Thursday, June 3, 2010

On the definition of "Game" and why not to

Today I'm going to be ranting.

A friend of mine linked me to GameDesignConcepts, an online class in game design that apparently ran last summer. I've started reading through the back lessons. Normally I'm suspicious of this sort of thing; any two bit idiot can make posts on the internet about designing games, it doesn't mean they know anything about it. (You want an example? oh, say, my entire blog.) My suspicions are not at all allayed after the first couple posts. In his first lesson he spends the majority of the time trying to define exactly what a game is.

That's a worthless question. Let me repeat myself. It doesn't matter one whit what is a game and isn't a game.

The definition of "game" has to be some sort of grand, overarching categorization scheme. It's got to include D&D and pong and candyland and solitaire and craps and pin the tail on the donkey and chess and darts and warhammer and drinking games and what have you. Why? Because all those are games. We know they're games. But how do we know they're games without a proper definition? The answer is, we don't need a formal definition to know what a game is and isn't. The vague definition that we all share to one extend or another is generally good enough. If you take a corner case you'll get people disagreeing on whether or not it's a game, but whether that particular label applies to that particular corner case isn't really important.

Let me try an example. While I was in college I studied physics. When (and I'm ashamed to admit that this was all too often) when I wasn't studying physics I was playing World of Warcraft. When I WAS studying physics I was studying things that were quite obviously physics (balls falling off of cliffs, the motion of charged particles in magnetic fields, the laws of thermodynamics etc). The thing is, I noticed a problem in playing World of Warcraft that could be solved with the mathematics and methods I learned in the physics classroom. (If you're interested, it involved selecting items to maximize damage; I'll write it up here someday.) The question is, is it physics? I mean, it used the method, and it described the way the world worked, but in this case the "world" in question was "of Warcraft", that is not at all reality. I've wondered about that question, and came up with the same answer I have for the definition of a game. It's not really important. The physics techniques I applied let me solve the problem. Whether or not the problem exists in the realm of physics doesn't change the solution one whit.

So let's try that again, only with games. Take one of his definitional corner cases. Is a crossword puzzle a game? Well, maybe. I'm at that page though, because I'm trying to learn to design games. And hey, maybe the lessons learned will help me design better crossword puzzles. Whether they do or not doesn't depend on whether crossword puzzles are games. So in that sense it's completely useless to argue over the broad definition of games.

But whaddabout building a shared lexicon? For the most part our vague definition of game covers that. Not everybody's gonna agree that a crossword puzzle is a game, but everybody's gonna agree that RISK is. If I make some sort of crazy weird thing that may or may not be a game, it doesn't matter if I define it as such and you don't, as long as we know how it works. Sharing a lexicon is useful, but in terms of what a game is it's already as shared as it's going to be. You don't have to waste time trying to sharpen the definition.

Specific definitions become a lot more useful the smaller your general category is. "Tabletop Role Playing Games are a type of game where one person controls the game world and the opposition forces and the other people play as characters in that world." It's enough to give something to work off of as to why they are different and what that implies. "Unlike other games, players only need to know a few of the rules to get along, so long as the Dungeon Master knows how the game works." That's useful to know, but you don't need to know precisely what I mean by saying "other games".

A couple other notes about that first lesson and the associated reading material:

Katamari Daimacy: It's like Quake, where you're running around a 3D environment, only instead of shooting things you roll a giant ball around. You collect things like in Pac Man, only they come in different sizes and you can only collect things that are smaller than your ball. You gain experience like in RPGs, only instead of being expressed by levels and such it's expressed by the size of your ball, which gets bigger the more stuff you collect." There, that gives you the essence in the game by reference to different games. If I was actually pitching it for the first time to someone I'd probably have to follow up with "no, seriously, it works. It's surprisingly fun."

From the reading material: He's describing how the game requires participation. Ok, seriously? If you want to sell me on something, don't compare it to the works of John Cage. Yeah he allows his musicians more ability to participate in making the song,but he does so at the expense of such things as aesthetics and structure. In an effort to make interesting, unique music he got rid of everything that made the music worth listening to. If you're telling me that you know useful things about game design, don't try to give me the impression that you prize meaningless innovation over fun. Other than that (and getting caught in trying to define what a game is) the article is well worth reading, but I almost put it down at that point.

Oh, and one last thing before I go. Here's the fifteen minute game I created in MS Paint, in all it's glory:

Players advance one space for each quote of Lenin or Marx they know that their competitors do not know.

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