EdX Game Design Question: What is a game?

Wow. What a deceptively simple question. What is a game? Can you come up with a simple way to describe a game that could apply to poker, Chutes & Ladders, basketball, D&D, World of Warcraft? All of them?

The week 1 class lecture video was discussing this, not with these specific examples, and a challenge was put forth to come up with three words or short phrases that best describe a game to you, a word cloud was built out of the submissions. My words were: rules, strategy, and goal, the cloud was made up of 2800 words, and my percentages were 8%, 1%, and 2%, respectively. The biggest (highest occurrence) words were fun, rules, and challenging. Lots of synonyms and variations on phrases were used, victory conditions are roughly the equivalent of goals, etc. And if you combined goal and goals, it might be larger than challenging.

Thinking about the top words, arguments can be made in many directions. Is ‘fun’ a characteristic of a game? A game certainly should be fun, otherwise what’s the point of playing it. Life is too short to spend your recreation time doing things that you don’t enjoy. Walking the dog might be fun and is certainly not a game, though perhaps the dog might think it is. Maybe there’s a dog-walking game, I haven’t seen it and don’t know that I’d want to (chances are I’ll start designing one in my mind tonight, it’ll probably include ninja attacks). But can you design ‘fun’? Is interesting the same thing as fun? Does a desire to replay a game mean that you thought it was fun? Is enjoying playing a game the same thing as considering it fun? Can you have an enjoyable experience playing a game that is not fun? Can your perception of whether or not a game is fun vary during play if you go from winning to losing?

And is ‘fun’ the same between different cultures who speak different languages? I studied a little sociology and I can see how that word might not track.

One major problem is that two people may not agree that a given thing is fun or funny: some people don’t think Monty Python’s Flying Circus is fun while others do, so a game that goes deep in to Python humor is not going to be fun to a person who is not a fan. So ‘fun’ becomes a targeted goal of the design of the game: I want my theoretical game to appeal to Gamer Fanset A, and I realize that this means that people who are mainly Gamer Fanset B are probably not going to be interested in playing my game. As long as I accept that, that’s OK: I might end up with a much weaker game were I also to orient it towards Fanset B, or it might simply not be possible.

Speaking personally, I know that the game designs that I produce will not appeal to the classic grognard hard-core strategy gamer, because I try to design light and fast rules that don’t require deep strategy. This is something that I accept because it’s what I want to play, and if I don’t want to play the games that I design, why am I doing it?

Thinking about ‘challenging’ can take a lot of faces. A computer game can provide different levels of challenge by changing how accurate the cursor placement for a shot must be, or by giving enemy targets more life, or by reducing the output of resources, etc. In a balanced board or card game, the challenge is going to be your opponents or random chance or random allocation of resources. When I posed this question to my wife, she used the word difficulty. I think this is a characteristic that can be expressed in different ways. The difficulty could be the opposing team (enemy strategy), terrain/movement choices, random chance. They’re all challenges, though I think my brain wants to think of difficulty as having a more physical/tangible manifestation.

Then again, it’s 1AM where I’m at and I’m tired, so I’ll blame it on brain fade and go to bed, I’ve got five hours in an airplane later today.

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  • wynnmercere  On November 2, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Simplest definition (5 words or less): Social time spent with rules
    So you see, politics is a game, courtship is a game, everything is a game!

  • waynezombie  On November 29, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I can go for a definition like that! You could potentially reduce it to Structured Social Time and then argue the value and meaning of structure vs rules. Discussing semantics is always fun. I think.

    Hope you two had a good holiday!

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