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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.

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David French
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I think checking out Wittgenstein's work on defining "game" would be helpful here. I think there's a lot of assumptions we are making about "how we define words" that muddies this discussion a lot.

Here's a quick summary from the wiki article: "Wittgenstein rejects a variety of ways of thinking about what the meaning of a word is, or how meanings can be identified. He shows how, in each case, the meaning of the word presupposes our ability to use it. He first asks the reader to perform a thought experiment: to come up with a definition of the word "game".[6] While this may at first seem a simple task, he then goes on to lead us through the problems with each of the possible definitions of the word "game". Any definition which focuses on amusement leaves us unsatisfied since the feelings experienced by a world class chess player are very different from those of a circle of children playing Duck Duck Goose. Any definition which focuses on competition will fail to explain the game of catch, or the game of solitaire. And a definition of the word "game" which focuses on rules will fall on similar difficulties.
The essential point of this exercise is often missed. Wittgenstein's point is not that it is impossible to define "game", but that we don't have a definition, and we don't need one, because even without the definition, we use the word successfully"

Keith Burgun
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Right, well, I disagree.

More specifically, I agree that the way that most people use game is absolutely fine. But for people who are serious about game design and understanding games, it's WORSE than useless, it's actually damaging.

A person who is designing a game (or puzzle or contest) needs to know what the fundamentals of his or her medium are. The colloquial usage of "game" is not helpful there.

Ardney Carter
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People who get this hung up about definitions are missing the point and will continue to do so. They wrongly believe that if only they could bottle up a definition and force its acceptance they would magically help designers to 'understand the fundamentals of their medium'.

What they fail to see is that it's not about what the experience is called as much as it's about the experience itself. Notice how their "points" always boils down to some form of 'this or that isn't REALLY a game'. Well, so what? What does the exclusion gain for anyone? Are you truly under the impression that if you somehow get everyone to buy into your use of the word that it will automatically improve the quality of the experience? If so, you're missing the point. And will continue to do so, sadly.

Jack Watson
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I actually agree with both David and Ardney, and would suggest you check out Chris Bateman's article here:

Actually I would suggest everyone including the author of this article look into what Chris is saying, it has greatly influenced my view.

Also, I consider myself someone who is serious about my work, and personally, I believe tying yourself to these imaginary rules of a specific genre limits your creativity as a designer, which is MORE damaging. You don't know what is truly possible if you put limits like that on yourself, it absolutely kills innovation. Keith I think it is quite arrogant for you to state that all serious designers have the same opinion as you.

David Kanaga
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Yea, I agree with Wittgenstein about the fluidity of meaning, from what I understand.. It's an important idea/realization.

Keith - for people who are serious about game design and understanding games ("game" in the sense that Witt. & most people use the word, "game" as an organizing form in the endlessly broad tradition of play), a definition like YOURS is damaging.

A person who is designing a game needs to know what the fundamentals of his or her medium are-- this is true. But what is this medium anyway? Is it actually "games" in the way you'd like it to be? Not for me, not for so many others-- your "games" are a tool, a conceptual building block, that can be used along with other conceptual blocks to maybe construct something greater than the sum of its parts. As you pointed out-- many games these days don't have "games" in them at all. & that's wonderful. There are other meaningful play forms.

Meaningful decisions: we make these everyday outside of your "game" systems. This concept is in need of reevaluation. If we look at our played experience of life as a freeform game, the kinds of meaning produced by our decisions are very different from those that you've described. We'll search for the sources of these meanings-- and I think they'll reveal new types of games and play that we would never have found otherwise.

It's also my belief that the only way we can really improve our games is by looking closely at what makes a game a game. So-- a game is something that we play. Starting from here, from chaos almost, from the played experience, and going outward (and welcoming all compelling played experiences along the way)-- this is a new beginning, I think, and one that I hope will prove fruitful in revealing radically new kinds of meanings and play forms that don't fit neatly in any existing category right now.

Been thinking about these things myself, was great reading your thoughts :)

Mark Venturelli
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I expected this article to get this kind of response, but not so fast.

Long ago I gave up debating this argument and now I link people to this article instead:

A quote from the excellent write-up:

"Now I don’t know the perfect solution, but I would suggest as an industry we need to learn sheet music and conventions by which we can discuss problems. A process that is already happening but slowly. The problem is many poor designers keep rallying against these conventions or building of hard theory basis.

They keep rallying against conventions and theory, expressing their “individuality” or “creativity” or some other fluffy concept as a defense. It’s because “bad” designers, “lazy” designers who are not willing to put in the work, find it easier to have things fluffy. This fog and lack of clarity is the shield they use to hide behind and we need to rally behind the hard theory and science to gain respect as a profession."

Rodain Joubert
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I think that Mark alone has stated what really needs to be said in this comment thread: viewing this article (hell, let's call it an "opinion column" to make things easier) as an additive experience rather than a subtractive one is key. It is just another tool used to frame our understanding of (and communication about) the craft.

I can agree that over-dedication to a single theoretical framework can stifle creativity, but is it not the responsibility of any good designer to both learn from *and* evolve past these models? It's not an exclusive either / or thing. Learning an idea does not bind you to it forever.

I also think that there's far, far too many poorly-crafted games in existence right now to justify railing against a theory that could help promote understanding and focus. It strikes me as insecure.

Blake Reynolds
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@Jack Watson"Also, I consider myself someone who is serious about my work, and personally, I believe tying yourself to these imaginary rules of a specific genre limits your creativity as a designer, which is MORE damaging. You don't know what is truly possible if you put limits like that on yourself, it absolutely kills innovation."

"Limits us?" You want to talk limitation? Ok. Let's look at this useless, blanket term "video game" and see just what this free-for-all has done for us in freeing us from limitation.Look at the last 20 years of video games. What has REALLY changed besides technology? We're playing the same third person beat-em-ups we were playing in 1994. The same fighters, the same fps, the same JRPGS, etc. What's worse, is that this lack of basic understanding causes designers to take things for granted, and subscribe to "Checkbox game design."

"save/load: check. Health regen: check. Vehicle rail shooter sequence: check. RPG elements and upgrades: check. cutscenes, check. QTE events: check. Chest-high wall cover system: check. Sandbox overworld or city: check."

^do they stop to think for one minute whether any of these grab-bag, totally unrelated features should be in EVERY game? I don't think they do. They're blind mole-rats. They're throwing shit against the wall, and this is because of too MUCH "creative freedom."

Look at Skyrim. Death should not be in the game. There is no reason for it. Because the obvious, optimal and therefore only move to make is to save the game on a new file before any decision or fight, the only possible way to derive tension from the game is by accidentally forgetting to save before a battle. Death is utterly pointless, but the designers think to themselves "hey, you gotta DIE in these games obviously. When your HP reaches zero, you die."

The only reason they didn't ask themselves these questions is because a lack of fundamentals, a lack of a clear understanding of what precisely it is they're making, has caused them to make sloppy, self-indulgent, unfocused garbage that makes no sense and is completely boring.

Indy developers are not immune from this problem. Though I'll grant that more creativity comes out of the indies, they're still bogged down by this unconscious commitment to things like thematic death, "epic scope," "story," etc.

In short, a system of theory and principles like the one Keith proposes is no different than the study of screenwriting or music theory or the craft of song, or the craft of human anatomy for illustrators. Is learning how to correctly draw the human body going to "limit" an artist... or is it going to FREE him to put his imagination on the page with more efficiency, ease and grace? Creative limitations cause us to act like problem solvers. It causes us to divorce ourselves from ego. To stop producing selfish, self-indulgent snooze-fests with no respect for the audience or the form. Those who think art should be approached and made with "NO" limitations are a spoiled bunch indeed.

Joe McGinn
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Blake - what an odd rant, and strangely and entirely disconnected from the subject at hand.

I don't know what you are playing but there are all kinds of games you can play today that I never experienced 20 years ago. "To The Moon", to pick a random brilliant example from my recent playlist. In fact it as a 16-bit art style and presentation, but it's like nothing I've played before. And with platforms like Steam and iOS, there is more diversity and creativity in video games than there has ever been before.

