The Play of Definitions
One of the biggest areas of contention in the Video Game industry is conflict over definitions of what a game is and what it isn’t. Because Video Games is a billion dollar industry, there will be marketing terms and short-hand that helps guide players to find what to engage with. We see terms like:
4X Strategy. First Person Shooter. Real Time Strategy. Walking Simulator. Tower Defense. Side Scroller. Platformer. Match Three.
Each of these terms is well known to hobbyists but looks like bizarre word scrambles to people who are not gamers. The world of Video Games has its own language. Even the term ‘Video Game’ is a marketing and cultural term. Essentially any electronic game played on a video screen belongs and since marketing and culture is dynamic, I believe we will see new terms being invented indefinitely.
But is every Video Game a Game? I am going to argue that it isn’t based on my theory of Playstates.
Walking Simulators have attracted lots of heat and attention. They look and operate like First Person Shooters, but contain no enemies and weaponry which totally changes the dynamic of the play experience. Because the player is given inordinate time to explore and does not worry about getting killed, the purpose of play is different. I personally think it is brilliant but I also don’t think its a game. Walking Simulators like Dear Esther can be a great Video Game, but it is great precisely because its not a Game.
It is not because there are no enemies or weapons, it is because there is no Play in Measurement or what I consider the essentials to being called a Game.
Dear Esther does not require you to collect resources (measurement), navigate tricky environments (measurement), target/shoot baddies (measurement), and avoid being attacked (measurement). It is purely about exploring an environment and a narrative. It contains Role-Play and Playground ingredients which is two of the five Playstates that I have written about.
If Dear Esther required resource collection without fighting enemies in order to access areas of the map, then it introduces more Game ingredients and would become a diverse hybrid Video Game. Maybe instead of being called a Walking Simulator it would be called a Gathering Simulator. My point is that the more Game ingredients (play of measurement) you add, the more a Video Game becomes a Game.
Need To Dig Deeper
Some would simply argue that Dear Esther is just a different kind of Game. After all, it contains rules and has a ‘win’ state. The rules are pretty simple, requiring you to walk and explore a virtual environment that contains narrative meaning and an ending. Eric Zimmerman’s definition of Game tells us that Dear Esther is a game since it contains: 1) a set of rules; 2) play; and 3) culture.
Rules: The rules of a game are the laws that determine what can and cannot happen in the game. The rules are a deterministic system, absolutely closed and unambiguous. To play a game, players voluntarily submit their behaviors to the limits of the game rules. Once play begins, players are enclosed within the artificial context of a game – its “magic circle” – and must adhere to the rules in order to participate.
Play: Play is the experience of a rule-system set into motion by the players’ choices and actions. Within the strictly demarcated confines of the rules, play emerges and ripples outwards, bubbling up through the fixed and rigid rule-structure in unexpected patterns. A curious feature of games is that they embody a double-movement, at once fixed, rigid, absolutely closed Rule and its opposite: open, creative, improvisational Play.
Culture: However fascinating its manifestations, play does not occur in a vacuum. In order to understand the whole game, it is necessary to look beyond rules and beyond play, to consider how the game fits into larger cultural contexts. What kind of people play the game and why? What does the game mean to the people that play it and to those that don’t? And what kind of symbolic and representational relationships does the game have to the rest of the world? These are the kinds of questions that are raised when we consider games as cultural artifacts.
The problem I have with these definitions is that they’re too broad. They are so broad that it covers almost everything under the sun and applies to everything that is contained in the Five Playstates (Toys/Playgrounds, Role-Play, Puzzles, Games, and Sports). If Zimmerman’s definition was adequate then we should not continue to see distinct styles of play including Games. As I argued before, the challenge is to get the definition just broad and deep enough.
Rules is found in all Games but it is also found in all Puzzles, Role-Plays, Sports, and Toys/Playgrounds. You are not supposed to take a hammer or scissors to make two incompatible jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together. That is breaking the implied rules. You are not supposed to peel off and reapply the stickers on a Rubik’s Cube in order to complete the puzzle. That too is breaking the implied rules. The same logic applies to Zimmerman’s Play and Culture definitions. They are found in more than just Games. Crosswords have Play and Culture in addition to Rules, as does a set of monkey-bars in a playground.
The Rules, Play, and Culture is distinct in each Playstate but it takes some patience to discern how they can be applied. When it come to Games, Rules are there to help us to determine what it is we measure and how the measurement is used. In contrast a Puzzle is not played by measuring it, but by completing the pattern to make it complete. A Puzzle’s Rules, Play, and Culture are different because it is a different kind of Play. An Improv skit is not played through measuring, but by Role-Playing a coherent narrative that follows its own distinct set of Rules, Play, and Culture.
Eric Zimmerman’s definition might be accurate but not accurate enough. I believe that the context he is aiming for does not go deep enough. We can explore this depth by examining our language when it comes to Games.
