What's In a Game? Hot

MattDPMattDP   June 27, 2011  
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game-partsOne of the fun things about being active on Twitter is getting know about people and organisations that you might never otherwise come across. So it is with Hide & Seek and their lead game designer, Holly Gramazio. As a game fan, you might be surprised to come across a games company and a designer you’ve never heard of before. I was. But it turns out that Hide & Seek aren’t an ordinary games company. It’s kind of hard to describe just what they are, but they seem to be equally interested in board games, video games and social games and to be interested in experimenting, mixing and matching and looking at games as pieces of performance art. It’s certainly a pretty captivating mixture and I’d love to go to some of the events they organise but it seems to be pretty London-centric.

Anyway, a few weeks ago Holly popped up on Twitter and proposed an experiment - can you describe the rules of a game in 140 characters or less. Being an unimaginative and closed-minded sort I automatically assumed she was interested in board games and proposed that something like LCR might fit the bill. Which it would, but it turns out that Holly was thinking rather more widely than that. Here’s what she first proposed:

get 2 players. Agree on a word (like hopscotch). The first person to say the word loses. Game may take several years to play.

Which was not a game in the sense that I normally understood the word, but on reflection was a game nevertheless. And that got me thinking about the definition of what a game actually is. As hobbyists we like to waste insane amounts of column inches attempting to pin down definitions of our favourite game genres but why not take a step back and apply the same thinking to the concept of a game itself?

Before you start to think I’ve disappeared even further up my own backside than usual, I think there’s a serious purpose here. It’s been a running theme of late in board game commentary that designers seem to have run out of ideas, that the overall quality of releases has declined and that genuine innovation as opposed to the recycling and recombining, has become increasingly rare. Why not take a shot at solving the problem by attempting to re-define what actually constitutes a game? The exercise also brings up some very interesting and pertinent questions, such as how much knowledge and ability is - or can be - pre-assumed when constructing the rules of a game to be as clear and unambiguous as possible?

So let’s go back to the task in hand and look at some more suggestions that conformed to the 140 character limit. The next one was:

Choose a brightly-coloured rock and put it somewhere public. Each time you pass and it's moved, get a point. Game ends when it disappears.

What I found interesting about this suggestion was that it contained elements that we don’t normally associate with games, but which nevertheless held some interest. You’re all familiar with the tired old trope of “meaningful choice”, right? Well this game has none. And it doesn’t have any of what usually takes the place of choice in a game: no randomness, no social interaction, nothing. The concept of using external stimuli as part of a game is interesting, and not something that’s been particularly explored in board games so far. You could argue that leaving rock movement up to the vagaries of the environment is kind of random, and not unlike rolling a dice or drawing cards, but is it? The game rules don’t specify that you can’t enlist someone else's help in moving the rock or, indeed that you can’t move it yourself.

Which brings us on to another point which is how much implicit - or indeed explicit - instruction can you assume from the rules of a game? When I first read the outline suggested above it occurred to me that you might be able to manipulate the rock by arranging other people to do it for you - only when I actually came to write this article did I realise you could actually move it - or remove it - yourself. That breaks the game, of course, because you can score a point and then steal the rock, setting yourself up for a win. But my assumptions about how the game should be played speaks volumes about how I - and all of us - have been socially engineered to understand basic concepts like fairness and cheating and how it applies to games. We’ve all had the childhood experience of playing a loosely-structured game with friends and it all turning to ashes when we suddenly realise that someone is bending the rules of the game either because they didn’t share the group’s vision of how the game should be played or, worse, for deliberate advantage. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking. And that shared folk memory of fairness and how emotionally upsetting it can be to see fairness broken in a game is, I suspect, behind the visceral reaction most of us gamers now have to rules-lawyer types now that we’ve grown up. Rules lawyering is irritating but the reaction of disgust and hatred that it engenders is, when you stop and think about it, far beyond the damage to the game that it actually causes.

I’d like to revisit the concept I touched on about using external factors in games because I find it particularly interesting. It seems an entirely valid idea to build into a game but one which is barely used. Space Alert is probably the closest that I’ve come across but even that has a predictable element because the CD is going to run out of new options and combinations eventually. If you rely on something truly external then at once you have a whole array of options that do something a bit like the cube tower in Wallenstein - provide a random factor over which the players have limited control. Consider these:

Get a broom. Sweep a dice along the gap between double yellow lines. Stop when it touches one. Score: the weight of rubbish you've gathered.

In any carpark, the cars are monsters, asleep. You lose if you touch one, or run, or if one wakes up and can see you (headlights are eyes)

In both cases the games are reliant on external factors. In the first the amount of crap in the gutter in front of your broom. In the second how many people are getting in to their parked cards and driving away. But equally in both cases there’s an element of skill mixed in. You get to pick where you want to sweep, so you want to find the most likely location to collect rubbish and there may also be an element of broom handling to try and stop the dice turning over in the process. With the car park game you can watch people walking to their cars and react accordingly. Okay so for our purposes as table top gamers we usually want to play a game in a more controlled environment than these, but there are still plenty of factors that could be used for a game. The time. The size of the room or the table you’re playing on. When a player undertakes an involuntary action such as sneezing or blinking. The transition from dusk to night. Hey, I’m not claiming to be particularly creative - I’m sure a clever game designer could see a lot more possibilities here and yet the surface of this concept has barely been scratched.

Another thing that I drew out of these simple games is the idea that a game doesn’t have to be an idle pass-time. Some games can have important, potentially life-changing qualities.  One great example is, of course, Poker, if you’re playing it for large sums of money. Another more drastic one is Russian Roulette. Here’s another:

Sit by a window. Watch 100 people walk by. Pick one to marry as he or she passes - no going back. Choose, or get stuck with number 100.

Which makes me wonder about people’s motivation for playing games. What could possibly make someone want to play a game like this? Nothing, possibly, but that doesn’t stop it from being a game. Another thing that struck me about this particular game is that it has no competition. There is no winner and no real sense in which you can quantify a solo challenge and assess your performance. And yet it still looks a lot like a game, even though we take the concept of competition as part and parcel of what we expect when we sit down to play.

Ultimately what I took away from this fascinating exercise is that a “game” is actually nothing more than an activity which is structured by rules. That’s it. Most of the things that we assume are going to be present in a game such as competition and choice are not actually required to make an interesting, worthwhile game. Sports are games, certainly, and in many respects the sky is the limit when it comes to game design. But that conclusion doesn’t offer a lot of practical application when it comes to innovation. For that, what I think is important is that it’s the end point of the game in relation to the people playing it that matters most, not the design process or the medium. We need to ask what the game is supposed to do: should it teach the players something? Should it make them think about something? What sort of activity or space is it supposed to help them explore? When examined from this angle the limitations that designers have to work under, in the sense that you can only do so much with cards or paper or dice, start to break down. You just need to do whatever you need to do to achieve your end point, stop thinking about what you can’t do with a board game and start thinking about what you can do. Okay so that’s an much easier thing to say than to do, but one thing this hobby doesn’t seem to be short on is passionate, intelligent, creative people. Isn’t it about time we started to step out of the game box and into the real world?