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What Makes a Game?

March 29, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[Keith Burgun, founder and designer at 100 Rogues developer Dinofarm Games, argues that some video games are not "games" at all -- and posits a way to home in on the precise elements that make games engaging to players.]

In the beginning, Tetris had a much looser system for random piece (Tetronimo) generation. This meant that when you were playing, you could not be sure of how long it would be until your next line piece would come. This made the decision to "save up for a Tetris, or cash in now" a lot more ambiguous.

Between the new "7-bag" system of piece generation (which puts all seven pieces into a bag and draws them out one at a time, guaranteeing that you will get a line piece every 14 pieces at the latest), the "hold box", and usually five or six "next" boxes, modern Tetris is largely a matter of execution. Maybe you love what Tetris has become, and think that these changes are purely positive. That's fine -- but I think we can all agree that something has been lost.

The Concept of Games

I propose that games are a specific thing.

What I mean by that is that I think there is a unique concept that I can only call "game", and this is something different from the large blanket term we use in the digital game world. We video gamers call everything from digital puzzles, interactive fiction, simulators, to even digital crafting tools "games" (or "video games").

Essentially, anything digital, interactive, and used for amusement gets called a game. And the dictionary will go even further -- it calls a game an "amusement or pastime." So watching TV is a "game." Hell, eating a can of beans can be a "game" if it amuses you!

The thing is -- there exists a special thing, a thing that isn't a toy, isn't a puzzle, and isn't any of those other things I mentioned. It's a thing that's been around since the dawn of history, and it still thrives today. We have no other word for it, really, than "game", so for the purposes of this article, that's the language I'll be using. To refer to the larger category of "all digital interactive entertainment", I'll use the term "video game."

I define this thing -- a game -- as "a system of rules in which agents compete by making ambiguous decisions." Note that "agents" don't necessarily have to both be human, one is often the system (as in a single-player game). But the "ambiguous decisions" part is really crucial, and I am here to argue that it's the single most important aspect in a game.

This is a prescriptive philosophy -- a way to look at games that you may not have before -- not a description of what exists. In other words, of course there are video games (I prefer to adopt the mobile-gaming term "apps") that are puzzles that have elements of games, and there are games that have elements of simulators. I'm here to argue that because of this blurring of the word "game" and its inherent qualities, we are somewhat inadvertently losing this meaningful, ambiguous kind of decision, particularly in the area of single-player digital games.

What Makes a Decision Meaningful?

It's possible that some of us have forgotten how good it is to make an interesting, difficult decision that we can never take back.

Games have a very special kind of decision-making. In a good game, the decisions have the following qualities: they're interesting, they're difficult, and the better answer is ambiguous. Above all else, however, the decisions have to be "meaningful".

I don't mean "meaningful" as in personal meaning, such as "they make you think about your relationship with your dad" (although they certainly could). By "meaningful", I simply mean that your decisions have meaning and repercussions inside the game system; they cause new challenges to emerge, and most importantly of all, they have meaning with regards to the final outcome of the game.

Some may be quick to point out that all video games -- puzzles, simulators, toys -- all involve some form of "decision-making". That is absolutely true, but nothing else forces the player to make decisions in quite the way that a game does. Any decisions you might make in a puzzle, for instance, are either correct or incorrect, and decisions you make in a simulator do not have a larger contest (context) inside which to become meaningful.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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