Articles Analysis What's In a Game?
 

What's In a Game? What's In a Game? Hot

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?

Powered by JReviews
Comments (13)
  • avatarJonJacob  - Great article Matt!

    I love this one. I do things like this all the time but I call it obsessive compulsive behavior.

    One game I play is this; When walking, try to make sure that the left and right foot step on an equal number of cracks in the same place on your foot. You loose when you can't keep track any more.

    Another one. When bicycling to work count the number of cars with a driver and no passengers, see how high a number you can reach.

    My father told me that when he was younger he played this one; When walking around the house imagine there is a string attached to your back, when leaving a room re-trace your steps to ensure the string never gets tangled.

    Admittedly the games suck and do border on OCD territory but it's harmless and stops me from thinking about sex all the time. This article has me thinking about how I can change these games. First by thinking their games instead of some stupid disorder and second by trying to give them rules. Which previous to now I never really thought about. They weren't games they were just things I did. But by changing the language and the perception I can open my life up to looking at these things differently and possibly in a more positive light.

    I also play a version of that marrige game you mention but it's much more crude and personal.

  • avatarKingPut

    Way to stretch my mind on a Monday morning Matt. It's interesting to think about all little games we play ever day. I've had people tell me that I make everything into a game or contest. I don't think it is a OCD thing in my case like JonJacob but maybe its a little bit of gambling compulsion to make a contest out of everyday things in my daily life even if no money ever changes hand.

    Adding little contests is a great way to add a little excitement or entertainment to life. I think back to taking long boring car rides as kid before hand held electron games we would play the alphabet game, red car game or other made up games in car. Now I'm always playing the yellow car car game with my kids in the car. At work as a market research guy, I'm constantly playing games with my co-workers. Our favorite is guess how high will a new product or new concept rate in a consumer test. Guess the new product score isn't only fun but it's also a great why to become better at selecting which products go into at a consumer test.

    By playing little contests with friends and co-workers it's pretty easy to tell who likely to enjoy other games like board games or video games. Some people will get just as excited as me playing contests while other will refuse or resist playing.

  • avatarMattDP
    Quote:
    Admittedly the games suck and do border on OCD territory but it's harmless and stops me from thinking about sex all the time

    Heh. I'm glad you qualified that comment by saying it "borders" on OCD. I think the fact that you're able to see the difference and to make that shift in your head between seeing these as games rather than something vaguely pathological tends to indicate that it was never vaguely pathological in the first place. I think everyone is plagued all day every day by a variety of unwelcome, unwholesome and inappropriate thoughts and ideas, but the fact you can label them as such and put them to one side is what's important.

    Quote:
    Way to stretch my mind on a Monday morning Matt

    My pleasure. It was actually a hard piece to write and took a lot longer than normal, and I'm still not sure I've done it justice.

    Quote:
    Adding little contests is a great way to add a little excitement or entertainment to life

    That's a great observation and not one I really touched on in the piece. These are kind of like the children's games that they make up on the fly to entertain themselves when they're bored. And it highlights just how these little games come to socialise people to be ready to play the big games when they get older. All those nerds who try and do things like teach Agricola to their five-year-olds (and yes, people on TOS have admitted doing just this) are probably killing the gaming instinct in their kids rather than encouraging it - that level of complexity and rigidity is no way to explore the rewards of structured play.

  • avatarAarontu

    Nice, though provoking article.

    Anyone else played this game as a kid?:

    In a room tiled with black and white tiles, the white ones are HOT LAVA (don't step on them). Best if the tiles are arranged in an irregular pattern (not checkerboard).

  • avatarMichael Barnes

    I actually touched somewhat on this on my Jumping the Shark podcast appearance this week- the topic was about how video games are "the new normal" (according to Al Gore, of all people) and I was going on about how there aren't games that affect you like Requiem for a Dream.

    There's hardly anything fun, relaxing, or fulfilling about that film. It doesn't touch the pleasure centers and you don't leave happy. You wouldn't invite your friends over for a few beers and a screening. Yet it's still entertaining, compelling, and engrossing.

    I'm beginning to think that the #1 thing that games- video and tabletop- have got to cut loose is that entertainment has to be "fun". Entertainment can be challening, scary, risky, insightful, spiritual, emotional, or painful. It doesn't have to be "fun", as a facile definition.

