Many books on game design have a chapter, usually early on, that
wrestles with putting a definition to the term “game”. Since that’s
something for which we all have a pretty intuitive sense, it’s
surprising how broadly our definitions of it can diverge. Try it!
You’ll find it’s pretty difficult to come up with that ideal string of
words that are true for everything we call a game, but which also
clearly exclude those things that aren’t games. For example, you might
game is a fun activity.” Hmm, well I’ve been to parties that were fun
activities but that weren’t games. I’ve also played some games that
weren’t fun. When I was in fourth grade all of the boys in my class
would spend recess simulating pro-wrestling matches, which I personally
found to be just plain painful. But I’d have to admit that the
shortage of fun didn’t stop it from being a game.
- “A game is a
rules-based form of play.” It’s certainly true that all games have
rules, no argument there. But so do computer programming languages,
highways, and sessions of Congress.
- “A game is a frivolous
diversion from the real world.” No, that can’t be right. Militaries
stage games to simulate conditions of war, which is about as far as you
can get from a frivolous pursuit. A blackjack table is a game, but
since the players are putting up real money it can have very tangible
impact in the real world.
I think the difficulty stems
from impulse to tackle the problem using a straighforward Webster’s /
OED approach, which only works until you find one example to the
contrary. I vow never to try to do that. Instead, it’s a little
easier to describe the characteristics that, taken together, comprise a
gameplay experience (sort of a cheapo approach). In the past, I’ve
found some success with these three characteristics of all games:
- Static objectives. One or more explicit, measurable conditions that all players are trying to reach.
- Environmental constraints. The things and places that enable play.
Think of cards, dice, checkerboards, and football fields. These set
hard limits on what people can do: a deck of cards only has four aces,
no matter how much you might need a fifth one.
constraints. AKA, the rules. These are the intangible limits on what
people can do. There’s nothing that keeps the players following these
constraints, except for the fact that they all agreed they would.
it. Those three things are true of any game under the sun. Also,
anything where those three characteristics are present must necessarily
be a game. You’ll notice that makes it a pretty expansive way of
thinking about games, and the characteristics could easily encompass
things we wouldn’t normally identify as games. Education, financial
planning, and even work would be caught in a net that wide. That’s by
design! I really believe that many mundane, everyday experiences can
be understood as games, even if we’re not used to thinking of them that
way. And in turn, they can benefit from the elements of design that
make games compelling and enjoyable.
Jesse Schell (who wrote a
fantastic book called “The Art of Game Design”) gave a very
at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas last week, where he suggested
integrating game design into the littlest things people do every day.
Brushing your teeth. Eating breakfast cereal. Riding the bus.
Reading a book. He suggests that all of these things can be detected
through sensors and engineered to earn you points, achievements, or tax
credits. Absurd? You bet. Schell’s deliberately overshooting the
mark to invite us to stretch our imaginations beyond the traditional,
limiting definitions of “game”. Somewhere short of remote toothbrush
surveillance is a much more compelling way to do Quicken, Outlook, or
If Schell’s proposals seem absurd, it’s more because
we’re unaccustomed to them than because of any real-world barriers to
actually bringing them to fruition.
Leave a Reply