Apr 162013

020780-rounded-glossy-black-icon-symbols-shapes-spinner4-sc36The world is full of systems. Often they exist below the threshold of what we perceive. It’s all a whirling clockwork of near-infinite complexity, from the tiny mysteries of quantum physics to the wonder of a single tree spanning miles, to the vastness of neurons that sit inside our relatively small skulls.

These systems are dynamic. They move, they change. Had we only the right vantage point, we might be able to see how every gear, every electrical impulse, every vibrating superstring, all can be seen as a filigreed marvel of machinery, the insides of a grandfather clock.

Is everything only this? That’s a question for philosophers and the religious. Many of these systems are of an order of complexity that we may be simply unable to comprehend. Our mental capacity is not so great, after all.

So we arrive at heuristics, our good enough rules of thumb, for addressing these complexities. We can understand physics well enough to plant a robot on a distant planet, but we don’t understand physics. We can understand another person well enough to interact with them, but no one ever really knows anyone fully. We can read a novel — a vast profusion and entanglement of signs, story-worlds, mirror neurons, syllabic scansion, mythmaking, and metaphor — and take away some part of understanding, but likely never all.

Our means of coping with these systems is to simplify. We reduce great complexity down to signs. We classify and categorize and collate. We iconify, cartoon, sketch. When we stop to think about it, we know that all these simplifications are lies. But they are lies we use to live our daily lives, and so we carry on.


We learn to cope with the dangerous, vast, enmeshed gears around us by playing with them. If we stuck our hand into the real gear, it would be mangled and bloody. So we hold back, and either stick our hands into pretend gears (by making a toy model of the system), or stick pretend hands into the real gears (by not emotionally investing in our actions). This is the act of play. Note that the target of one’s play may still be emotionally invested, and so this act is a subjective one.

047459-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-markerBernard Suits called this “a lusory attitude.” His example was golf. The utter ridiculousness of making it harder to drop a ball in a hole — as if there were a reason to do that in the first place! — by requiring you to use a stick to do so… we are creating a system full of complexity for ourselves. A toy system where the rigidity and weight of the stick, the chaotic interference of the swirling wind, the mental impact of the oohs and aahs of the spectators, the way the dew fell across the grass and reflected sun in our eyes, even how to deal with that cramp in our leg from walking all this way — where all these things are present in the toy. Through golf, we learn a little bit about each of these systems, and about the purely made-up system of golf itself. And we carry those lessons on in to our lives, where knowing about glare, about tension, about trajectory and about emotional support, matters a lot.

We are wired to; our brains need these icons, simplifications, because otherwise we cannot cope. So we give ourselves subtle encouragement to keep trying to figure out the machinery of everything. We drop dopamine for curiosity and reward, and we increase our focus when tackling new things. It’s hard, and we don’t do that much, honestly. When we do, we think of it as fun.

There are systems we — not master, but cope well enough with. They become trivial, routine. And there are systems we stare at bewildered, because there is no handle on them, no starting point. They are noise to us. And this is different for every one of us, as we build on what we know.

And for everything else in the middle, we can choose to approach it with a lusory attitude, thereby turning it into a game.

  1. We move through these. They are consumed. As a child, Snakes and Ladders is one such. Then it falls off the bottom as trivial. Did it cease being a game? For that person, yes. They engage with a system, there is a process, and the process ends, and it stops being a process. And with it, the game is over.
  2. We do not all approach the same thing in the same way. For another person, a given system may never be approached with this attitude of learning. For them, the lusory attitude never starts. What that system a game? For that person, it never was.
  3. And when someone presents a system for an audience’s consideration, they may present it as a game, or as a novel, or as something else entirely. If someone creates a hypertext work that some call a game, and the author objects, does it it mean it never was a game? To that author, yes.

047415-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-camping-tent43-sc43We cannot, therefore, ever say what a game is in this sense, because it is different for everyone. To one, the stock market is a game. To another, reading Harry Potter. To another, a piece of interactive fiction, and to another, a game of chess. We play a sport, an instrument, a game, a joke, a part. The language is wise in this way, it sees underlying truths.

So the rhetorical move is to make the word “game” reside at heart in the process, not the object. Game is a big tent, and a “player” can shove absolutely anything in there.

Creators should also therefore keep in mind that every audience member can also yank something out. There is no mileage is getting upset about it.

But this does not mean that everything dissolves into a soup of subjectivity. The systems are real, and they have characteristics.

The primary characteristic of systems that are commonly approached with a lusory attitude, by those who are not differently abled in some way, is that they fall inside a typical range of complexity. Complexity almost in the formal mathematical sense. When solved, they cease being approached as a game, and things below a complexity threshold tend to get solved.