    Games are structures of interaction, either with a environment or circumstance, with other people, or a combination thereof. This does not have to include fun.

    This line stands out as something that should be going on in game design- constantly-

    Why not take a shot at solving the problem by attempting to re-define what actually constitutes a game?

    If we redefine games in light of understanding that entertainment does not necessarily include fun, then we could open up all kinds of new avenues of expression in game design. And potentially, new ways to have fun too.

  • avatarSleightOfHand12  - re:
    Michael Barnes wrote:
    ...I was going on about how there aren't games that affect you like Requiem for a Dream.

    Well, wasn't that the impetus for Brenda Braithwaite's Train? (With bonus F:AT commentary here.)

    I'd love to see more games that teach, challenge, and lend insight into various topics and themes, and I think people like Phil Eklund (whose games, as MB aptly noted, are more like playable Master's theses) are pushing that envelope. But Phil's games, though complex, are still FUN. I worry about the long-term appeal of something like Requiem: TBG - I watched Requiem one time, and that was enough. Is there really a market for games that you'd probably only want to play once?

  • avatarMattLoter

    Hot Lava, in it's many variant forms, is one of the greatest games of all time.

    As adults we still play two variants, both in the outdoors; one is that you go into the woods and can't touch the ground. Rocks, tress and all that are cool, but no pebbly ass walkways or whatever. Second, more extreme yet more fun variant, is to find a swampy ass wetlands area and try to get across without getting wet.

  • avatarubarose  - re:
    Aarontu wrote:
    Nice, though provoking article.

    Anyone else played this game as a kid?:

    In a room tiled with black and white tiles, the white ones are HOT LAVA (don't step on them). Best if the tiles are arranged in an irregular pattern (not checkerboard).

    We still play that in our kitchen. My cleaning lady, who is kind of like having your Italian grandma come in for a couple of hours a week to set you straight, is always scolding us, "I just wash-a the floor. Don't stepp-a the white."

  • avatardaveroswell

    I always had at least three dogs when I was a kid. My backyard was about an acre and completely fenced in. I used to play "dog football"; if I got from one side of the yard to another without a dog touching me, I got a touchdown. I almost never lost. :)

  • avatarscissors

    A childhood friend of mine brought down a whole cupboard filled with porcelain china when we played the lava game in their dining room. The idea was to get across the room without touching ANY part of the floor: so it had us and his brother and others jumping from a sofa to chairs, and inching along cupboards.

    The whole thing crashed down on him. He wasn't hurt, but what a shit storm that was. I can still hear his mum screaming his name and I didn't see him for weeks, he was so grounded.

    Not walking in the forest: I used to love the great outdoors, but I don't spend time in the forest like I used to: too many goddamn ticks.

  • avatarHatchling

    Great article. There's lots to comment on but this in particular hit home:

    Quote:
    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.

    Man, I never realised it before, but I really feel this. In fact, it could very well be that a good deal of my motivation to play games comes from my anxiety about unfairness. This never occured to me before. I love how games "work", how they facilitate dynamic interaction and even overt conflict between people, and even with lots of luck or randomness still hang together cohesively and in way that leaves players with a feeling of fairness. I think I am in awe of that kind of thing in general. I am in awe that the average person in a society can be decent and honest when nobody is looking and when many other people would much prefer to be corrupt and selfish.

    Now everything is blurring my brain. Suddenly I'm thinking about how I hated the film "Social Network" and Zuckerburg in particular.

  • avatarMattDP
    Quote:
    I love how games "work", how they facilitate dynamic interaction and even overt conflict between people, and even with lots of luck or randomness still hang together cohesively and in way that leaves players with a feeling of fairness

    Now that's an interesting observation. It would also explain partly why games appeal to nerds - people who, at least as teenagers, often feel they're on the receiving end of a lot of life's unfairness.

    Now whether that's true or not is a whole different kettle of fish, indeed it's the foundation of an awful lot of political discourse. It's hard enough to work out whether games are actually "fair" or not. Is it "fair" to stick a gamer that's bad at diplomacy in the starting position as Greece in Mare Nostrum? But it's a lot fairer than real life, that's for sure.

  • avatartimeLESS

    I think "competition" is nothing more then a very commonly used game design mechanic. One that easily creates tension. Some games get their tension in different ways like coop games. a Competition mechanic is not necessary for a game to be a game.

Only registered users can write comments!
Text Size

Top