Blake Reynolds
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Am I missing something? I watched about half an hour of a playthrough of "to the moon" and it's the same puzzle we've been playing since the 80s. The only thing that makes it different from something like Monkey Island is the theming and the sort of nod to/hybrid with JRPG sensibilities. How is this different from the same trial and error puzzle we've played a thousand times? Again, it's different in its theming. But it's certainly not "unlike anything I've ever seen." Mechanisms and theme are different. Yet another thing Keith's lens helps to discern. I may be missing something. Sorry if I am. But if I'm not, your reply actually supports my "irrelevant-to-the-topic" rant. None of the decisions in this game seem to matter. It's just about unraveling the puzzle. "finishing" the story. When I see these games I see one huge advent calendar. You know, the little cardboard windows with the chocolate inside? Well, this is like that, except there are like hundreds of windows. The object of the game is to get all the chocolates and throw the game in the garbage. The only reason anyone would play it twice is for nostalgia, to take in the art again, or to try the branching story paths, which is still just more chocolates, which are finite.

Endre Voros
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@ Jack

Keith didn't assume you have the same opinion as him. He is expressing his own opinion that he considers it damaging if you do not, regardless if you agree or realise it yourself.

Be careful how you twist peoples words because it reflects poorly on the arguments and on your understanding of what was said. He's not arguing your right to your own opinion, but he's trying to build a case that you're wrong in thinking differently, is that really arrogance?

@ David Kanaga and others

Similarily, he's not saying you don't have the right or are invalidated by creating "other" play forms or experiences outside *his* definition of game. Stop assuming this is what people like Keith and Tadhg are saying, or assuming there is a value judgement actually relevant to the arguments. It just comes off as insecure on your part. Why do you care if someone else defines your game a "puzzle" or a "virtual promenade"? Noone's going to stop you from making them or enjoying them. Some of us just want to come up with precise language that conveys something accurate when used.

Noone said "game" > "virtual promenade" as entertainment. But if this is your inferrence, maybe you should think about why you do assume that and why it makes you angry. Please let us know your conslusion.

Keith Burgun
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A couple of notes I'd like to add: On Page 2, "Simulators" could also be traded out for the words "sandboxes" or "toys". They are all bare interactive systems.

Also, under Puzzles, it's worth mentioning that ALL games can be theoretically solved, not just perfect information ones (I know it says complete information in the article, sorry about that).

Mark Venturelli
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Cameron, he didn't say "simulator" and "sandbox" are the same thing. He just stated that, for the purposes of this discussion, they exist at the same level (competition-less).

Jacob Germany
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You had me in the beginning, with a distinction between puzzles, competitions, simulations, and games. But around the "enemies of the decision" section, you lost me.

For example, character progression: While progression may be poorly treated by many games, it's the industries cookie cutter way to approach parallel goal structures, or giving multiple avenues of achieving a variety of goals. In the case of the classic "levels", it acts as a sort of dynamic difficulty, which is poorly executed in many games I agree, but I have a hard time digesting that the fundamental concept of progression is the problem to providing meaningful decisions. Maybe you simply meant the execution of it provides problems, maybe not.

Another problem I have is that meaningful decisions, even in a game full of those problems you list, can exist. While you may not be able to suffer "permadeath", maybe a party member can. Maybe you can lose a specific quest, and not save a farmer, while still inevitably saving the world. Meaningful decisions fill modern games, despite most being stuffed with progression, saves, and losslessness.

I think one of the other major problems I have with the article is the overall question of, if we take everything as wholly accurate descriptions of both the problems and solutions, does it matter? Is anything truly lost if you provide an interactive sandbox with character progression, saves, and story that doesn't have a single meaningful decision? Certainly, you can lament that it is not a "game", but if the consumer enjoys it, the developer enjoyed creating it, and money was made, does it matter that it was a "simulation" and not a "game"?

Keith Burgun
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>While you may not be able to suffer "permadeath", maybe a party member can.

No, because then you'll just load the game.

In your last paragraph, you essentially said "does it matter if we don't know what we're really doing, if people enjoy what we make?" I think it's easy to get people to like things for a short time, especially since right now video games have this cultural "rock-star status". My article is for people who care about creating games that can be enjoyed for years, decades or even centuries, by honing in on the fundamentals and developing guidelines.

Jacob Germany
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Again, you're speaking about execution. In a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, you could certainly load the game, but what if you couldn't, speaking to the "Save Games" problem you were discussing. Or, thinking more outside the box, what if there were consequences for avoiding that death? What if there were benefits to a death of a character? My point was that simply because a game isn't a "roguelike" and didn't force you to start from the beginning upon loss doesn't mean a game couldn't have meaningful decisions, loss, or even death. Simply the execution of modern games results in a "You can't lose!" scenario, which isn't wholly awful, either, which brings me to your second point..

I certainly did not say "Does it matter if we don't know what we're doing?". I'm not sure where you even got that from my last paragraph, honestly. What I said, and what I mean, was this:

Does it matter if a game falls under one of your categories, like a simulation, and not the "game", if people enjoy it, and the developer enjoyed creating it? You certainly painted a picture of what games are compared to puzzles or simulations, but you didn't argue *why* that was important. What makes a "game" so much better than a "puzzle" or a "simulation"?

Let me clarify that I am not saying meaningful decisions aren't important. To the contrary, I think they are fundamentally lacking in games, and I hope to someday, in some small way, rectify that problem in my own way. But I do not believe for a moment that the solution must be a permadeath, quick-playing, quick-save-less roguelike. I think your description of "simulations" as well as games that embrace the problems you mention both can be executed with just as meaningful of decisions as any other game.

Bob Philhower
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Jacob has raised the critical point. Your article begs the question that "games" as you define them are desirable or worthwhile.

I argue that for many people, they are not.

The technology of interactive systems has been increased to the degree where they can now support the time-honored techniques which have been employed in other media (movies, books, music, theater, etc) for centuries: epic scope, emotional involvement, character development. These take an investment of time on the part of the user. I assert that the users are risk-averse when investing this amount of time.

Jacob Germany
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@Bob I like the way you phrased that. I think that's what I was getting at, but you said it much more succinctly. While there may be a lot lost by removing "meaningful decisions" by creating no-loss situations, just as much is lost by removing the depth that comes with extending gameplay past a single play session, which then necessitates game saves in order to avoid the risk of losing many hours of investment because of a mistake. Creating the potential for meaningful loss creates a situation where you lose as much as you gain.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jacob Germany
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@Jacob Rummelhart I completely disagree. While he claimed that "games" were different, he clearly implied that "meaningful decisions" were better than "meaningless decisions". He then portrays meaningful decisions as arising from, well, roguelikes, and pretty much nothing else. Permadeath, quick-play, no easy saves/loads. While you can say the beginning is just a description of terminology, with which I've already stated I agreed, it's the value judgments that come after, the "Games with these features are meaningless digital novels" vibe, that I've been contending.

As for your statement, "But if your goal is to make a "game", then I think it's helpful to know what that entails.", let's clarify this: If "games" are just different, not better, than "simulations", who cares if what you make is a "game" or an "interactive experience" or a "puzzle"? That's what I and a few others were pointing out. Taking the terminology at face value, there should be no preference.

Thus, there should be *no one* that says "I'm going to make a game. No matter what that means, a game is what I'll make" and builds from there. Rather, they have an an experience they want to convey through mechanics, decisions, narrative, etc. If what results is Keith's "game", or Keith's "contest", or his term "simulation", those are ascribed after the art is created. It just wouldn't make any sense to say "I'm going to make a Keith Burgun defined game" before you have the experience to convey. If you did, you'd end up with some generic roguelike.

To put it more tersely, creating jargon is very important to describe and communicate. These definitions are good for this reason. However, jargon should not be the driving creative force. Simply a means to communicate what was created.

Jacob Germany
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Thanks for clarifying. I do understand better what you meant. And when I took your words in a "strange direction", let me explain why. I read your comment as basically simply stating that Keith's article made no judgments, just explanations or dissections. If I implied you said descriptive words were the driving creative force, it's only because that's the direct meaning I inferred from the original article.

The article details "examples of problems which would naturally be avoided if game designers adopted my philosophy for games." Now, taking those definitions as good definitions, "game designers" shouldn't exist. Like I said, the experience should dictate the design, so it should be "simulation designers". Consequently, the "problems" that prevent games shouldn't be avoided if they advance the experience desired. The article specifically advances games as desirable. The problem I, and many other commenters have, is that this article does not explain *why* games are desirable, or why anyone would be a "game designer". What makes these specific types of interactive experiences better than non-game "contests" or the like?

While the article does specify "games" aren't better than the alternative, it *implies* it. Pretty heavily. Problems to be avoided, solutions to those problems, all to advance the goal of designing a "game".