Some people associate “play” with freedom, flexibility, lack of rules. But it is perhaps better to think of “unstructured play” as actually being about many rules, tons and tons of them, many unstated, often changing on the fly; and “structured play” as being about fewer rules, clearly stated. Calvinball is unstructured; Nomic, funny enough, is highly structured. Both are fertile fields for play.

There seem to be four big classes of things that meet these criteria, triggering different sorts of fun. We can say this because it has been measured in the expressions in our faces and analyzed: hard fun, easy fun, social fun, visceral fun.

047500-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-people-woman-runner095548-rounded-glossy-black-icon-signs-z-roadsign92 One is our selves. Our self is a sack of fluid primarily made up of colonies of distinct organisms that cooperate enough most of the time that we can move through the universe as if we were a coherent entity, despite the fact that we colonize and are colonized every moment, a turnover of life that means that we are more a city than a citizen.  Our self is a car that we drive, that we expect to respond, that we sense through electrical impulses traveling at speeds measurable by engineering.  Our self is an array of systems, and we can approach interactions with it as a literally visceral game.

A066067-rounded-glossy-black-icon-people-things-brain033340-rounded-glossy-black-icon-culture-books3-stacked002958-rounded-glossy-black-icon-media-music-cleftnother is also our selves. Each self is a soul wandering a space of poetry, attaching and detaching meaning from moment to moment. Our self is the composite of the other people in our lives, half reflection of neurons firing in tandem as we feel the same emotions others do, triggered by a cocked eyebrow or a fleeting micro-expression of a smile. This self sees and seeks beauty, small surprises. It feels pride in mentorship, and petty joy when it sees another trip. It catches delight in photographs and shares them with nostalgia. It is not so much that we can play a game with our own emotions and thoughts, as it is that the unbridgeable gap between selves is a system of great complexity. Here is where so much personal art resides. Is it no accident that a portrayal of humans interacting is called “a play.” Understanding each other is itself a powerfully social game.

009309-rounded-glossy-black-icon-arrows-arrow-1turn2-down 047425-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-chess-pawn2-sc51 047518-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-sport-billiard-sc52The third rough category (and these are not clear cut boundaries, no indeed!) is that of the things which are not us and have no mind. The branching decision trees, the state machines, the patterns of animal migration and the formulae of physics. Many see this as a cold and inhospitable world, and in aggregate, it is. But such is the world we live in. Long ago we learned we had to master systems like the rhythms of seasons and the arc of the spear. These all reduce to mathematics, a hard-edged glittering quantification that conveniently categorizes itself into levels of complexity. Here we find that the systems that tease us with their apparent comprehensibility are ones that fit inside a certain level of computability, ones that we can use our remarkable brains to address with interim solutions called heuristics, but cannot ever quite solve. As we mature in our knowledge, we learn that more things are computable than we thought, and they slide down the scale. Sometimes we never master the heuristic, and the triviality of a system like Sudoku never becomes apparent. In casual lingo, people term the trivial ones puzzles usually, glossing over the fact that a formal classification of NP-hard or PSPACE-complete doesn’t mean that a given player sees the problem in that category. These things are hard, and we often privilege this level and call it “real games.” But that does a disservice to what is perhaps better termed a formal game.

086211-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-charts1-sc1The last category, alas, is a degenerate one. It is the dark side of the math. We are lousy at estimating probability. We think we can estimate, but we cannot. We think we grasp big numbers, but we don’t. We make projections, and we are wrong. Reality is exponential, stochastic, chaotic, and we see a pattern only to have it be a false image. This, alas, is exploited by the less scrupulous. But nonetheless, there is a lot of fun in these unsolvable game of gambling.

It may seem like this is reductionist. It is. These are no categories, however, but qualia. The experience of each is subjective. In fact, a system may be approached in a way that is non-lusory, in which case we may use it for meditation, for practice, for comfort, for narrative purposes (though this last one is sneaky and may lure you back into a lusory attitude!).

It may also seem that what is happening here is that we are destroying any possibility of formalism. But that is not the case.

Some systems are artifacts. They are not necessarily physical (in fact, quite often, not physical), but they are designed. We can leave aside the question of whether physics, the weather, and the human mind are of this type, and look at the stock market, tennis, chess, and Pong. Some of these partake to a greater or lesser degree of the folk process; some of these have had a more emergent history than others; and yet they are all artificial constructs of rules.

002965-rounded-glossy-black-icon-media-music-guitar1Some systems provide affordances for being treated with a lusory attitude. We play the stock market, we play a musical instrument. These artifacts were not created with the intent of their being used with a lusory atttude, but there is a degree of simpatico.

047402-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-ball-soccer1Some provide not just the affordances but suggestions, prodding you towards methods of engagement. We play with a ball, we play with SimCity or Minecraft‘s sandbox mode, we play with our understanding of a book. We impose our own goals on these, but we were guided to them. In common usage, this is often called a toy but as you can see from the examples, not always.

