If we desire to understand games and game design, we must first clearly establish our fundamental orientation. We must define what we mean by the word “game.” We must also determine the fundamental characteristics of all games. After discussing some of the obstacles inherent in this effort, I will briefly describe the salient classes of games; then I will propose a set of attributes that characterize all games.
Games are a fundamental part of human existence. The parlance of games has insinuated itself into our language to refer to activities that are not truly games. We play along with activities we find distasteful. We play ball with those who require our cooperation. We play games when we are insincere. A willing participant is game for the enterprise. This broad penetration of gaming concepts into the entire spectrum of human experience presents us with two potential barriers to understanding games.
First, our liberal use of gaming terms promotes an exaggerated perception of our own understanding of games. We fail to render unto the subject the careful and critical analysis that we tender to more academic topics, and we blithely ignore the complexities of game design. Complete amateurs whose only relevant skill is programming undertake to design games with no further preparation than their own experience as game players. Those who overrate their own understanding undercut their own potential for learning.
The second obstacle is ambiguity. We have applied the principles and concepts of gaming so widely that we have watered down their original meanings. There is no longer a clear focus to the concepts we seek to understand. Game designers have no well defined set of common terms with which to communicate with each other. Discussions of game design frequently disintegrate into arguments over semantics. To cut through the tangled undergrowth that has grown up around gaming we shall need the bulldozer and the scalpel.
Let us begin this endeavor by stepping back for a moment and taking our bearings. Let us take a brief tour of the universe of games, glancing briefly at each of the major regions. In the course of this tour I hope to refresh the reader’s memory of games and make some simple points before digging into the serious analysis of fundamental game characteristics. I perceive five major regions of games: board games, card games, athletic games, children’s games, and computer games. Top
We begin with the board games. These games consist of a playing surface divided into sectors populated by a set of movable pieces. In the most common arrangement the pieces are directly associated with the players, while the playing surface represents an environment beyond the players’ direct control. Players maneuver their pieces across the playing surface in an effort to capture other players’ pieces, reach an objective, gain control of territory, or acquire some valued commodity. The player’s primary concern in these games is the analysis of geometrical relationships between the pieces. Top
A second class of games is the card games. These games utilize a set of 52 symbols generated from two factors: rank (13 values) and suit (4 values). The games revolve around combinations built from these two factors. Players may gain or lose possession of symbols either by random processes or by matching some combination allowed by the rules of the game. Each legal combination is assigned a victory value for final assessment of game results. Players must recognize both existing and potential combinations and estimate probabilities of obtaining the cards necessary for completing a combination. This probability must be weighed against the victory value of the combination. Since the number of combinations is very large, precise computation of the requisite probabilities exceeds the mental powers of almost all players, rendering the game a primarily intuitive exercise. Thus, the player’s primary concern in these games is the analysis of combinations. Top
Another traditional game form is the athletic game. These games emphasize physical more than mental prowess. The rules of the game rigorously specify a precise set of actions that the player is either allowed to execute or required to execute. Skillful use of the body is the player’s primary concern in these .games.
We must be careful to distinguish between athletic games and athletic competitions. For example, a race is a competition, not a game. The line of demarcation between games and competition illuminates one of the fundamental elements of all games. I distinguish the two by the degree of interaction between players. Theoretically speaking, the runners in a race do not interact with each other. Each is racing only against the clock; the presence of other runners should be immaterial. In truth, the runners do interact psychologically, for the performance of one runner can affect the performance of the other runners. Furthermore, in some races a runner (or driver or pilot or captain) can physically interpose himself in between the goal and another racer, thereby gaining an advantage. I conclude that the simplest competitions, those in which each person strives to perform some task optimally without direct interaction with the other competitors, do not constitute games but competitions. A competition that does allow interaction is a game. Top
Another type of gaming activity is the children’s game. Hide and Seek, Red Rover, Tag, and Kick the Can are common examples. Such games frequently take the form of group activities emphasizing simple physical play. Although these games contain simple mental and physical components, their function is not to challenge the child to perform to his or her limits in either domain. Instead, the player’s primary concern in these games is the use of social skills illuminating the fundamental role of the group in human life.