Now, having said that, I want to clarify my position on the matter (rather than what I've been doing, which is pointing out how the article confuses the matter): I completely agree that a discussion of terminology, jargon, and meaning is important to the industry. I even like the definitions presented. I *even* agree that meaningful decisions are desirable, even though the article doesn't explain why. But I am fundamentally opposed to the narrow-minded explanation of when meaningful decisions are created, and when they are opposed. I dislike the inherent pro-rogue-like undercurrent, and I dislike the inherent anti-single-player-RPG undercurrent.

I just think the article would have been stronger if it had focused on the *execution* in many games of length/story, saves/loads, character progression/balance, randomization, and the like. Even the author's comment to my original comment stated that saves/loads nullify the meaning of any loss. My problem is that it's not the existence of those concepts, but simply how cookie-cutter implementations of them are used in games that water down the meaningfulness.

Keith Nemitz
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For a quick and dirty definition, I still like Jane McGonigal's, “Games are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle.”

Although, I'm not sure she coined it or just quoted it.

Richard Lemarchand
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That's a great definition, Keith - I love Jane's invocation of it! Another wording of the definition is "playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles".

It originally comes from the excellent "The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia" by the philosopher Bernard Suits.

Bernard Suits is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman mention him and his work a number of times in "Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals".

Tom Edwards
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I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Games with meaningful decisions are what I want to play and what I want to make. But I have to add another voice to the quicksave crowd because I think that it is a requirement for meaningful player-driven narrative in complex games.

My case in point is Men of War, the Dwarf Fortress of RTS. It is a complex and difficult game full to the brim with meaningful decisions, but its true joy is that as you play each mission you create your own story. Your troops become characters.

It's the combination of meaningful decisions *and* quicksave continuity that makes the magic happen. Without quicksave each mission would have to be retried ten or twenty times, each time wiping the story slate clean and lessening its meaning to you. In actual fact only the last few minutes are lost as you load your last quicksave for a second attempt; the equivalent of an author tearing out the last page and re-writing it. You keep everything else in the bank. Even if you do need to retry the mission (failure state is ambiguous in MoW and it's possible to quicksave into a dead end), you created a much larger and therefore unique story than would otherwise have been possible.

Compare that to a rougelike, where the story of your character is totally forgettable because you've created and killed hundreds of others just like him/her/it. Any emergent story you come away from a rougelike with is meta-game stuff about yourself. Which is great, but not the same thing that Men of War offers at all.

(Footnote: Dwarf Fortress generates strong narrative without quicksave because for the most part it is /easy/. Incredibly obtuse, but easy. It's only when the game starts throwing bad things at you that quicksave would start to help...and it's usually at that point that your fort's story ends.)

Keith Burgun
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>>Without quicksave each mission would have to be retried ten or twenty times, each time wiping the story slate clean and lessening its meaning to you.

That's why randomization is REQUIRED in a single-player game. Quicksave means decisions do not matter, and it's just a matter of time before you run a "perfect game". You actually don't need to improve your skill at all, just trial and error.

Tom Edwards
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I don't see how randomisation helps here. It means that you're throwing out the entire world as well as what you've done inside it. That's even worse!

You're thinking purely in terms of maths when you talk about a "perfect game". If you're making a story there is no such thing. There is no "correct" story to discover.

We are both talking about games with meaningful, ambiguous decisions. They just have different requirements because one is based on numbers and the other on human memories.

Joe McGinn
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I also disagree that decisions have to be permanent to be meaningful, a bit of a bizarre assertion. Decisions need to merely have a cost. Most often in games it's a time/opportunity cost. As a player I invest my time in a choice, that makes it meaningful ... completely independent of whether I can reset the game to a point of making a different choice.

Bart Stewart
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"Rules-based play" might be an even more concise way of putting it.

I could accept ceding the term "game" to refer strictly to the specific form of rules-based play as long as it's acknowledged that other forms of play -- including simulationist-exploratory play, narrativist-social play, and experientialist-"poke it till it reacts" play -- are equally valid and equally deserving of being supplied as a software-delivered entertainment experience.

Play > game.

Keith Nemitz
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By 'simulationist-exploratory play' do you include 'playing house'? That is typically played via a host of social rules. If fact, you could say it was play with intent to experiment with those social rules. Sounds more like modding, the more I think about it. :-)

Douglas Gregory
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I think the author's definitions are excessively narrow and limited to a particular style of game.

The notion that games must have randomness or permadeath failure to escape having only one outcome is manifestly false. A good example is a puzzle game like SpaceChem: check out the histograms on each level and you'll see players don't all arrive at a single "intended" solution. They make a series of interesting and meaningful decisions and arrive at a wide range of outcomes. Some optimized for speed, some optimized for fewest parts, some interesting to them for other reasons entirely.

It's often harder to create a puzzle game that has only one solution than it is to make one that permits a range of inventive and expressive approaches. Coming up with a solution of your very own is deeply meaningful.

Ara Shirinian
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I disagree that the idea of "ambiguous decisions" is the single most important aspect in a game. In fact, I would argue "ambiguous decisions" can't even be a necessary or sufficient component of a good definition of video games.

There are entire categories of video games that do not substantially contain any ambiguous decisions in the way you've used the term. Nearly the entire music game genre (Guiter Hero etc.) presents situations to the player that are not only not random, they are precisely the same sequence of play every time. We don't even need to restrict ourselves to that genre - myriad action games in the arcade days presented that very same structure. In these games, ambiguous decisions are rare. But these are worthy games.

In any performance a player can do, compressing the time required to execute the performance has been a classical method for many video games to make otherwise uninteresting sequences of play, interesting. These are not the 'weigh your options for a few moments and make a decision' decisions, these are hand-eye coordination and reaction time decisions that are intrinsically woven into the dynamics of an action game, they are unique to video games and sports, and so it seems to me pretty important that a good definition of video games doesn't throw them by the wayside.

Although, from your defintiions, you would probably classify these as contests and not games, but that doesn't feel satisfying at all. A sweepstakes is also a contest, but does not have a performance component.

To put this another way, you said,
And here's another way to look at the whole "ambiguous decision" thing -- this is what makes games special and interesting: even when you won, there was always room for you to have won by more, and you're not sure how.

If as a player you're not sure how there is room to perform better, then how do you know that there was always room to 'have won by more?'

On the contrary, I'd argue that the best games are able to communicate to you precisely how there was room for you to perform better, and armed with this new information you have learned, you are invigorated to try again.

Jacob Germany
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I would disagree, and more agree with the original author on that point. For example, were you to host a competition wherein two competitors pit their skill at a single action against each other, without much room for decision-making, I would say this would be more accurately described as a "contest of skill", as opposed to your example of the sweepstakes being a "contest of luck". Sure, you could call the former a game. You could call the latter a game, really (I've heard plenty of gambling contests of luck called "games"), but it *does* weaken the impact of the word "game". If everything is a game, it's not the greatest of terminology.

Meanwhile, a game of strategy, or a game of football, hosts more meaningful decisions, and seem to me quite more deserving of the word "game". Consequently, I really probably would not call Guitar Hero, or any strictly skill-based "game" a game. "Contest" is far more apt.

Josef Shindler
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Games don't need ambiguous decisions - they need >interesting< decisions.

Jacob Germany
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I think that's the author's point. Ambiguous decisions are interesting decisions, in that obvious decisions are more a matter of right vs. wrong, while ambiguous decisions are right vs. right. If you have an interesting decision, it's because it's "ambiguous".

I think the problem with the term ambiguous is that to some, a theoretically ambiguous decision may not be ambiguous to them, personally. But terminology aside, the author's discussion on this point has merit. It's essentially the same point made every once in a while, by Sid Meier and the like.

Josef Shindler
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Ambiguity in decision-making implies that the decision being made is difficult - not that the decision being made is interesting. If the ambiguity present in a decision makes it impossible to evaluate then players will have to instead choose between exploring the options or withdrawing.

I've seen this most recently with new players of Minecraft - you drop them into a sandbox world and they practically freeze up because they have no direction. The game is so ambiguous that it fails to be interesting to the audience.

Having said my piece, ambiguity can be interesting - it is not inherently so, however.