047449-rounded-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-gameboySome provide a goal. We play Halo, we play soccer, we play backgammon. Common language calls this a game, but as we have already seen, common language has overloaded that word a lot. We could perhaps term this an intentionally designed ludic artifact. In the past, we have called the process of consciously creating a ludic artifact to be “game design” or even “game systems design” but that nomenclature is failing us.

The commonality here lies in the process (also called “playing a game,” argh) that is superimposed upon these artifacts or situations. And this process has a grammar to it. Let us for the moment term this a ludic pattern.

Some critical frameworks have been interested in ludic patterns (game formalism, game grammar, ludology), and others in the process (game narratology, reader response theory), but I would contend that this is a false dichotomy, because the process often starts with an interlocutor taking a systemic artifact, whether it was intentionally designed as ludic or not, and imposing their ludic pattern upon it. Often, they simply take the suggestions the artifact affords, or explicitly follow the goals that the artifact proposes. They do not always submit, though; the invention of new goals (speed runs, griefing, playing misere) is extraordinarily common. In fact, one of the commonest (and amply represented by the entire quale of social play) is mere understanding.

086294-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-gears1-sc44066157-rounded-glossy-black-icon-people-things-people-head 086293-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-gears-sc37When the ludic artifact is highly structured, the ludic pattern is like a ghostly echo of it: the process much resembles the artifact. When it is loosely structured or self-imposed, the pattern still looks like a ludic artifact, but not because the artifact shaped it strongly. It partakes of the ludic shape because that is one way we as humans learn. Not the only way: one (big) way.

To illustrate the way in which the word game trips us up, this can be described as

  • “This is a game because I treat it as such”

because it ironically implies an act of subjective transformation:

  • “This artifact (which may be self-described as a “game”/”work of IF”/”art piece”/whatever) is a game (colloquial umbrella for any system that affords “play”) because I treat it as a game (superimpose a ludic pattern on it).”

086421-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-tools1 086419-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-tool7 086394-rounded-glossy-black-icon-business-tool-army-knife-sc44So where is the scope for formalism? Completely intact. It simply operates as one critical lens among many, focusing primarily on the structural qualities of the ludic pattern and most especially ludic artifacts. It is simply a way of treating the ludic learning process itself as a system to figure out. And that, to formalists, is a pretty fun game: they’ve made great progress in finding out the grammar to this system — enough, at this point, to be able to argue with Wittgenstein. Formal analysis is just one more reader response, one more way to play. Even this little essay is nothing more than that: a personal response to a baffling system.

Does this mean that at bottom it’s all formal? No, that’s not true either. Every engagement is subjective. We can run domain analysis over and over, but get ourselves into trouble every time we shift contexts.

So: anyone can make a game. In fact, everyone does, every time they play “a game” whether it’s a “game” or not. So, go make games, Games, games, GAMES! And let’s all have the understanding that we are all at play here, and it should be fun, even when play is deadly serious.


  67 Responses to “Playing with “game””

  1. “In common usage, this is often called a toy but as you can see from the examples, not always.” The examples have game modes and can be used as pieces/objects in one’s game, but I’m not following how the toy mode of each is still be considered a game. To use Minecraft as an example, it has Creative mode and Survival mode. Creative mode is a toy. Yes, the user can make a personal game of it, but they do so by adding their own goals and objectives, not any that exist in Creative mode. The same is true of Etch-a-Sketch or modelling clay. Those don’t suddenly become games once the user adds an objective, they become a piece in the user’s personal game.

  2. It isn’t, until someone makes a game OF it. That’s the point. In practice the ball is actually the ball and physics and the weather and so on. THAT is the system that you are interacting with. The ball is as you say just one token in that larger system, which is an undesigned potential ludic artifact. It becomes a ludic process when played with, with that intent.

  3. I appreciate the effort you put towards this, but unfortunately it fails to advance the conversation or increase our ability to communicate.

    People have been attempting this whole “let’s just say that you can call ANYTHING a game” thing for awhile now, but it will never stick, because it’s *not useful*. Language eventually lands on a spot where it’s useful, and that’s what’s going to happen. So, I think that people should, instead of doing the “game has no meaning” thing (which you just did), people should identify some definitions that have utility.

  4. I think you missed the point of the post, Keith. What I did was surrender the word “game” to the general, imprecise usage, precisely so that we can continue with the process of doing tight formal definitions of ludic artifacts and patterns — e.g. what you call a game. What this does for a formalist is carve away the other contexts where the word is used so that we can continue with what we are doing. There are too many meanings of ‘game’ and this pulls them apart.

    Further, it does clarify the status of a ludic pattern — what you call a game — as something that can be run entiely in one’s head, or be designed on the fly or as a folk process, which is something a lot of people don’t grasp.

    For your purposes, all it means is that what you currently call game becomes a new word. I propose Lude.

