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Now that we’ve thought about some of the various aspects of games, it seems natural to try to pull it all together and answer the question we posed at the beginning of this chapter: what is a game? What makes Go Fish, or Quake, or any of the games that you can play a game and not some other type of experience?
We’ve said that games are given structure by their formal elements, that they also have dramatic elements that make them emotionally engaging experiences. We’ve also said that games are dynamic systems and that their elements work together to produce a complex whole. But we can go even farther in our definition by pulling out some of the most important elements from the earlier discussion.
When we talked about boundaries, we mentioned the physical and the conceptual, because this is what most games deal with in their rules. What we didn’t mention is the emotional boundary between all of the rest of life and a game.
When you play a game, you set the rules of life aside and take up the rules of the game instead. Conversely, when you finish playing a game, you set aside the incidents and outcome of that game and return to the trappings of the outside world. Within the game, you may have slaughtered your best friend, or she may have slaughtered you. But that was within the game. Outside the game, these actions have no real consequences. What we are describing is the fact that game systems are separate from the rest of the world, they are closed.
We already have said that games are formal systems; that they are defined as games, and not some other type of interaction, by their formal elements. Also, we know that it’s key to our definition of games to show that these elements are interrelated, so we should include the concept that a game is a system. So the first statement we can make confidently about games is that they are closed, formal systems.
We’ve talked at length about the fact that games are for players, that the entire purpose of games is to engage players. Without players, games have no reason to exist. How do games engage players? By involving them in a conflict that is structured by their formal and dramatic elements. Games challenge players to accomplish their objectives while following rules and procedures which make it difficult to do so. So the second statement we add to our definition of games is that they engage players in structured conflicts.
Lastly, games resolve their conflicts in unequal outcomes. A fundamental part of gameplay is that it promises to end and that it promises to produce a winner or winners. Games are not experiences designed to prove we are all equal. In fairness to the great breadth of game genres, some games are not exacting in their sense of closure or in the measure of their outcome. However, even if you are playing a game like EverQuest that goes on and on ad infinitum, or a game like The Sims, which has no specified objective, these games find ways to provide both resolution and measurable achievement to their players.
Drawing these concepts together, we can come to this working conclusion about the nature of games. A game is:
A closed, formal system, that
Engages players in structured conflict, and
Resolves in an unequal outcome.
Exercise 2.9: Applying What You’ve Learned
For this exercise, you will need a piece of paper, two pens, and two players. First, take a moment to play this simple game:
Draw three dots randomly on the paper. Choose a player to go first.
The first player draws a line from one dot to another dot.
Then that player draws a new dot anywhere on that line.
The second player also draws a line and a dot:
The new line must go from one dot to another, but no dot can have more than three lines coming out of it.
Also, the new line cannot cross any other line.
The new dot must be placed on the new line.
A line can go from a dot back to the same dot as long as it doesn’t break the “no more than three lines” rule.
The players take turns until one player cannot make a move. The last player to move is the winner.
Identify the formal elements of this game:
Players: How many? Any requirements? Special knowledge, roles, etc.?
Objective: What is the objective of the game?
Procedures: What are the required actions for play?
Rules: Any limits on player actions? Rules regarding behavior? What are they?
Conflict: What causes conflict in this game?
Boundaries: What are the boundaries of the game? Are they physical? Conceptual?
Outcome: What are the potential outcomes of the game?
Does the game have dramatic elements? Identify them:
Challenge: What creates challenge in the game?
Play: Is there a sense of play within the rules of the game?
Premise/Character/Story: Are these present?
What types of dramatic elements do you think might add to the game experience?
John Conway and Mike Patterson, Sprouts, 1967.
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