Jacob Germany
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Again, the problem is just the term "ambiguous". The author I think meant ambiguity as in "non-obvious", or not easily mathematically derived, such as an MMO DPS or an RPG weapon's "Attack Power". I didn't read it as being "So vague you have no clue what's happening". But, maybe that's exactly what he meant, I dunno. The term he used is just a bit too... well, ambiguous. I just read into it "interesting", as you put it, or "non-obvious" as I put it. Equivalent would also be a good term in place of ambiguous. If two choices were equivalent, but not equal (offering different, equivalent results), you would have what the author and you are both trying to communicate.

Jacob Germany
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(double post)

Nels Anderson
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'Never before video games was there this idea that games get "completed". Instead, games were played in "a match".'

This isn't really true at all. The notion of games with story-based structure is inherited from tabletop RPGs (D&D and the like) and that structure was incorporated into video games once the technology was sufficient to facilitate it. And that story-based structure is what set apart tabletop RPGs from their predecessor tabletop wargames, which were played in discrete matches.

Discuss games at this length but ignoring such a large subset of games seems like a pretty big oversight (especially when tabletop RPGs allow for things like character growth and meaningful decisions existing side-by-side, for instance).

Mark Venturelli
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Tabletop RPGs are barely games on their own regard, but this is a long and complex discussion. They were only invented on the 70s, however, so the author's arguments are still very much valid.

Also, the structure of tabletop RPGs is EXTREMELY different to those of popular story-based games such as Modern Warfare or Uncharted.

Jacob Germany
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@Mark Er... what? Saying that tabletop RPGs aren't games is a rather sweeping statement that seems pretty hard to defend, yet you offer no defense of the statement. It's a bit confusing.

And how does tabletop RPGs being developed in the 70s mean that video games formed the "completed game" concept? Was there really an early 70's video game with a story and non-match based structure? I can't think of one, myself.

Also, the structure of tabletop RPGs, as Nels suggested, is the progenitor of, and is extremely similar to, digital RPGs. There are obviously differences, but there are many parallels.

Also... I can honestly say I have never considered Modern Warfare as my first, or even last, item in a list of story-based games. It has a story, sure, but it's not the Final Fantasy/Elder Scrolls 100+ hour gameplay story referenced in the original article. I mean, even rogue-likes have some semblance of a story, like Modern Warfare. But I'm not sure I see how it's relevant to the discussion.

Mark Venturelli
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@Jacob, I'm sorry I just "threw the bomb" out there, but it's a little too off-topic to discuss in the comments. But I assure you it is not a hard position to defend - tabletop RPGs are indeed very strange beasts that exist in the border of every formal definition of "game" that I respect. But this is really off-topic, so sorry for bringing it up.

And by stating they were invented in the 70's I was not defending that videogames came up with "story" first. I believe the author's intention was to highlight how the idea of games that can be "completed", i.e. have a beggining, middle and end (like a story) is very novel. For millenia, games were about matches, and could never be "completed".

Jacob Germany
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Thanks for the clarification. I still don't see the whole "tabletop aren't games" thing, especially when they have so much risk/meaningful decisions, but I'll agree that it is too off topic to be delved into, so we should just leave it.

And I see what you meant, now, that it was just "too close" in creation to be seriously countering the article's point. I think the author of the article should probably steer clear of any historical definition of "game", though, as it includes many things he would consider "contests" or "puzzles", and I think Nels still has a point that, when discussing all of this, tabletops still deserve some sort of mention. At least if the author ever fleshes out his views beyond a few-page article.

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Keith Burgun
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Risk is sort of another word for ambiguity in a decision, so, I think we kind of agree.

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Darren Tomlyn
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You really, really need to read my blog:

The problem you have, is the same as many others - trying to figure out the right language to describe:

WHAT BEHAVIOUR (things that happen) the word game represents an application of.

The application itself, is something you picked up on - competition and structure (rules) - (you do understand indirect competition, yes?)

But describing the behaviour itself is where everyone currently fails, and is why the differences and relationships between many different applications of behaviour - (games, puzzles, competitions, work and play etc.) - are not being recognised. Again, the behaviour this blog has focused upon - deciding - (decision is an application of decide) - (regardless of any other application) - is NOT what the word game represents.

We do NOT describe behaviour by the act of deciding to behave in such a manner - such a choice is implicit in the behaviour taking place, when applicable. (The choice to create something is implicit in its existence).

As soon as a game exists - people have already chosen to behave in such a manner, and such an activity (including any rules used to enable it), has therefore already been created.

What specific choices or decisions a particular game possesses is SUBJECTIVE, based upon its application - and is therefore not what the word game itself represents.

That any such activity - a game, puzzle or competition etc. - involves people making decisions, is neither here nor there. It's the behaviour the decisions enable or involve that matter - and to focus solely upon choice, decision or option, is to therefore get confused between CAUSE and EFFECT.

There are a few other words people use - such as interaction or emergence - that suffer from similar problems. (I'm working on a post about this atm.).

Games exist that are not truly about deciding or interacting - they're about ability and power.

Can you run faster than me over 100m? Can you throw this piece of wood further than I can? Both of these are games - but what choices or decisions do they involve? Do I/we truly 'choose' what my/our fastest running speed is? Do I 'choose' how far I can throw? I may choose how I hold the stick, or how I stand in order to start running, but that is not the behaviour of running or throwing itself.

Are these merely about having the ability to do something, and exercising the power to use it, in order to compete?

Choices and decisions may merely form PART of what the word game represents, based on how it is APPLIED - and the same goes for interaction. That games are emergent is merely an effect of the behaviour they represent (an application of) - and since competitions can be emergent too - (you think anyone would enter a lottery if it wasn't?) - it isn't suitable to describe just the word game.

So where does that leave us? How do we describe the BASIC behaviour the word game itself represents (an application of) - not just in isolation, but in relation to puzzles and competitions, (and even art)? How do we describe the overall CONTEXT within which all such decisions, power and ability, and any interaction takes place - in relation to such activities?

Well - read my blog and find out - (though I start at a lower level than this, for a good reason!).

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Darren Tomlyn
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Competition and structure (rules) are merely the APPLICATIONS of the behaviour the word game represents.

Competition and rules are there to help enable other behaviour to exist - that of a person doing something for themselves - (writing their own stories) - within the context of games.

HOW competitive something is, however, is not really about whether nor not it involves competition in the first place - (though it cannot be competitive if it doesn't) - but merely how easy or hard it is to actually compete - to try and win.

Even puzzles can be seen to be competitive (involve the act of competing) - trying to gain an outcome/goal (solution!) at the expense of, or in SPITE OF, someone or something else. (CompetitionS, are, of course, also competitive).

How competitive any such activity is, is subjective, and has nothing to do with any actual definition - only their subjective application on behalf of any beholder. (If I do not perceive any competition at all, then I may not consider an activity to be a game or a competition etc..).

Games are a naturally competitive activity - they cannot exist without it - but because so many people have trouble understanding and recognising the presence and role of INDIRECT competition, they also have trouble understanding the full scope and depth of what games are, and can be.

Understanding competition, for it's full scope, breadth and depth is a MUST, for anyone who creates and designs games, especially to their full potential.

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Keith Burgun
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>>>Games exist that are not truly about deciding or interacting - they're about ability and power. Can you run faster than me over 100m? Can you throw this piece of wood further than I can? Both of these are games - but what choices or decisions do they involve?

I explicitly classify this kind of thing as a CONTEST, not a game as I have defined it (due to that lack of decision-making). This is a prescriptive definition that is more useful than any of the current uses for the word game.

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Darren Tomlyn
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(EDITED for additional content @3:22pm PST 30/3/12)


Nothing we do is defined by the act of choosing to do it!

Verbs - the type of word we have that is used to represent things that happen - (or behaviour) - represent that particular concept and nothing more...

EDIT: The type of noun the word game (for it's basic use) belongs to, is used as representing an application of such a concept.

Competing does not have to be by choice - (we compete indirectly as a matter of course, just by being alive).

Games, however, are of our own creation and perception, and by their application, indirect competition is part of what this word encompasses. A time-trial or rally is competitive - just indirectly - to/via a time, and with the setting itself.

EDIT: High scores, times, distances etc. are all methods by which games can enable indirect competition to exist. If competing in such a manner, what you are DIRECTLY competing against, usually becomes the setting itself and any other actors (people or AI controlled) that are also present. MANY games involve BOTH direct AND indirect competition, simultaneously! (E.g. golf.)

As I said before, HOW competitive something is separate from it being competitive in the first place...