  5. Actually, to add to my first comment… I guess what I would really say is that this, what you’ve written, is kind of beside the point for game designers – people actually concerned with the problems of creating interesting, engaging and original games. Like, what you’ve written DOES have utility, I think, for someone who isn’t necessarily shooting for designing games themselves but just wants some kind of big-picture understanding of how games fit into our universe.

    So I think that’s one big rub that *I* personally have with a lot of these “what are games” talkers. I want to use a definition that will help interactive systems designers understand systems better, and you – at least, it seems to me – want to help laypeople / amateur philosophers understand “games” in a broader sense.

  6. I actually think that knowing that what you are designing is actually a mental model is pretty important for a system design practitioner.

    But yes this post in particular is not about formal systems design. It is about where formal systems design fits into the larger picture. I have written stuff that is more like what you do, but you are correct that this article is not it. 🙂

  7. Actually, let me add something. Based on the last week of discussion I believe that the word ‘game’ is a barrier to us arriving at definitions that help interactive systems designers make better games. And I do believe that given we want to be rigorous, there isn’t any reason why serious system designers couldn’t just learn a new, precisely defined word. Whereas I think that it’ll be impossible to get the whole world on board with our definition of the word ‘game.

  8. Please, Raph, I beg you: stop trotting out sciences in your pageant if you’re going to be so careless with them. First, it doesn’t build confidence to refer to complex dynamic systems and then mention “clocks,” even by analogy. But of course, who cares about that? That was just the gate onto the garden path: The universe is confusing, so we simplify it. Now follow me, you beckon, and prepare yourself for the Simplificationomisms!

    This is an old trick. You did this in A Theory of Fun. I’m cool with the piece as it goes on Mr. Apriori’s Wild Ride, right up to the point where I want to get off…

    …where my pulse quickens and my face flushes and my palms sweat: where I read careless referrals to mirror neurons, or dopamine, or micro-expression as a way to perfume an argument. You can’t just wave at this brain stuff like that, as though a casual, vague reference to Science is evidence. If it’s hot and it bounces, it must fit? That’s the work of a scholastic; it’s doing it wrong. Games, first and foremost, work in our brains; people that care shouldn’t just let name-dropping “neuro” terms or concepts dress up folk psychology.

    For example, mirror neurons are highly controversial, as are the claims of their biggest champion, Ramachandran. If you don’t want to write them off, and maybe “cold fusion” is unfair, just let them lie for a while. So much other cool work is being done, and needs to be done, that there’s no need to oversell them. Mentioning them means you either weren’t aware of the controversies or are careless with inference, either should be hard to do if you’re keeping tabs.

    Dopamine is part of many systems. It’s involved in planning, and decision making, and pleasure-seeking, and a bunch of things. So, it has a role in reward but it is not a “pleasure” or “reward” chemical. Of course it’s involved in novelty-seeking, it’s involved in planning generally. As an example: http://today.uconn.edu/blog/2012/11/uconn-researcher-dopamine-not-about-pleasure-anymore/ If you don’t mention dopamine in a more nuanced way, it means you either haven’t been keeping up in recent years or are reckless with inference. (And here, especially, the details matter to our art!)

    Now, of course I realize that mirror neurons don’t matter to the content here. Even dopamine is just chipped up for the credibility ante. But what about the one you spend a bit of time on; set some things on top of? Starting with a weak reference—“There seem to be four big classes of things that meet these criteria, triggering different sorts of fun.”—is a big dressing up of Nicole’s Four Keys. It misuses and misrepresents the intent and scope of that work. The Four Keys is the conceptual basis of a system for improving game experiences. It’s a product for developers to use for improving their games. It makes no attempt to explain games or fully catalog the underlying impulses and motivations for play because that is not its function; it is not explanatory nor rigorous in that purpose. It is an awesome and useful tool—“cover three or more of these four emotional points, your game will be better”—but it does not lend meaningful support to your position. It is not “science” fit for this purpose. To base a model on it? Oh boy…

    However, if you just want to theorize/philosophize, there’s no need to evoke “neuro” or Psychology because there is nothing in your ruminations that is based on current scientific models, and you make no falsifiable claims. If you aren’t comfortably familiar with action potentials, or brain anatomy, or synaptic plasticity, or current models of emotion and cognition (the “basics”) or even just keeping up with current work in brain sciences (including its failings), don’t use it to stucco conclusions. I’m-Raph-MF-Koster-And-I’ve-Made-Games-Since-MUDs is a more compelling argument than I-don’t-know-how-science-does-this-shit-look-neurons! We have a credibility problem already. 🙂

  9. Gosh, Isaac! Quite a lengthy complaint. 🙂

    I really was just glossing and simplifying while trying to get to my main points. Yes, I am aware that dopamine is not just a pleasure chemical; we don’t fully understand it at all, but we do know that it is involved in instances of curiosity, of focused learning, and pleasure. We know it is involved in anticipation the resolution of varied situations. The last stuff I read along these lines was Biederman & Vessel, but if you have pointers to other stuff, I’d love to see it. (I had in fact seen the article you linked).