Language’s Use of Games
Throughout the English speaking world the word ‘Game’ has come to have multiple meanings. Game has at least a two dozen meanings as a noun, adjective, and as a verb. The word is very dynamic and as time goes on, I expect the variations on its meaning to continue to increase. But I am mostly interested in those specific definitions that have a dedicated practice and demonstrates how Games means play in measurement.
Moving from the arcane to the most crass we find: Game Theory, Gambling, and Gaming the System.
Game Theory is the mathematical modeling (measurement) of strategic interaction among rational and irrational agents. Beyond what we call ‘games’ in common language, such as chess, poker, soccer, etc., it includes the modeling (measurement) of conflict among nations, political campaigns, competition among firms, and trading behavior in markets.
Gaming in the Gambling industry is also about measurement. The measurable outcomes may be mostly determined by luck and a rule set that benefits the house, but we cannot deny that wagering, winning, and losing of money or value is a quintessential meta-game in the play of measurement.
Whether it is known as Gaming or Gambling; it trades in measurement and gives players the opportunity to bet that their luck is stronger.
The term gaming in this context typically refers to instances in which the activity has been specifically permitted by law. The two words are not mutually exclusive; i.e., a “gaming” company offers (legal) “gambling” activities to the public and may be regulated by one of many gaming control boards, for example, the Nevada Gaming Control Board. However, this distinction is not universally observed in the English-speaking world. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the regulator of gambling activities is called the Gambling Commission (not the Gaming Commission). The word gaming is used more frequently since the rise of computer and video games to describe activities that do not necessarily involve wagering, especially online gaming, with the new usage still not having displaced the old usage as the primary definition in common dictionaries.
Gambling is also a major international commercial activity, with the legal gambling market totaling an estimated $335 billion in 2009. In other forms, gambling can be conducted with materials which have a value, but are not real money. For example, players of marbles games might wager marbles, and likewise games of Pogs or Magic: The Gathering can be played with the collectible game pieces (respectively, small discs and trading cards) as stakes, resulting in a meta-game regarding the value of a player’s collection of pieces.
“Gaming the system” exists in our cultural vocabulary to mean cheating and has typically occured in politics and business where measuring of votes and dollars is something that can be gamed. While most people think that to ‘game the system’ you break rules, I would argue that it is more about tweaking measurements to one’s own benefit.
A disturbing example is with Gerrymandering where the redrawing (measurement) of electoral boundaries is done to have sympathetic voters be clumped together (measurement) to win a seat during an election (measurement). Gerrymandering is a subtle way to subvert democratic ideals, making it difficult for competing parties to challenge an incumbent despite all votes being counted equally.
Sometimes businesses will go too far in their desire for ‘success’ and inflate business metrics (measurement). Wells Fargo did this and was caught opening millions of fake accounts to artificially look more profitable.
1. You get what you measure. 2. The thing that you measure will be gamed.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) September 10, 2016
Thank you to Matt Cutts for providing a brilliant and succinct summary about humanity’s relationship with measurement.
1. You get what you measure.
2. The thing you measure will be gamed.
Its a stark example of humanity’s serious, but shadowy play of measurement. Wells Fargo is just the latest company to get caught but history through the ages shows that measurements will get gamed for personal gain.
Historical Display of Games
Besides elections, politics, and business we can also look back on the historical record to find that Games practiced the play of measurement, from 3,000 BCE up to the modern day. This short list below might measure different things (luck, place on a board, physics, virtual resources) but they all are unified in their dynamic of playing with measurement:
- Dice – measurement by random number generation. (3000+ BCE).
- Royal Game of Ur – measurement by racing all pieces to the end through use of dice. (3000 BCE)
- Checkers/Draughts – measurement by movement/jumping to capture opponent’s pieces (3000 BCE)
- Gambling – measuring success via wagering on sub-games; perhaps the first ever Meta-Game. (2300 BCE)
- Gyan Chaupr (later Snakes and Ladders) – measurement by racing piece to the end. (1700 BCE)
- Go – measurement by surrounding opponent’s pieces. (4th Century BCE)
- Tic-Tac-Toe – measurement by grid taking and symbol linking (1st Century CE)
- Chess – measurement by movement of pieces to capture the opponent’s king. (7th Century CE)
- Cards – measurement by random sequence generation. (9th Century CE)
- Pinball – measurement by physics on table, keep play going with flippers. (19th Century CE)
- Carnival Games – measurement by aiming, tossing, etc. (19th Century CE)
- Monopoly – measurement of being the last player to own all of the property. (20th Century CE)
- Pong – Video Game that measures physics and score. (20th Century CE)
- Sid Meier’s Civilization – Video Game that measures collecting of resources, allocating same, and eventually trading those in for technological levels. (20th Century CE)
I believe I have made a compelling case to explain why Games are about the play of measurement distinguishing them from other Playstates, helping to illustrated when a Video Game is not a Game. But I accept that a topic as broad as Play and Games could mean I missed something so would welcome your comments or blog posts about this topic. Thank you for your interest.