Risk is just part of the subjective perception and application of competition itself - if by not winning, you stand to lose something. Not all competitive activities, let alone games, involve risk - (Snakes and Ladders for example) - even if most can, and often do.



A contest is merely a competitive activity, (usually involving direct competition, but not always) - which can include competitions aswell as games.

A race, structured combat and competitive throwing/movement for accuracy/precision/distance or time (duration) are the BASIC games, from which ALL others are derived...

EDIT: For example, (as used in my blog), being a race, is the ONLY element Snakes and Ladders possesses that DEFINES it AS a game - as opposed to a type of game (turn-based etc. or board/dice etc.) or merely Snakes and Ladders.

Deciding to race, or even HOW to do so, is not the same thing as actually racing/taking part in such an activity/event.

The problem we have, is being able to describe the behaviour itself that the word game represents, irrespective of its CAUSE AND EFFECT. A decision is either part of the cause, not the behaviour itself - or contained within such behaviour and so needs further context (a definition of game etc.) to be applicable, and is simply unsuitable to describe such a thing.


The act of painting requires the decision to paint, what to paint with, aswell as what particular thing to actually apply such paint to and upon.

All of which, are therefore merely IMPLIED in the act of, and word, painting itself.

Trying to define painting as mere interaction, or a decision, choice or option, or emergent etc. - which is exactly what people are trying to do for the word game - is simply inconsistent, or incomplete, with and for the actual behaviour itself.

If (edit:) the word game, is about decisions and choice then ALL WORDS REPRESENTING SUCH BEHAVIOUR (things that happen) - VERBS - including any and all APPLICATIONS thereof, (applicable NOUNS), within (the English) language must also be DEFINED as such.

But that is NOT how our language functions, and so it is NOT how it is described!

As I said - learn to recognise and understand CAUSE AND EFFECT.

Any decisions and choice a game possesses are, and MUST be, merely IMPLIED in it's definition, not described, and for a very good reason:



This is a matter of LINGUISTICS, and HAS to be approached, perceived, recognised and treated as such. You are trying to do so, but failing, because you haven't understood how everything fits together - including to and by the rules of the language we are using.


Dan Felder
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Darren... You're *still* on about this? Years later?


The word you call the experience doesn't matter at all. This is why different languages can be translated in the first place. Words merely refer to experiences.

Your dedication to this topic is admirable, but it is by very definition, semantics. There is a reason why the phrase, "That's just semantics" or, "We're arguing over semantics" is used for a contention that doesn't really have any practical validity.

This is the same as people who argue over whether games are 'art'. Whether you term them 'art' or not, that doesn't change the power of the experience. A game by any other name still plays as sweet.

Darren Tomlyn
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Where did I mention the word 'experience?' I didn't, of course... Why? Because what it represents is not suitable for describing the word game itself.

I'm sorry Dan - but language MATTERS. And the problems we have with the word game, are merely symptoms of a far BIGGER and DEEPER problem with our perception of language itself.

This is NOT mere 'semantics' - but SEMANTICS - in how we use the English language in general to describe and represent (especially human) behaviour, especially applications of behaviour.

When people confuse what they DO, for what happens TO THEM, because of the language used - it's SERIOUS.

When people confuse CAUSE with EFFECT, purely because of the language used - it's SERIOUS.

When people mistake applications for definitions, because they are not being consistently TAUGHT and INFORMED about the language they use - it's SERIOUS.

When we mistake HOW a language is used for WHAT it is used to represent, it's SERIOUS.

Language is a SERIOUS matter - because it helps define who and what we are - not just as a race, or a country/nation etc. - but even as an individual.

If you do not understand how and why that's the case - then at least read my blog, as it is now...

Guerric Hache
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Joe McGinn
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Please stop ... using caps lock like that reads as very CONDESCENDING.

Dan Felder
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No. You've been on this same thing for years, trying to define games, and I long got sick of your repeated requests for me to read them. There's only so many times I can sit through your same airy contentions as to what you want to define games as.

No matter whether you call Portal 2 a "game" a "cow" or a "fibbitygibbit" - the experience of the player remains the same. Therefore, what you want to call a 'game' doesn't matter in the least for any practical side.

You can keep batting this back and forth like a cat with a ball of string if you like, but I would advise you to stop being so condescending towards everyone when you are, by very definition, spending years literally arguing over semantics.

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm sorry Dan, but what you're talking about is PHILOSOPHY - in this case, subjective philosophy. - (manner of doing things).

But the problems we have, are not because of this, and have nothing whatsoever to do with it.


Because it's already been decided - it already exists, and has already been dealt with by humanity itself - for centuries/millennia.

The problem we have now - is MATCHING our understanding and definitions of language with such a thing. And that requires it to be taught consistently - which is where the problem lies.

If you don't like me using caps - give me italics instead... :p

Dan Felder
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Amazing Darren, that for such a significant 'problem' for you to dedicate 2+ years to trying to figure out... It's still so hard for you to explain to anyone why it's relevant at all.

You're going about things absolutely backwards. What you want to call a game is irrelevant. Developers choose the experience they want to create, then create mechanics, soundscapes, aesthetics, character models and more to make that experience come to life.

Nowhere in any of this does it matter what you define games as. The only definition that matters is the one the public at large uses, so we can communicate with them and get them to understand what we have for sale.

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm sorry but you completely fail to understand language.

Our language helps to define and understand our perception and understanding of the universe around us, including ourselves, as a by-product of its main use - to communicate.

Why? How?

Because it's how we think.

If the language we use to think is inconsistent - then it ceases to BE a language, because it can no longer be used for communication in the first place.

Yes, language will never be 100% consistent - and nor would we want it to be - but there is a MASSIVE difference between 100% subjective - WHICH IS WHAT YOU ARE ARGUING FOR - and being consistent enough to do it's job.

(The word game, has probably become TOO subjective to be used effectively and consistently at this time.)

Our language is literally part of WHO WE ARE...

But the language we are using now, is not TAUGHT and informed to people in a fully consistent manner at this time. And language HAS TO BE TAUGHT in order for it to exist, and be used. If it is NOT taught consistently, then it cannot be USED consistently, and so it cannot do its job properly.

This is the problem we have with the word game.

Yes - HOW we use the language to communicate is supposed to be individually subjective - but WHAT it is used to represent cannot afford to be, or it ceases to BE a language.

There is a BIG difference between HOW and WHAT. But such a difference and the relationship between the two is NOT BEING RECOGNISED for language in GENERAL.


Again - it's a failure to understand and recognise CAUSE and EFFECT - we base our perception and understanding, and then teaching and information of language, not upon its USE - but the study OF such use.

And that is why we fail...

Arguing for 100% subjectivity for language in general is to deny it's very existence.

Guerric Hache
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"If the language we use to think is inconsistent - then it ceases to BE a language, because it can no longer be used for communication in the first place."

Use of the term "game" is not meaningfully inconsistent. Within the broad context of video games, it is generally understood to be a vague and mostly meaningless umbrella term.

"but there is a MASSIVE difference between 100% subjective - WHICH IS WHAT YOU ARE ARGUING FOR - and being consistent enough to do it's job."

Dan isn't arguing that at all. He's saying that the word "game" is consistent enough as it is to play the relatively minor role we've assigned it to - the role of an umbrella term. You, on the other hand, are arguing that words must be pinned to specific arbitrary meanings regardless of their current communicative value.

"(The word game, has probably become TOO subjective to be used effectively and consistently at this time.)"

Really? You seriously think so? How? When I tell somebody "Bastion was one of my favorite games this year!", are they not going to understand what I said? When I say "I'd like to play a game set in a steampunk setting," do you seriously think they will not understand what I want? They will (of course, that sentence expresses only a very broad wish, but they will nonetheless understand the category of experience I'm talking about). Even those who disagree with the way "game" is being used will know what I am saying, although they might be thinking to themselves "Oh, boy, another one of these idiots who doesn't know what a game really is." The current usage is far too pervasive for people to be unaware of it.

"Our language is literally part of WHO WE ARE..."

As somebody who has been ostracized, denied services, yelled at in public by strangers and physically assaulted on account of people defining me as a function of the languages I speak, I take offense at this suggestion. It's only a part of us insofar as our hair color is a part of us. Integral? Yes. Defining? Only if you are a bigot.

Is that what you are afraid of? That our glorious anglophone identity will be compromised by deviant language use?

"But the language we are using now, is not TAUGHT and informed to people in a fully consistent manner at this time."