A wide variety of children’s activities are frequently referred to as games. When a child talks to a strip of bark, maneuvers it, and provides sound effects, we are tempted to refer to such behavior as game playing. For the purposes of this book, I ,exclude such activities from the fold of games. These improvisational games are too ill defined to provide us with any useful information about games. Top
The next area of gaming we shall glance at is the current fad in gaming and the subject of this book, the computer game. These games are played on five types of computers: expensive dedicated machines for the arcades (“coin op” machines), inexpensive dedicated machines (“hand helds”), multi program home games, machines such as the ATARI 2600 and the ATARI 5200, personal computers, and large mainframe computers. The computer acts as opponent and referee in most of these games; in many of them it also provides animated graphics. The most common form of computer game is the skill and action (“S&A”) game emphasizing hand eye coordination. These S&A games are frequently violent in nature. There are many other areas of computer gaming: adventure games, fantasy role playing games, and war games. In our cursory overview, these other computer games are eclipsed by the sheer volume of the skill and action games.
This concludes our quick survey of the most prominent groupings in the universe of games. We shall return to the subject later, to create a taxonomy of computer games, and later still to draw on specific examples of games to make points about their nature. We must now address the question which motivated our initial reconnaissance: what are the fundamental elements common to these games? I perceive four common factors: representation, interaction, conflict, and safety. Top
First, a game is a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality. Let us examine each term of this statement carefully. By 'closed' I mean that the game is complete and self sufficient as a structure. The model world created by the game is internally complete; no reference need be made to agents outside of the game. Some badly designed games fail to meet this requirement. Such games produce disputes over the rules, for they allow situations to develop that the rules do not address. The players must then extend the rules to cover the situation in which they find themselves. This situation always produces arguments. A properly designed game precludes this possibility; it is closed because the rules cover all contingencies encountered in the game.
By formal I mean only that the game has explicit rules. There are informal games in which the rules are loosely stated or deliberately vague. Such games are far removed from the mainstream of game play.
The term 'system' is often misused, but in this case its application is quite appropriate. A game’s collection of parts which interact with each other, often in complex ways. It is a system.
Representation is a coin with two faces: an objective face and a subjective face. The two faces are not mutually exclusive, for the subjective reality springs from and feeds on objective reality. In a game, these two faces are intertwined, with emphasis on the subjective face. For example, when a player blasts hundreds of alien invaders, nobody believes that his recreation directly mirrors the objective world. However, the game may be a very real metaphor for the player’s perception of his world. I do not wish to sully my arguments with pop psychological analyses of players giving vent to deep seated aggressions at the arcades. Clearly, though, something more than a simple blasting of alien monsters is going on in the mind of the player. We need not concern ourselves with its exact nature; for the moment it is entirely adequate to realize that the player does perceive the game to represent something from his private fantasy world. Thus, a game represents something from subjective reality, not objective. Games are objectively unreal in that they do not physically re create the situations they represent, yet they are subjectively real to the player. The agent that transforms an objectively unreal situation into a subjectively real one is human fantasy. Fantasy thus plays a vital role in any game situation. A game creates a fantasy representation, not a scientific model.
Games versus Simulations
The distinction between objective representation and subjective representation is made clear by a consideration of the differences between simulations and games. A simulation is a serious attempt to accurately represent a real phenomenon in another, more malleable form. A game is an artistically simplified representation of a phenomenon. The simulations designer simplifies reluctantly and only as a concession to material and intellectual limitations. The game designer simplifies deliberately in order to focus the player’s attention on those factors the designer judges to be important. The fundamental difference between the two lies in their purposes. A simulation is created for computational or evaluative purposes; a game is created for educational or entertainment purposes.(There is a middle ground where training simulations blend into educational games.) Accuracy is the sine qua non of simulations; clarity the sine qua non of games. A simulation bears the same relationship to a game that a technical drawing bears to a painting. A game is not merely a small simulation lacking the degree of detail that a simulation possesses; a game deliberately suppresses detail to accentuate the broader message that the designer wishes to present. Where a simulation is detailed a game is stylized.
Consider, for example, the differences between a flight simulator program for a personal computer and the coin op game RED BARON”. Both programs concern flying an airplane; both operate on microcomputer systems. The flight simulator demonstrates many of the technical aspects of flying: stalls, rolls, and spins, for example RED BARON has none of these. Indeed, the aircraft that the player files in RED BARON is quite unrealistic. It cannot be stalled, rolled, spun, or dived into the ground. When the stick is released it automatically rights itself. It is incorrect to conclude from these observations that RED BARON is inferior to the flight simulator. RED BARON is not a game about realistic flying; it is a game about flying and shooting and avoiding being shot. The inclusion of technical details of flying would distract most players from the other aspects of the game. The designers of RED BARON quite correctly stripped out technical details of flight to focus the player’s attention on the combat aspects of the game. The absence of these technical details from RED BARON is not a liability but an asset, for it provides focus to the game. Their absence from a flight simulator would be a liability.