    You are correct about mirror neurons; I’m clearly behind on that one. Got pointers towards the latest controversies?

    The four types of fun are in fact from Nicole, though I did gloss over the connection between that and four types of game model, which are half from Caillois and half developed out of game grammar stuff. I spent more time on this in my 10 Years Later talk for Theory of Fun, and I was cribbing and glossing as I did this essay, trying to get to the main point. So yeah, that’s a fair criticism too.

    I DO read up on brain science. You however seem to read a lot more of it than I do! 🙂 But stuff like action potentials, or even plasticity, seem kinda the wrong level of detail expected for a piece like this? Seems like only the basic cognition aspects are really directly relevant…

  10. Are we intending to discuss pure ontology? I can rant reductivistly for a good while about “the map is not the territory”, about all perceptions being extremely likely bets against reality and not guarantees, about the problems inherent in the “is of identity”, etc. and thus really start building from the ground up, but I don’t know if that’d be overshooting the mark, maybe.

    To me, if we’re defining a reductivist calculus, game = toy + rule. A toy is anything we decide to treat as a toy: it’s a purely arbitrary designation and (critically) not intrinsic in the item. A rule is anything that defines the mental space in which the toy is interacted with; anything that separates the field of all possible actions in any arbitrary way. A child playing catch with themselves has decided an object that can be thrown is now a toy (hopefully not the cat), and has decided catching is better than not-catching and likely also that a higher throw is better than a less-high throw.

    (In this context we are not limiting “toy” to physical object, either, but literally ANYTHING, “arbitrary” in the strict sense, nor do the rules have any constraint: “all rules must make sense” and “no rules shall contradict each other” are also rules, and not required. But physical objects and sensible rules are easier to make parsable examples out of.)

    The subset of possible games we are interested in (games we create for others to play) are all forms of communication, and at its (reductivist) core communication is inducing an experience in another. We can go down the rabbit hole of communication theory too, if we like, to establish that boundary, but at least we’d be able to resolve the idea that certain kinds of induced experiences (or attempts at inducing certain kinds of experiences) are mutually exclusive to the idea of games. (It also helps with the “are games art” question, but only by negation: paintings versus paint, basically, the message is not the medium, and art is the communication not the channel, in this context.)

    I mean, there’s a lot of reinventing the wheel we don’t really need to do, but I’m also not really the best person to not-do it. 🙂

  11. Are we intending to discuss pure ontology?

    I wasn’t! But some want to, and I was just trying to lay out a framework that keeps the reader-response types for wanting to kill the formalists, and so on. 🙂

  12. So … what wouldn’t be a game, then?

  13. “So … what wouldn’t be a game, then?”

    baloney sandwiches, i believe.


  14. Mary Poppins put it more succinctly:

    “To every job that must be done
    There is an element of fun
    You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game”

    Theorists are still catching up 😉

  15. When heavy metal was developing, people just called it rock, because that’s what it grew out of and that’s what it most closely resembled. Eventually a new term was invented, and everyone was happy.

    I don’t think it’s necessary or likely in the long term that a medium which developed out of videogames* will continue to be bunched together with them. There’s still some overlap between rock and metal, but the distinction is important to fans and artists alike.

    * We really are only talking about videogames, as the indie RPG movement of the past 10+ years (for example) is a different community going in an entirely different direction.

  16. Most stuff.

    Put briefly:

    A game would be what you are engaging with when you play in a lusory way with something that meets the necessary complexity level for you.

    A something that that meets that complexity level and is an intentionally designed artifact is commonly called a game as well, but I am suggesting we start calling it something else.

  17. This looks like an attempt to retreat somewhat from a practical academic position to avoid annoying a vocal minority, which I am confident is a futile battle. As a result it takes on the worst of all possible worlds – abandoning the useful definitions of game that existed long before software came into being, while contributing little towards our ability to understand different types of interactive entertainment and create them. It’s a linguistic juggling act which might make some people feel more included but muddies the waters unnecessarily for academic game study as a result.

    Yes, the ‘game’ term has grown somewhat ambiguous, but it is not really ‘commonly overloaded’ except for a small (though not insignificant) section of the computer game playing audience. Wittgenstein is an exception, but most of the other definitions of ‘game’ that I’ve read seem to refer to broadly the same works. You can ask a typical person on the street what the difference between a game and a toy is, or the difference between a game and a story, or even between a game and a simulation, and most will be able to give you a useful distinction. The fact that some works are occupying the middle ground doesn’t change this. The existence of the novella doesn’t seem to make short story writers and novel writers get into slanging matches on social networks over word counts. Nor has free verse stopped English teachers talking about verse vs. prose. We can still talk meaningfully about different extremes even when there is no clear cut-off point in the middle and when there are occasional outliers that appear confusing (eg. Snakes and Ladders).

