelligent strategy emerges from development, it is a game. If you cannot find an intelligent strategy in media you are interacting with, it is not a game.

  53. Quick thought: picross is a wonderfully fun purely mathematical game, as are those old logic-grid problems (you know the type: Paul, Sean, Mary, and Sue live in a Blue, Red, Green and Yellow house…). Also the other kind of logic grid as is found in the game SquareLogic on Steam (I own this and quite like it), also also Sudoku (which I don’t personally care for). Also also also Minesweeper and it’s many variants, and arguably Sokoban and its variants…

    …and yet I kind of agree: does a single challenge make a game? Does a single challenge only make a game with the right, or the right amount of, context? A math quiz isn’t generally thought of as a game, but if we call it a math race to try to finish 100 problems quickly? If we score both time and percent correct it’s visibly more of a game, but if we instead set a very short time limit that almost guarantees some unanswered problems and only score wrong and missing answers, is that different enough yet?

    This is really good food for thought, and I once again find myself cursing that I’m responding from work, giving my post its own very short time limit. 😀

  54. @Hanse,

    That’s a really good point, as it falls in line with how we lose interest in a game once a dominant strategy appears. (Using that phrase in its technical sense: http://www.gametheory.net/dictionary/DominantStrategy.html)

    At that point the game is “solved” and is felt to not even be a game any more, or not much of one. The feeling, I find, is different that solving a puzzle game, but then puzzles aren’t about devising strategies (and finding out there’s a “right” strategy which then defeats the purpose).

  55. […] exercise, and I’d hate to lose precision on something that we are finally able to pin down. (Raph Koster’s Website) 分享到: QQ空间 新浪微博 开心网 […]

  56. @Peter

    All puzzles have a strategy involved, if there is more than one choice. A puzzle has a strategy involving separating the choices that are inefficient versus efficient (dominated versus a payoff that would possibly win).

    If a jigsaw puzzle has two pieces, there is not much of a choice except to find how they fit. However, the choice to fit them or not is what makes it a puzzle. The same goes for Dear Esther.

    The problem I had at first with Dear Esther is that not much choice was given to me. I felt no direction was conveyed in its beginning.

    However, I was wrong. There are a lot of clues that are imparted in the game. First, your back is to the sea with a lighthouse in front of you. Second, I could move. Third, I could hear a sound clue that led me to believe I was actually walking.

    The choice of going to the lighthouse and going to the sea is a strategic choice. Should I carry on or drown myself? I chose to drown myself, of course. I like to rebel (and test myself) against constraints.

    So, while the strategy did not win (dominated strategy), it did give me a sense of the game’s rules.

    The tower’s light that I could see from the path above the lighthouse easily became a beacon towards completion of the game. My choices making a faster route to the beacon were a higher payoff than my choices to deviating from that payoff.

    However, those choices may be inefficient towards learning the story involved to finding the final destination. That may be an inefficient path, in some people’s eyes. I’ve replayed the game a few times. 🙂

    In any case, there is a strategy that you can use to getting to your goal in Dear Esther.

  57. These definitions are too complex. I highly recommend The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits for a fantastic analysis of the notion of gaming.

    In short, my favorite definition: “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

    The bouncy ball toy becomes a game when you add the rule ‘the ball must hit the wall before I catch it’. Though I would argue that the simplest ball game emerges from the rule ‘I must catch the ball after throwing it’. These simple rules create the obstacles you choose to overcome.

    You don’t need to stipulate or virtualize an opponent: Solitaire is a game with no opponent; opponents are a type of obstacle, and part of the rule set.

    You don’t need a strategy: the card game War has no strategy. It does have an obstacle: your opponent’s deck, which you overcome through attrition.

    These obstacles are unnecessary in the sense that you can trivially overcome them by not playing the game at all.

    The really important part of this definition is the subjectivity: the players must *choose* to play in order for a game to be a game. One could experience Dear Esther as an exploratory art piece and not a game – such a person would not be concerned with ‘finishing’ or finding anything in particular in the world of Dear Esther. One could play Dear Esther as a game by choosing some goal in the world, and the world itself becomes the obstacles standing in your way.

    The question of whether Dear Esther is objectively a game can only be answered in a relative sense, as the degree to which it encourages the subject to treat it subjectively as a game by choosing to interpret the world as an obstacle to overcome. “Game” is a continuum, not a boolean.

  58. @ Hanse,

    I dunno, I start to feel like we’re abusing the word “strategy” past a certain point. If there aren’t meaningful choices (not -decisions- but -choices-) I don’t think there’s an ability to develop either a set of choices or a guideline for making choices, and I’d need one of those to feel the word “strategy” is really appropriate.

    (The distinction I’m making between decision and choice is that a choice has a meaningful opportunity cost. You might decide to move faster or slower through Dear Esther, but it doesn’t come at any particular cost within the system.)

  59. @Tim

    I would not consider War a game. War is a mathematical exercise, which determines where the cards will end up. It is only seen as a game, because the players are typically children who do not realize that there’s no strategy involved.

    I do like that approach with the definition of playing a game to overcome obstacles. However, if none of the obstacles have a choice in the variety of ways to overcome them (no variety at all), then I would not consider that a game (as in the case of War).


    Decision or personal goal? Yes, I did make an arbitrary goal in Dear Esther to finish it faster. It was not a goal that was constrained by the game.

  60. As promised, here is the link to the piece looking at moving from definitions of game to a wider discussion about the aesthetic dimensions of play:


    (There’s a link to this piece of yours within it.)

    All the best!

  61. @Hanse,

    Bringing your own goal or rule doesn’t make the toy itself a game, anymore than a basketball by itself is a game.

    Consider applying a drinking game to a movie, as a more direct analogy. It doesn’t mean the movie -is- a game, though certainly the movie is now part of a game (and a game that, in abstract, is every bit as mechanical as War).

  62. In my opinion, Raph, the more specific your criteria, the more exclusive your criteria. “A form of play which has rules and a goal” is thus a far more inclusive definition than… “the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.” What a mouthful! I think a better question than “what is a game?” is “why do you need a more specific definition?”

  63. @Morgan,

    I’d say that it’s because technically all play has rules and goals, mostly unstated and assumed. Social rules about fair conduct and reciprocity (i.e. sharing), goals such as “to build this Lego model together before my friend has to go home”, et cetera. Thus, a need to distinguish between social or cultural rules governing play (above and outside it) and more arbitrary rules invented within the play (existing purely for the sake of establishing a game). Nested contexts, in other words.

    Better example: what are the rules of Monopoly and its internal goals, versus the general rules that surround sitting down to play together and the motivations for doing so? Or, why doesn’t Monopoly need an internal rule that tells players not to physically assault one another?

  64. […] a “sport”, or a “game” is a pretty difficult topic. Let me just say that sports are games and you can hopefully trust me (and that link) for now, until I get into it more […]

  65. […] have a very good definition for games. Several attempts have been tried, from the pithy, to the obvious, to the exhaustive. But it’s surprising tricky to make an all-inclusive definition. But […]

  66. […] For more details, read his post on why some digital interactive art should not be called a game. […]

  67. […] opponent. Raph Koster argues that an activity needs an opponent for it to be a game, even if that opponent is an AI. This works […]

  68. […] далеко продвинулся исходя из своего определения игры (eng.) и утверждает, что упражнения с дефинициями […]

  69. […] Koster reports on the x-isn’t-a-game thing, where different people compete to win the game of defining game and ends […]

  70. […] “X” isn’t a game! games […]

  71. […] Raph Koster – “X” isn’t a Game […]

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