Do you even know how language is learned? Nobody sits down and teaches their child language from the bottom up. Language is acquired by observing usage patterns. Why, then, are you going on about the teaching of language, when that boils down to the usage of language?

"If it is NOT taught consistently, then it cannot be USED consistently, and so it cannot do its job properly."

The fact that not every word maps 100% accurately to one specific phenomenon does not mean it is inconsistent. Some terms are just vague. I fear to think of your opinion on words like "thing." Vague terms have value just as well as specific terms.

"Yes - HOW we use the language to communicate is supposed to be individually subjective - but WHAT it is used to represent cannot afford to be, or it ceases to BE a language.

It isn't individually subjective, it's communally subjective. As the culture and perceptions of speech communities change, so does that which particular kinds of speech refer to. If you think it has to be objective, well, linguistic evolution would like to have a word with you.

You're right that a language nobody else understands is barely a language at all, but that's not the case here. We are all familiar with the current broad sense of the term "game," even Keith, who is simply arguing we should reform it to something else.

"Again - it's a failure to understand and recognise CAUSE and EFFECT - we base our perception and understanding, and then teaching and information of language, not upon its USE - but the study OF such use."

You're not even being clear here. What do you mean by "study of such use?" Nobody has direct access to language use, that notion is absurd - language use is a behavior, but information about that behavior always requires study of one kind or another, whether academic inquiry or informal observation.

Are you trying to say that we should be using the language as a function of what it means, rather than interpreting the language as a function of how it is used? Signs such as words don't have inherent meaning, otherwise there would be only one true language (although you do make me worry on that point, repeatedly stressing the "ENGLISH" language). They are given meaning by assignment, de facto by usage because it is everyday usage that educates new speakers on which patterns mean what.

What exactly would you prefer? Sending the world's children to a giant kindergarten run by a grand Academy of the English Language who legislates the exact usage of every term?

Further, you're still not convinced me, or Dan apparently, what the problem is. Do you think we will all start suddenly thinking that death causes cancer and stop treating tumors (reversal of cause and effect)? Do you think that we will be unable to talk to one another (problem of private language)?

Also, two other people have told you already, but please stop using caps. It's condescending, and bordering on violent. It doesn't matter what you think about what caps means. They're not communicating what you seem to think they are, at least not to Joe, Dan and I.

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Guerric Hache
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@ Joshua

I think I get at what you're saying. I wouldn't necessarily connect the discerning of distinctions to a speaker's education so much as to familiarity with the particular context in which speech is taking place, but I do think it is valuable to have "high-resolution" distinctions when engaging in technical discussions within a particular field, including game design.

In that sense, I take you to mean that if we insist that "game" always have its vague everyday meaning, we might lose the ability to talk about design in certain ways, and I agree in principle. As somebody who studied philosophy at an undergraduate level, I used to get irritated at everyday use of terms like "inherent," which are distinguished more precisely in philosophical discourse than in everyday speech; I think it's a similar problem.

I'm not sure using a narrower definition of "game" is the best way to go, but I do agree that having terms to articulate the kind of distinctions being discussed is important within the field of game design/development, since it becomes difficult to articulate ideas without having technical terms to refer to them. I find Keith's distinctions offers an interesting lens through which to examine game design, and I think that's valuable as a tool in game design.

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Darren Tomlyn
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@Guerric Hache

"Dan isn't arguing that at all. He's saying that the word "game" is consistent enough as it is to play the relatively minor role we've assigned it to - the role of an umbrella term. You, on the other hand, are arguing that words must be pinned to specific arbitrary meanings regardless of their current communicative value."

No - what Dan is arguing is that the word game itself doesn't matter because it's subjective, and a matter of philosophy - (though whether or not he realises that, I don't know). As I've said, this denies the very existence of language itself, and so is meaningless...

The word game is NOT consistent, and THIS IS A PROBLEM, because it's breaking the rules of the English language!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The ONLY reason this is happening, as I've explained in my blog - (IMO the only reason it can happen (and possibly exist)) - is because the basic rules of the English language isn't being fully recognised and understood to be applied and taught in the first place!

Another analogy:

The problem we have at the minute is the equivalent of a bed, table and chair ALL being called a chair, just because they're made out of wood - even though they're fully recognised when made out of other materials... Since items of furniture are NOT consistently defined by the materials they're made out of - only labelling and defining one item of furniture that way would be very inconsistent, and therefore wrong.

Activities such as game, puzzle, competition(s), and even art, are NOT defined AS their media. Forms of art are labelled by the medium used, yes, and the word art has become used (as an application of itself), to encompass such media, but the combination 'art form' is still more common for such media themselves, when used in such a manner.

If you ordered a wooden chair, and received a wooden table instead, would you not complain?

If I buy a game and get a puzzle - darn right I complain (and usually take it back) - (though I don't buy that many 'games' these days anyway, simply because they don't make that many I'd like in the first place).

The fact remains that the markets for puzzles, competitions and games are still, to a certain degree, separate. To lump them together, as has happened to computer software, does a lot of people a great disservice - afterall, that's what the different words exist to do in the first place - describe different things so that people will know that they're different, and also how and why that is the case, so they will have more information about what it is they're getting.

And since the differences between them are REAL, whether you like it or not, this IS a problem, but people don't recognise it, because they're NOT BEING TAUGHT about such differences, even if they recognise that they exist.

As I said - the language is not doing it's job, because it's not BEING ALLOWED TO. And if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem.

As to cause and effect - you just fail to understand what I mean (in my previous post here - my blog explains better).

We study language based on it's EFFECTS. We should be doing this to figure out the CAUSE, which is then what we should teach. But by basing everything we teach upon the EFFECTS, rather than the CAUSE, we don't fully understand the CAUSE in the first place:

HOW language is used determines and defines WHAT it represents

is what we currently have, when it SHOULD be:

WHAT language is used to represent determines and defines HOW it is used.

Which then directly affects the relationship between the two main parts of the basic rules of (English) grammar:

How words are used, and what type of concept they represent/belong to.

We are NOT currently either fully recognising all the types of concepts the language is used to represent, OR describing them in a manner that is suitable as being the main concepts for a type of word, that then dictates how they are used.

This is where our current knowledge of the English language fails us, and is why problems with the word game (etc.) happen to exist.


We can describe most numbers as being the sum of other numbers, but without understanding how to count in the first place, we're not going to get very far - especially if we then start confusing addition and subtraction, and how they are applied to different numbers.

Saying 3+3=9 is a valid observation and merely a matter of philosophy is all fine and well - but it's ALWAYS WRONG, if we count in the manner of 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.

The problem we have at this time, is that we do not know the language well enough to understand how and why the equivalent of 3+3=9 happens to be wrong in the first place.

Which is what my blog is about and for.

Dan Felder
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It's funny Darren, it seems everyone - including me - seems to think I mean one thing... But luckily you swoop in to inform us all and myself what I actually mean.

What would we do without you?

Your response to critiques of your ideas is to ignore them or try to change them into something you can handle. You simply restate the same useless, debunked ideas and cannot meet any of the multiple challenges to present a *single* concrete example where this would be practical to a game developer.

Your arguments are self-contradicting and often hilarious, and no amount of exclamation points will make people take them seriously. It's just made even worse by the fact that there's no practical applications.

Your ideas are theoretically flimsy and practicality-wise useless. The fact that you've spent more than 2 years chasing your tail on this topic is frankly mind-boggling. However, since your mind works like a dysfunctional immune system designed to reject any foreign idea or critique of your argument - I suppose that a perpetual whirlwind of hot air is the only thing one has a right to expect.

Have a pleasant day,


Dan Felder
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Fun fact Darren, I did just take a look at your blog entries. Amazingly, not a single one of them that I checked seem to have been deemed interesting enough to have been featured by the Gamasutra staff and the comments are filled with people explaining all the things wrong with your idea... Followed by you calling them ignorant and ignoring their points.

Sound familiar?

How on earth do you whip up such a track record and manage to convince yourself that your ideas are brilliant and somehow everyone else in the world must just not understand them?

Darren Tomlyn
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HOW ******** simple can it get?????

We currently call every equivalent piece of software a *GAME* just because of the medium being used - a computer - even though independently of computers, a distinction between games, puzzles and competitions are made, completely separately from any and all media.

Either games, puzzles and competitions EXIST, and therefore we have a problem, or puzzles and competitions do not, in which case we don't.

The evidence tells us the latter, not the former.