Subset of Reality
The last term I use is “subset of reality.” One aspect of this term (“subset”) is easily justified. Clearly, no game could include all of reality without being reality itself; thus, a game must be at most a subset of reality. The choice of matter in the subset is the means of providing focus to the game. A game that represents too large a subset of reality defies the player’s comprehension and becomes almost indistinguishable from life itself, robbing the game of one of its most appealing factors, its focus.
Summary of Representation
A game creates a subjective and deliberately simplified representation of emotional reality. A game is not an objectively accurate representation of reality; objective accuracy is only necessary to the extent required to support the player’s fantasy. The player’s fantasy is the key agent in making the game psychologically real. Top
Some media for representing reality are static. A painting or sculpture depicts a snapshot of reality frozen in time. Some media are dynamic; they show change with time. Movies, music, and dance are dynamic in this way. They are able to represent the changing aspect of reality more richly. But the most fascinating thing about reality is not that it is, or even that it changes, but how it changes, the intricate webwork of cause and effect by which all things are tied together. The only way to properly represent this webwork is to allow the audience to explore its nooks and crannies to let them generate causes and observe effects. Thus, the highest and most complete form of representation is interactive representation. Games provide this interactive element, and it is a crucial factor in their appeal.
Games versus Puzzles
One way to understand the nature of the interactive element of games is to contrast games with puzzles and other non interactive challenges. Compare playing a cube puzzle with playing a game of tic tac toe. Compare the sport of high jumping with the game of basketball. In each comparison the two activities provide similar challenges to the player. The key difference that makes one activity a game and the other activity not a game is the interactive element. A cube puzzle does not actively respond to the human’s moves; a high jump pole does not react to the jumper’s efforts. In both tic tac toe and basketball the opposing players acknowledge and respond to the player’s actions.
The difference between games and puzzles has little to do with the mechanics of the situation; we can easily turn many puzzles and athletic challenges into games and vice versa. For example, chess, a game, has spawned a whole class of puzzles, the end game problems. Games can include puzzles as subsets, and many do. Most of the time the puzzles are a minor component of the overall game, for a game that puts most of its challenge value on included puzzles will rapidly lose its challenge once the puzzles have been solved.
Games versus Stories
Another way to illustrate the role of interaction is to compare games with stories. A story is a collection of facts in time sequenced order that suggest a cause and effect relationship. Frequently, the facts presented are deliberately fictitious, because the facts of a story are intrinsically unimportant. Indeed, the entire concept of fiction (“an untruth that is not a lie”) only makes sense when one realizes that the facts presented in the fiction are themselves unimportant. The cause and effect relationships suggested by the sequence of facts are the important part of the story. For example, we care not whether Luke Skywalker and the Death Star really existed. We saw that Luke Skywalker was good and pure, and that the Death Star was evil, and that Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star. The cause and effect relationship suggested by the story was that good overcomes evil. Thus, a story is a vehicle for representing reality, not through its facts per se, but through the cause and effect relationships suggested by the sequence of facts.
Games also attempt to represent reality. The difference between the two is that a story presents the facts in an immutable sequence, while a game presents a branching tree of sequences and allows the player to create his own story by making choices at each branch point. The audience of a story must infer causal relationships from a single sequence of facts; the player of a game is encouraged to explore alternatives, contrapositives, and inversions. The game player is free to explore the causal relationship from many different angles.
Indeed, the player expects to play the game many times, trying different strategies each time. A story is meant to be experienced once; its representational value decreases with subsequent retellings because it presents no new information. A game’s representational value increases with each playing until the player has explored a representative subset of all of the branches in the game net.
This does not mean that games are better than stories. Although stories trace only a single sequence of causal development, they do so with greater intricacy and detail than games. Detail is crucial to the creative success of a story, for it provides the texture, the feel of reality that makes a story compelling. The story writer unleashes a mighty swirling torrent of facts that sweeps the audience to its predestined conclusion. The game designer creates a complex network of paths cunningly crafted to show the player all possible facets of a single truth. In this respect, a story is like a statuette where a game is like a jewel. The statuette’s value arises from the fineness of detail and intricacy of construction. A jewel, by contrast, has no detail; its faces must be absolutely smooth. The jewel’s value arises from its ability to refract light into many different angles. A statuette is meant to be stationary; a jewel is meant to be moved. So too, is a story static where a game is dynamic.