    When we talk about games generally, we talk primarily about the properties afforded by the “ludic artifact”, but that artifact can be abstract and formed in a player’s head. That is different from saying it is subjective, however. A player can choose to ignore the rules or the tokens or the scoring system of a game but that doesn’t change the game itself. It may mean they are playing a new game, perhaps an entirely abstract one that shares the same tokens and territory as a more well-known one. If you start picking up the ball in soccer, you’re playing something more like rugby or American football. If you don’t actually care what happens to you and your criminal accomplice, you’re not playing Prisoner’s Dilemma any more. But the games themselves continue to be systems you can analyze, regardless of anybody’s approach to them. The whole field of game theory lets us examine cooperative and competitive activities without anybody needing to actually play the ‘game’, because it doesn’t tie itself in knots worrying about whether individual players have different subjective opinions of what is going on. Instead, those opinions are coded directly into the payoffs and the game analysed in the light of that. And if the type of play does not involve the payoffs or expectations that characterise a game, we shouldn’t be afraid to say that they’re not really playing a game any more. There’s much research on ‘fun’, yours being a high-quality example, and it covers these activities without needing to pretend that they are actually games. So do studies on stories, and so on.

    I think somewhere we got misled into thinking that it’s important for anybody to be able to call whatever they want a game, but I feel that misses the point. What I think is more important is that their works are not defined as “not-games”, as if they – the games or the creators themselves – are failing to reach some sort of threshold of notability. Instead, they should be valued for the qualities they do have – often qualities that our more conventional games lack. If we need to rename things like GDC to make a policy of inclusivity towards such works more clear, so be it; but let’s not throw ‘game’ out because some angry people shout loudly at you on Twitter.

  18. @Raph,

    Yes! Exactly that, and I feel silly now for taking paragraphs to hint at an even larger explaining of something you put in a pair of sentences.

    Anyway, I’ll avoid it anyhow, considering.

  19. Kylotan,

    I really don’t think that’s the case.

    Game IS overloaded even from a formal perspective. If we take a game grammar version of “game,” the following genres already don’t fit:

    Interactive fiction, adventure games, Heavy Rain-style spaces, any MMO that is more than a pure hack n slash (which isn’t any of them, these days), Cut the Rope and maybe Angry Birds (debatable), Professor Layton…

    Yes, there’s certainly broad similarities. But really, to get somewhere with formalism, as Keith points out, we need to get tighter, and if anything, a formal version of the term is likely to get narrower.

    This isn’t counting the many casual uses of the term that are in the language, such as “playing games with someone’s feelings” and so on.

    Secondly, I DO think there is value in incorporating things like reader response theory into the formalism. As all of us formalists have been saying for a long time, we’re essentially really working with the canvas of the mind when we work with game systems. Acknowledging that the formal construct we have been calling “game” is one that exists in the player’s head fairly independently of the artifact is important, and not very different really from the types of rules that Salen & ZImmerman described in Rules of Play.

    Essentially, we have been saying that game grammar is about constituative rules, the ones that the game defines; but in practice, since players often build the rulesets in their heads as they play, we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not looking at the “constituative rules” of the actual game they are playing as opposed to the one we construct as designers. Phrased differently, I am saying that game grammar can probably be applied to game dynamics. That’s a big deal.

    Finally, I wouold go further, and say that this lets us use the tools we have developed in game grammar and similar efforts and apply them to things we have historically set outside of game. This change in mindset says we can do something like analyze “playing the stock market” using the same grammar we use to analyze chess. That has real value, and may help deal with the excesses and fallacies of gamification.

    FWIW, nothing in the essay is new thinking as of this week. You can see most of this in the Ten Years Later talk, and there are echoes of it in Ernest Adams’ definition of game, in Will Wright’s talks, and other sources. I wrote it all out simply because a) there are some on the formalist side who perhaps do not focus enough on this mental model process, and b) there are many on the reader response side who think we don’t EVER think about games as process.

  20. Very poetic essay. Enjoyed reading it. and indeed much admire the effort of sharing. Other commentators and comments are truly irrelevant in the light of one sentence here: “And this is different for every one of us, as we build on what we know.” ….

  21. So to get rid of all the problems with “game”, you defer to “lusory”. Why doesn’t “lusory” have those exact same problems? Aren’t you just pushing the problems one level back?

  22. Raph,

    As far as I can tell, interactive fiction, adventure games, MMOs, and Angry Birds are close fits for the existing definitions, even if one small part of the definition is troublesome. The common strands I see are that players make decisions that affect the perceived outcome, the decisions work within an artificial structure, the players act in a goal-oriented manner, there is an aspect of competition between players (where players don’t all have to be human), etc. The tent already is big enough for all these things.