If you wish to deny the existence of puzzles and competitions, then that is up to you - but humanity is demonstrating otherwise.

Dan Felder
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Darren, what humanity is demonstrating is that they don't find your ideas credible or worth featuring.

You're obsessed with this invented problem, and yet the industry functions just fine. I dare you to find one practical action a developer could take because of your theory that would help their game development, or hell - one practical action ANYONE could take as a result of this theory that justifies 2+ years of you screaming about it.

We've already explained why the terrifying conflict you paint isn't terrifying at all. You're incapable of giving SPECIFIC problems this could cause, despite claiming the problem is absolutely huge because we are "violating the laws of the english language." You're just funny now.

Almost no one else sees the slightest problem here, and your arguments have convinced practically no on despite years of your trumpeting. Either you're the worst communicator in the world and are incapable of sharing your thoughts or your ideas are just bad/wrong to begin with. Take your pick.

Darren Tomlyn
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If people do not know how to count, then trying to demonstrate why 3+3!=9 is a very laborious process.

My blog so far exists solely to demonstrate how the basic system underpinning our language relates to the problem itself - not recognising the what the word game represents, based on its general use (independently of any media), in relation to the rest of the language, then doing my best to describe the word game, puzzle, art and competition in a manner that is based on their use and relationship to each other - (to and by whatever is taking part in such an activity).

This foundation is necessary in order to build upon, in order to then show the problems we have.

But I'm not finished explaining the problems, just yet... I have to explain why the language we currently use is a problem, too. Then I'll run through some basic activities, and show how and why the definitions I've given will be applicable. Only then will I move on to computer games specifically.

If you honestly do not see a problem with ordering a chair and getting a table, just because someone THINKS it's a chair, then I doubt ANYTHING I EVER HAVE TO SAY will make any difference to you anyway... To you 3+3=9 and that's fine - probably because you don't care about knowing any better - but that doesn't mean everyone else has to feel that way - if they did - the OP wouldn't exist either, now would it?

So I'm NOT the only person who sees problems! (Even if I might be the only person to understand them).

Dan Felder
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You really don't understand language at all, do you?

Your repeated examples are completely ridiculous and are flawed analogies in so many ways that I have difficulty believing you're being serious.

A mathematical relationship exists by mutual definition. We decided to call a certain number of objects "three" and another number of objects "nine". If the whole english-speaking world suddenly decided to call six objects "nine" instead, your arguments would be useless. These are just symbols we assign to concepts, they have no inherent meaning. This is why there are multiple languages in the first place. And it's why there are other systems, like roman numerals, and they can STILL preform math.

Your, "order a chair and get a table" analogy is even more ridiculous. Again, if the whole english world decided that the word for what YOU consider to be a table is "chair" - the person would still order and get exactly what they want.

The wide world has agreed upon a general use for the word "game". No one gets confused or angry when they go to a 'game' store and find things they don't expect. We all have a pretty dang good idea of what other people mean when they use the word "game" - so no one orders a 'game' and gets something else they didn't want instead. At least, I've never heard of a single instance of it in my life.

You have no idea what you're talking about - do you?

Darren, you seem to think you're so brilliant that you're the one of the only people (if not THE only person) who understands a crucial problem in games. So brilliant that your ideas rise high enough that lesser men can't even understand them when you spend hours explaining. So brilliant that everyone who disagrees with you must not truly understand... Especially those pesky staff writers who don't think your work is worth featuring.

If that's the case, why exactly are you unemployed? Is your nigh-unparalleled-genius restricted solely to the definition of 'games'? I understand there aren't a lot of jobs to go around right now, but surely if you're as brilliant as you think you'd be able to get hired by some think-tank, university or other academic body.

You might wonder why I keep up with this. It's because, although you're arrogant and completely ridiculous, I'm kind of fond of you for some reason. I'd like to see you get out of this rut and start accepting that maybe your ideas do have flaws so you can move forward. I like anyone who's passionate about the theory-side of games and I'd like to see you achieve something. But it's not going to happen if you keep up like this.

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm going to explain this in the most basic, simple way possible - but considering the problems you have in understanding this matter - I don't think it's going to work (for you).

The (English) language, as we currently know it, is taught, recognised and perceived, by one simple philosophy, that forms the most basic rule the language is governed by.

This rule is therefore the most basic element that DEFINES this AS A LANGUAGE in the first place:

HOW the language (words) are used, determines and defines WHAT (information) it (they) represent.

The reason WHY we have problems, is that this rule IS WRONG!!!!!

The rule, and perception and understanding which is CORRECT/consistent, is the following:

WHAT the language is used to represent, determines and defines HOW it is used.

As I said, however, this rule and philosophy is NOT BEING RECOGNISED.

This is causing problems.


EVERYTHING you are talking about is problematic for a simple reason:


You talk about slang - yet slang can only exist because of the second rule.

You do not understand why confusing applications for definitions is a problem - only because you are basing your understanding on the first rule - and yet this breaks the second rule, which is why it's a problem.

Because your perception is based on the first, inconsistent, rule - you fail to understand why we have problems in recognising what it is the language represents, and why confusing definitions of words for their application, breaks the most basic rule the language has, and is therefore why it is a problem in the first place.

Since NOTHING you have talked about, has anything to do with such a problem, it is meaningless. So long as the second basic rule is applied - there will be no real problem - (the language is flexible enough to cope with most little issues that arise, such as different dialects etc.). Subjective use and definitions of the language is fine, so long as the second rule is obeyed - which it usually is.

Which is good, because without the second rule, our language CANNOT exist - which is why breaking it is a problem.

The ONLY reason why it is being broken in the first place, is because it is not recognised and understood. All your replies have ever done, is confirm that as a fact.

Robert C.
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Keith, I agree with a lot of what you wrote here. I just wish that you hadn't structured it in a way that tried to define what a game is because I think it's muddying the waters.

Meaningful decisions are one of the reasons I love games of all kinds. If you look at board/card games, they are almost exclusively designed to created those decision points. Those decisions are the thing that games do better than almost anything else.

That doesn't mean that you can't tell a great story with a game. But unless you incorporate meaningful decisions in some way, you're probably better off just writing a book or shooting a movie.

Keith Burgun
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It does kind of mean you can't tell a great story with a game (unless you're talking about an emergent story --- I'm talking about a pre-written story, the only use for the word "story" in the context of games that actually has a use, since ALL games and all activities result in an emergent story). I go into a lot of detail here:

Robert Boyd
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Actually, I'd say character growth is a great source of decisions in many games. For example, the Civilization game is almost entirely about choosing how to grow your character (in this case, a civilization).

Keith Burgun
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Right. I'm talking about the specific kind of character growth where you just get "better at everything". Actually, come to think of it, Civ does kind of have that, and it's actually a problem there, too.

Nick Harris
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I really liked this article and what it had to say about Campaigns:

"Firstly, most story-based games are quite long...most games historically have taken between ten minutes and a couple hours to finish a match, modern video games aren't considered "finished" in any sense of the word for twenty or more also means that it becomes a bit cruel and harsh to actually ever give a player a meaningful "loss" condition...that means all that they can do is win...the meaningfulness of their decisions is destroyed. All they can do is beat the game slower or faster; it's no longer a competition."

I feel the answer is to create a simulation which procedurally generates stories (plural) based upon a single unifying theme, you adopt a character to role-play as, following them into a emergent narrative arc that has not been scripted beforehand. You will need a mechanism of reward to ensure that they "stay in character", hence: 'Kudos points' are awarded for completing missions/quests in a manner that fits with your role. This means that you could be compelled to make a Heroic Sacrifice (something which you would ordinarily try to avoid as a dreaded GAME OVER), because it was how your character would act in that dramatic situation and you knew that you would gain a lot of Kudos for your performance. This could then be used to unlock another character - perhaps, replaying the story from another perspective, such as a Dorian Gray/Faust.

Soap Opera often interleave offset narratives so that there is no ultimate end, as well as contriving episodic cliffhangars. This provides a useful half-hour model to simulate with AI driven NPCs which interact with each other 'off camera' as much as to the player's direct knowledge; meaning that they are not the sole focus of the drama. This software could become commercially viable via dint of a subscription.

Jacob Germany
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I like those ideas. Of course, there are plenty of other ways around the author's problems of story and the importance of failure, but the idea of a soap opera styled cast is definitely a good one.