Stories enjoy a particular advantage over the current generation of computer games: the element of surprise. A good story boasts an array of interesting plot twists. The storyteller leads us into a set of expectations and then cleverly inserts a new factor that creates a disjunction, a new and dramatically different situation. This process can be repeated many times during the course of the story. Among computer games, only adventures provide this element of surprise. Unfortunately, the surprise can only be created by limiting the player’s freedom of action so as to guarantee that the player will encounter the surprise under the proper circumstances. After a while, all adventures begin to smell like primrose paths. The really exciting possibility offered by computer games is the prospect of formulating a plot twist in response to the player’s actions, instead of merely dragging him down a pre-ordained primrose path. However, the ability to formulate surprise requires an ability to analyze the player’s actions, deduce his expectations, and generate a believable plot twist that confutes his expectations without frustrating him. Artificial intelligence that advanced has yet to be created.
Games versus Toys
Games lie between stories and toys on a scale of manipulability. Stories do not permit the audience any opportunity to control the sequence of facts presented. Games allow the player to manipulate some of the facts of the fantasy, but the rules governing the fantasy remain fixed. Toys are much looser; the toy user is free to manipulate it in any manner that strikes his fancy. The storyteller has direct creative control over his audience’s experience; the game designer has indirect control; the toymaker has almost none.
Significance of Interaction
Interaction is important for several reasons. First, it injects a social or interpersonal element into the event. It transforms the challenge of the game from a technical one to an interpersonal one. Solving a cube puzzle is a strictly technical operation; playing chess is an interpersonal operation. In the former, one plays against the logic of the situation; in the latter, one uses the logic of the situation to play against the opponent.
Second, interaction transforms the nature of the challenge from a passive challenge to an active challenge. A puzzle will always present the player with exactly the same challenge. But a game opponent reacts to player’s actions, and presents different challenges in each game. This difference has major emotional significance. The person solving the puzzle must somehow divine, guess, deduce, master, or discover the key trick built into the puzzle by the designer. Emotionally, the puzzle player is working against the puzzle or its designer to unmask its secret. Once the secret is known, the puzzle is no longer interesting. The game-player, by contrast, faces different challenges each time she plays the game. Where a puzzle is dead a game is alive; the player must create her solution to the game in a manner best suited to her own personality and that of her opponent. The key distinction between a game and a puzzle is the difference between creating your own solution and discovering the designer’s solution. A game acknowledges the player’s existence and reacts to the player’s personality; a puzzle lies down like a dead fish.
Computer games seldom provide a human opponent, and so they lack the social element that other games offer. They can, however, present an illusory personality against which the player must work. This is one of the most exciting and least developed potentials of the computer as a game technology. And regardless of the computer’s success or failure in synthesizing a social element, the computer can readily make the game a highly interactive experience for the player. It can react to the player’s moves with speed and thoroughness.
Nature of Interaction
Interactiveness is not a binary quantity; it is a continuous quantity with a range of values. Puzzles have little or no interactiveness, while games have more interactiveness. This suggests that interactiveness is an index of “gaminess”. Some games, such as blackjack, tag, or PONG provide very little interaction between the players. Although the players may wish to interact, the games provide very limited modes of interaction (binary decision to stand or hit, running, and twisting paddle). The games do not allow players to invest much of themselves into the play, or to react in a rich way to their opponents. Other games, such as bridge, football, and LEGIONNAIRE (trademark of Avalon Hill Game Co.) allow a far richer interaction between players. Players can grapple with each other at a variety of levels. The first group of games is generally acknowledged to be dull, while the second group of games is generally regarded as more interesting. What is important about the modes of interaction is not their mechanical quality but their emotional significance. PONG is insipid because I can’t express much of my personality through the medium of a bouncing ball. Bridge is better because it includes within its interaction elements of teamwork, deception, and cooperation. I can better imprint my personality traits onto a game of bridge. Thus, degree of interaction provides a useful index of “gaminess”. Top
A third element appearing in all games is conflict. Conflict arises naturally from the interaction in a game. The player is actively pursuing some goal. Obstacles prevent him from easily achieving this goal. If the obstacles are passive or static, the challenge is a puzzle or athletic challenge. If they are active or dynamic, if they purposefully respond to the player, the challenge is a game. However, active, responsive, purposeful obstacles require an intelligent agent. If that intelligent agent actively blocks the player’s attempts to reach his goals, conflict between the player and the agent is inevitable. Thus, conflict is fundamental to all games.
