Games and the Nature of Play

Ezio playing Chess - Assassin's Creed Lineage

Ezio playing Chess – Assassin’s Creed Lineage

In the beginning, all was dark. Gradually, an elderly man appeared before me, sitting behind a large wooden desk. The man looked up calmly in my direction. His gaze was deep and sincere, while a hint of mystery surrounded him. Our eyes met only for a brief moment before he looked down, began writing in a large book and started speaking in a language I could not understand. Just as I was about to leave, the stranger stopped me and picked up his book to present me with its first page. Suddenly there was a bright flash. The next thing I knew was that I’m behind bars in some unfamiliar land. Thus began my journey in Riven.

Myst II: Riven. It was one of the earliest as well as most immersive game I have ever played. At the time, I was older than seven, and being stranded on an island was a sort of fantasy came true. More than a decade later, video games are more sophisticated than ever. In comparison to my childhood dream or indeed any other traditional games, the difference is that of heaven and the earth…or is it? Because if it is, then why do we call tick-tack-toe and Mass Effect by the same name; games? And if not, then what is in common between traditional games like Chess and popular video games such as Assassin’s Creed?  More fundamentally, what is a game? And that is the question I seek to answer.

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and . . . Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

To start things off, I propose that for anything to be considered a game, it needs to be played. This seems self explanatory enough but it’s important to know not all things played are games. Children usually begin playing at a very early age. Yet it’s not until the child matures to a certain degree that Games are introduced. Similarly, behaviors considered playing can be observed in most higher functioning animals, yet the concept of game is much more rare.

… in most cases, a game cannot be considered a game if no goal is present.

—David Xu, Games and the Nature of Play

In order to further define “Game”, I suggest that the existence of a goal is necessary to differentiate games from other form of play such as playing with toys. With a toy, the act of play could carry on indefinitely in any way the player wish. The toy may suggest a correct way to play, but the player aren’t bond to follow the suggestion. In a game, on the other hand, there is always something for the players to try to achieve, a direction for the play to progress. The form of the goal might vary from game to game; be it eliminating all other players (Risk), be the first to reach a winning condition (Marathon), or even an indefinite goal (make your city better in SimCity), but in most cases, a game cannot be considered a game if no goal is present.

Rules are also needed for something to be considered a game. Puzzle solving are not games because they only present the player with a goal but no rules dictating how a goal should be reached. Some methods for solving a puzzle might be more efficient, some would lead to dead ends, while others are just not as satisfying (for example, peeling off the stickers on a Rubik’s cube and sticking them on the right way), but no method is prohibited. Games on the other hand contain rules which specify methods that can be taken to achieve a goal. In Chess, the goal is to knock over the opponent’s king. Physically speaking, this can be done with any piece on the first turn, but the rules dictates how each piece can move, making first-turn-kill impossible. If the rules of chess are ignored, then the game would be reduced to nothing more than a board and some meaningless pieces of wood.

David: Is this a game, or is it real?

Joshua: What’s the difference?

—Exchange Between a boy and his computer from the movie WarGames

Perhaps the most crucial aspect that defines a game is the requirement to pretend. Consider the situation in which a ball is put through a bottomless basket; it is a meaningless action. On the other hand if the same action is reenacted during an NBA finals, then it is considered a great accomplishment. The action did not change, but the situation did. For the sake of the game, all the players, judges, and fans are willing to pretend and attribute meaning to insignificant actions such as putting a ball put into a bottomless basket. Additionally everyone is also willing to pretend that the ball bouncing outside a pre-drawn line on the floor is a great tragedy (Of course, it’ll depend on which team a person is supporting). This pretended sense of reality goes hand in hand with following rules and is sometimes referred to by game designers as the Magic Circle.

From this short analysis, we can say that despite the huge variety of games in existence, be it traditional or contemporary, physical or digital, single player or multiplayer, the variation does not affect the core characteristics that defines any games. In short, games are simply activities that are voluntary and fun, while providing its participants with goals that are difficult yet achievable, all while adhering to rules that are coherent and easily interpreted. Most importantly of all, the goodness of a game depends on the willingness of its participants to accept the Magic Circle. When it comes down to it, regardless of how well a game has been designed, one can only truly enjoy a game if they allow themselves to be fully immersed into the world the designer had planned.

With that, I end this week’s post. Once again, I thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. Please leave a comment below if you have any suggestions or questions, and be sure to check back soon!


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