    I don’t disagree that we need to drill down into tighter definitions in order to get to where we need to be. But I don’t think that trying to incorporate subjectivity into it helps. It blurs the lines where we need to make them clearer. Of course a player can come up with their own rules, just like there can be house rules, unspoken rules, etc – but then it makes sense to consider them all as part of the game under analysis, providing that what remains still resembles a game and not just play. As I alluded to before, game theory handles this intrinsically – the opinions and values of the players form the inputs to the system. The canvas of the mind gets quantified and the process continues. This works well (albeit at a very simplified level) with regards to other game-like activities such as playing the stock market and predicting general human and animal behaviour. It doesn’t work well for predicting the response to stories however – because they are not game-like, even if you put them on a computer screen and invite people to click through them.

    A player can layer a ludic pattern on anything they choose but that is outside the realm of game *design* (or at least is an indirect consequence rather than a direct one) so ultimately it makes more sense to concentrate on the ludic pattern as agreed between designer and player first. Trying to incorporate reader-response theory at a fundamental level basically melts down all game design into a surely futile struggle with semiotics – and how does that help game design? It’s not even clear to me that a game (in the formal sense) can deliberately attempt to elicit a desired reader-response – certain visual or audible aesthetics might, the narrative might, learning about the creator’s intent might, but these are neither necessary nor sufficient for the work to be a game.

  23. @kylotan,

    If you’re designing for emergent play, e.g. making a sandbox game, then understanding and facilitating the creation of ludic patterns by players absent agreement with designer is not at all outside the realm of game design. Crafting an environment and creating a dialogue are inseparable, but still distinct.

  24. @Richard,

    If nothing else, “lusory” pushes less buttons, I think. 🙂

  25. Hey Raph,

    You draw attention to “system” and to “attitude,” but one thing I think is missing here is “social action” or “practice.” It’s not just that an individual perceives a particular system as a game but that he or she TREATS it as such. That is, people DO “playing chess” or DO “playing Snakes and Ladders.” These shared practices are recognizable to competent others. And it is these shared forms of action, social practices, or “language games” (for Wittgenstein), that keep us out of the “soup of subjectivity.”

    If you’re doing “playing chess,” then you are treating the situation – board, pieces and other person – as “the game of chess” whether you’re having fun or not. If you start improvising on that practice (I once created an RPG-style game that uses a chess board and pieces), you’re doing something other than “playing chess.” Or if you’re “building” a chess set or “selling” one, you’re doing things with the artifacts and perhaps another person that are NOT enacting the game.

    Furthermore, the rules of a game ultimately define the “system” of a game, but the system is more than the rules. The rules are features of the shared practice. They are resources for talking about gameplay, justifying moves, sanctioning opponents, teaching correct practice and more. But any articulation of the rules is always an incomplete representation of that practice itself. Consequently, the best way to learn to play is to observe the practice rather than simply to read a formulation of the rules.

    So I’d say it’s not individuals’ attitudes toward situations that make them “games,” but rather the form of individuals’ actions in those situations and their relation to shared ways of playing.

  26. @Peter S.
    I think that’s a very interesting point. But I would simply say that “emergent play” is not necessarily “gameplay”. Designing for emergent play is getting into the realm of meta game design, or to put it in more classic terms, toy design. ie. How can we make an artifact that facilitates or encourages play? Some of those forms of play may turn out to be games, and some may not. It’s a useful concept for developers, but I feel it’s one that builds upon ‘pure’ game design, whatever that is, rather than being an integral part of it. Emergent play doesn’t require that a game emerges from it, nor do games have to emerge from an artifact, so the 2 concepts stand alone.

    Hence, sandboxes aren’t really games in my personal view, but there are certainly virtual worlds which function as both game and as sandbox, each side having closely-related but distinct traits.

  27. @kylotan,

    And that’s ultimately the point: “sandboxes aren’t really games in my personal view” is exactly why we need precise, neutral language so that we can skip the part where we all argue over what is and isn’t “really a game”. (I philosophically agree, in the same sense that a soccer field is not a game despite its role in one, but the phrase “sandbox game” is certainly a phrase that’s both used and understood in practice.)

    The question of what form this language should take and how it should be structured is predicated on understanding what we’re trying to describe (and self-reflectively what our viewpoint toward what we’re trying to view is), and at the same time we have to use our current language to build the scaffolding for the new lingo.