Games without conflict?
Some people shrink’ from this aspect of games. A number of attempts have been made to design “nice” games cleansed of conflict. Such games emphasize cooperative efforts rather than conflict. They have not been successful commercially; this suggests that few people enjoy them.
More importantly, these games are failures because they are not games in the first place. Conflict can only be avoided by eliminating the active response to the player’s actions. Without active response, there can be no interaction. Thus, expunging conflict from a game inevitably destroys the game.
While it is impossible to eliminate conflict from a game without destroying the game, it is possible to include cooperative elements by shifting the conflict. Members of a team can cooperate with each other in the team’s conflict with another agent. This other agent could be another team, an individual human, or a computer simulated player. In all cases, the opponent must be perceivable as endowed with a persona. Without at least the illusion of purposeful reaction to the player’s actions, the game collapses.
This “blood and guts” view of conflict in games is reinforced by the social context in which they are often played. Our real world conflicts are always indirect, diffused over time, and tightly regulated. Moreover, they all too frequently lack resolution, for seldom does one achieve an outright victory in the conflicts of daily life. Local successes, yes, but the struggle continues without clear resolution. Because games are subjective representations of the real world, they focus our attention on a particular aspect of the world by accentuating that aspect. Conflict in games thus tends to be (but need not always be) accentuated to its most direct and intense form violence. Violence is not essential or fundamental to games. It is common in games because it is the most obvious and natural expression for conflict.
Summary of Conflict
Conflict is an intrinsic element of all games. It can be direct or indirect, violent or nonviolent, but it is always present in every game. Top
Conflict implies danger; danger means risk of harm; harm is undesirable. Therefore, a game is an artifice for providing the psychological experiences of conflict and danger while excluding their physical realizations. In short, a game is a safe way to experience reality. More accurately, the results of a game are always less harsh than the situations the game models. A player can blast the monsters all day long and risk only her quarter. She can amass huge financial empires and lose them in an hour without risking her piggy bank. She can lead great armies into desperate battles on which hang the fate of nations, all without shedding a drop of blood. In a world of relentless cause and effect, of tragic linkages and inevitable consequences, the disassociation of actions from consequences is a compelling feature of games.
This is not to imply that games are devoid of consequences. The penalties for losing a game can sometimes be a significant deterrent to game play. Losing to another person always entails some loss of dignity. This may be an attraction of computer games there is less shame in losing to a computer. The loser can keep coming back for more defeats without losing face. Moreover, true victory the total destruction of the computer’s forces, is acknowledged to be impossible in most such games; this further lessens the shame of defeat.
A second penalty for losing is the less of any reward that might have been gained by winning. In almost all games the reward penalty structure is positive. That is, the loser is not punished for losing, the winner is rewarded for winning. The loser’s only loss is any investment that he made to enter the game, such as a bet or entry fee. This investment is usually very small, and may rightly be regarded as a recreational fee for the services associated with the administration of the game rather than a penalty for all potential losers.
Gambling presents us with some difficult problems related to the issue of the safety of games. Gamblers risk money or goods on the outcome of a random or near random process. Losers forfeit their bets and winners reap a large reward. Hence, gambling presents a real financial risk to the player. However, two extenuating circumstances intervene: first, the recreational gambler risks very little money; second, some gamblers deny to themselves the laws of chance. They indulge in the fantasy of control. The proper intonation in the shake of the dice, the correct twist on the handle of the slot machine these things make the difference, or so they tell themselves. Thus, recreational gambling, while somewhat deviant from the mainline of game playing, probably deserves inclusion in the fold of games. Serious gambling, however, involving large sums of money expended more for anticipated financial gain than for recreation, lies on the far side of the gray zone.
A special form of gambling, deserving special consideration here, is poker. Poker is a game of bluffing; the key to success in the game lies in convincing your opponent that you have better or worse cards than you really have. Because money is at stake, the player experiences stresses that strain his ability to deceive his opponents. Thus, the risk of gambling, a mere outcome of other games, is an intrinsic part of the structure of poker. This unique aspect of poker merits special consideration. I would not hesitate to classify poker as a game.
Summary of Safety
Games provide safe ways to experience reality. Special cases abound, but the central principle remains: games are safe. In this chapter I have presented a set of characteristics that defines what I mean by the word “game”. For the most part, I have emphasized the characteristics intrinsic to the games themselves rather than the motivations of the players. Such separation of game from player is artificial and misleading, for neither exists without the other. In the next chapter, I turn to look at the players of games and their motivations.
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