  28. Raph

    I’m not suggesting that you need to lay out the basics of anatomy or nervous system function, I was asking, rhetorically, (for you to reflect not answer) that you make sure you have a handle on those basics because they way in which you proceeded seemed error-prone. You might remember that first time we met, outside of Will’s 2004 Triangulation talk, I rattled off a booklist to you on neuroscience. You asked, “Are you trying to get a job?” (I wasn’t.) At that time, I’d already been burned by naive over-enthusiasm, crashing from insight to insight (lit. “games are about learning!” “games are Gestalts!” “we play with cheater detection” etc.) to then to feel embarrassed when I realized my mistakes. Sure, I could argue circles around colleagues all day—people less interested or obsessed; but I don’t like staying wrong. I just want to know the real deal, that’s all. Then, as now, I like others on that bus with me!

    My actual suggestion is, if the model doesn’t originate in brain science foundation, avoid the neuro-speak entirely. (There is no advantage to saying “I had a cookie and got a shot of dopamine” versus “I had a cookie and liked it,” other than persuasiveness.) Including it, directly or indirectly, seems to attempt establishing authority or agreement, before encouraging the reader to move along to the points that follow. But then those other points (we play to experiment, we play to learn, Suits, etc.) are not understood—well, or in those ways, or at all—in biopsychology, yet it feels as if that’s the claim. Picking from among available “evidence” to support these ideas, again, relies on fundamentals. So you can understand my worry, especially if the passing examples you’d previously given, happen coincidentally, to be alarm triggers for “neurobollocks.”

    I don’t care if folks are up on the “current” info; we need to understand it all within the context of the core models. Most folks I run into that feel “into neuroscience” got excited, and started keeping up with the latest news, not being well-equipped to actually understand it. (Just like me!) As they pile on references, they’re really just flipping from one study, or (more likely) press release, to another. The whole neuro-news channel is big, noisy, and churned up with sensational claims and bad information. I try not to make it worse.

    Looking for controversies in brain sciences these days is “like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500” but, arguably, the biggest current controversy, in all of neuroscience, is how that all-of-neuroscience is being conducted. It’s crazy time! Meta-analysis studies have been showing all kinds of poor practice from statistical incompetence, bias, and methodological sloppiness, you name it. Add to this, the fact that anything that gets to popular media is usually so distorted and warped by the press-release-to-reporting-to-editing cycle that what the headline reads typically looks nothing like the original work—wild claims and speculations abound. That “neurobollocks” I mentioned above, the biggest hucksters of it come from the fields of psychology.

    In the games field, we are also often guilty of enthusiastic, misguided noise. As an entertainment field it seems less important that we’re upright. I believe that view is wrong. A few weeks ago, for example, I heard someone had claimed games were “more effective than morphine.” Which, I’m kind about it, is irresponsible. I’ve been to the UW HIT Lab to visit Hunter Hoffman, I’ve worn the helmet and played Snow World; I’m reasonable familiar with it. The treatment is more effective than morphine ALONE. But the treatment involves patients playing the VR game, Snow World, while ALSO on morphine. The awesomeness is that the dose that they require is lower. And, most importantly, while the effects of morphine on its own attenuate—patients need more and more over time—the effects of the VR game don’t! “New therapies using games work better than drugs alone” is an amazing, important story, and we do harm by misrepresenting it. (Incidentally, as a game designer, you’ll probably appreciate the challenges in designing for that kind of application: consider that players are on narcotics, and likely unable to act in highly skilled ways. You have to adjust your usual design intuitions for special, lower-ability audiences!)

    It wasn’t until I came around to thinking of ATOF as “A Theory of a Kind of Fun,” working in a constrained scope, that I became accomodating towards it. I don’t describe it as an abstract model, but as a convenient analogy; a good introduction to a common sense view of a kind of experience without needing to be factual. I would love to take you up on the offer to assist the 2nd edition. I’ve got suggestions, not complaints. 😀

  29. Eh… I did argue for staying “current” in the first post then dismiss that very thing in the second. I guess, even I can’t please me. 😉

  30. Bob Moore>These shared practices are recognizable to competent others.
    It’s more subtle than that. Suppose 6 children are playing hide-and-seek and after an hour 5 of them get bored and play something else. The 6th, who doesn’t know they’ve done this, is still hiding and is still playing. One person can play a social game if they believe they are playing it with others.

    The same applies to shared practice: people operate in the belief that the other players are using the same rule systems and so on, but it may not be the case; if someone does something that they think is fine but you don’t, from your perspective that’s cheating.

    For games, “shared” is fine when talking about physically (or digitally) shared pieces of equipment – boards, pieces and so on. It’s more tenuous when referring to shared beliefs, though. There isn’t some shared social space that springs into being when games are played, there is an individual’s perception of a relationship they believe other individuals to share, but its existence is independent of whether in reality these other people actually do share it.

    I’m not criticising what you’re saying, by the way, I’m just pointing out some further complexities.

  31. […] isn’t the same thing as the blog post of the same name — though some of that material will be the first few minutes. Instead, it’s an attempt […]

  32. […] Playing with “game” – Semantics play and heady stuff indeed.  A Theory of Fun Ten Years Later has dreadful sound, but it’s worth it. […]

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