And the heroic sacrifice idea is an interesting take on a loosely similar idea I had recently, which I only just remembered reading your comment(and forgot to mention it in my comment to the original article, oops) of a sequence of protagonists/playable characters that allows for meaningful death without the archaic "Game over. Reset" paradigm.

Guerric Hache
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This is actually reminds me of a piece written by Andrew Doull called "The Death of the Level Designer;" I had always found those ideas on procedurally generated narrative interesting, and it's a shame they haven't been explored as fully yet.

Mark Venturelli
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Congratulations! Apart from your remarks about player advancement, which really weren't very well-developed and are pretty much in conflict with the rest of the article, I was very happy to read this at Gamasutra.

Often this way of looking at games (which I share with you) is criticized as being "reductionist" or "elitist" as if something not being in line with the classic definition of "game" is bad. Critical analysis and vocabulary are very important tools for understanding, discussing and sharing our work, and an "interactive experience" such as Sim City can of course be a better designed and more enjoyable product than something that fits into a strict "game" definition. Stating that something is not a "game" should not be taken as an insult under any circumstances, but it often is.

Specially enjoyed your arguments about story-based titles and "competitions" such as Guitar Hero. It's also very refreshing to see someone that actually understands and enforces the idea of designing for meaningful decisions.

Making games with this mindset (matches instead of endings, carefully designed randomness instead of static challenges) is my personal goal as a designer, and after enjoying 100 Rogues very much and now reading this, I look forward to seeing your next games.

Mark Venturelli
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Oh, and after re-reading the article I remembered a minor nit: what exactly do you mean by "ambiguous decisions"? Can you develop that a little further?

Keith Burgun
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Firstly, thanks. This article's creation has a bit of a strange story behind it. I wrote it awhile back, and then began writing a book on the same topic (which I am almost finished with now and am handing into a publisher in a couple weeks), and it's just been very hectic. There are things I wish I could fix about this article, and would have if I had the time. Like, I think you're probably right that the player advancement thing doesn't fit 100% here.

An ambiguous decision is a decision which carries some element of unknown to it. It is a decision that is to some degree (it can be a very small degree) a best-guess.

What's so fantastic about games is that you always could have done better. Even if you win, there may have been a way for you to win even HARDER. Game-playing is an art, because of this ambiguous exploration.

Ambiguity means that even a skilled player has some "guidelines" about what a good move is, but he never knows for sure. This is in direct contrast to what puzzles and contests offer, where you are either making THE CORRECT move or you aren't.

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Erik Germany
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Based on your article, I tried to expand the definition:

Game: A system of rules and entities, both appropriately randomized, in which agents compete by making ambiguous, non-reversible decisions, which affect the rules, entities or agents, leading to unique win-situations.

Keith Burgun
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Sounds good to me :D You can also boil it down to a "Contest of Decision-Making", though, because I think that a lot of that stuff is implied in that. Decision-making IMPLIES that it will have random elements (if its single player) because that's the only way you can PRESERVE decision making (and not allow it to turn into a memorization contest).

Tom Edwards
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(Delete please!)

Robert Mac-Donald
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Stephen Chin
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@Keith Burgun: A couple of questions I'd like to hear your thoughts on.

What would your thoughts be on an situation with not necessarily random elements but multiple correct and incorrect answers?

What would your thoughts be on a narrative that, instead of a good/neutral/bad ending structure offered multiple good/neutral/bad endings? And within those groupings (and across them all), none any more ideal than the other? What if it was simply multiple endings with no ideal version at all (multiple endings that aren't explicitly stated or designed to be a good/bad/neutral version)? Extending from your answer, how would you potentially set up the gameplay to avoid or induce your answer? Would whether the first part of the question be good or bad depend on the gameplay leading up to it?

On randomness itself, for clarification: is it your intent to say that in a situation where a player was eligible for multiple correct solutions (paths, endings, ramifications, whatever) and the resulting path/ending/etc was randomly picked, that is more ideal? As an extension, do you feel this might potentially re-create the issue on a micro level in that while a player may be making a meaningful decision within context of a superset of outcomes (potentially even infinite outcomes), the subset of possible outcomes they would receive in this particular situation may effectively be meaningless in that they have no influence within this subset of outcomes?

Keith Burgun
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>What would your thoughts be on an situation with not necessarily random elements but multiple correct and incorrect answers?

Still a puzzle. If you add competition, it becomes a contest. If there is "ambiguity" added, it becomes a game.

>What would your thoughts be on a narrative that, instead of a good/neutral/bad ending structure offered multiple good/neutral/bad endings?

"good/neutral/bad" has nothing to do with what kind of interactive system it is. Multiple "endings" don't change anything. If there are just solutions, the it is a puzzle. It needs competition to get to the "contest" level even.

>is it your intent to say that in a situation where a player was eligible for multiple correct solutions (paths, endings, ramifications, whatever) and the resulting path/ending/etc was randomly picked, that is more ideal?

No. That doesn't make sense as far as I can tell. Your whole second paragraph is un-parseable. Can you restate it, perhaps using a specific hypothetical example?

Jackson Wood
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@Keith, @Stephen: I believe that what Stephen feels, is that when we consider that a computer generated narrative takes in variables to do with how the player plays the game, that it would make sense that, for example, taking the righteous actions leads to the righteous ending.
Taking this away would lead to a greater sense of ambiguity, but take away meaning/sense/predictability for the player's actions. If every decision I make leads to a random outcome, than it *cannot* be a meaningful decision.

I personally agree with Stephen here because then every decision I make becomes a flippant, meaningless one, and not a meaningful decision. Regardless of whether the consequences and actions are (in this play-through) connected, if every time the action and consequence is randomised, then my decisions actually become meaningless when I have no ability to predict the outcome.
This is obviously taking your point to obsurdities, but I find it to be a most interesting input.

Dan Felder
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I don't mind limitations on work, they improve creativity, but trying to beat down rules about what a 'game' is makes me yawn similarly to people who argue about the difference between 'high art' and 'low art' or the difference between "realism" and "absurdism". These are actually very big differences, unlike many of the minor arguments about games, and the categorization can help some theater critics.

But when it comes to designing games, or writing a story, there is a difference between meaningful distinction (genres, which matter due to audience-expectations) and meaningless (what is a 'game').

Game designers benefit by asking themselves, "What experience do I want to create for the player?" Then, they design mechanics, visuals, soundtracks, soundscapes and more that will evoke this experience. Whether you call the end-product a "game" or not is just as useless as whether you call the end product "art" or not.

A game by any other name still plays as sweet.

Darren Tomlyn
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Hi Dan. Have you read the latest version of my blog?

The problem, is that word game represents something SPECIFIC - independently and separately from many other words - such as puzzle and (a) competition. (We don't call a jigsaw puzzle a game - it's a puzzle - likewise we don't call a lottery or a raffle a game - it's a competition, and yet Snakes and Ladders is a game, and neither a puzzle OR A competition).

Unfortunately, the language we use to try and describe what it is the word game represents simply isn't good enough, currently.

This is a failure of linguistics - which is where my blog comes in, especially now I've taken/followed it down as far as it goes...

Different applications of different behaviour may NOT always be compatible - and so labelling them all as the SAME THING will only cause problems...

Dan Felder
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Yes, the term 'game' is very broad. So is the term 'art' and 'animal' and 'liquid' and 'mammal'. It's an umbrella term that a lot of things fit under. And it works fine.

Whether you call a jigsaw puzzle a "puzzle" a "game" or a "thingamabob" it's still the same puzzle. And unlike the scientific classification of animals or the literary clarification of genres, you trying to decide what is a 'game' and what isn't is utterly useless to the profession. Language shifts, blurs and words have multiple meanings... And your trying to figure out what a 'game' is happens to be utterly useless to us.

Game designers create experiences for people. They do it using specific tools and techniques. The don't do it by worrying whether what they're making is a 'game' or not.

It's kind of sad that you haven't found a more constructive use for your time, something that would matter to game designers, but if you enjoy the challenge - that's fine. I like building Magic decks for fun and writing articles about them. But when you start claiming it's important to game design and that everyone needs to read your blog... Well, that's when you're due for a reality check.

Oh, and here's another reason your above arguments are so terribly flawed. Art, theater, screenplays... Basically EVERY artform has evolved over time, and always by people who have broken the mold.

Keith Burgun
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We have a term for "mammal", but we also have a term for "dog". We also have a term for "German shepherd".

In the world of interactive entertainment, we pretty much just have "games". There is no word to refer to the type of game as I have defined it. This needs to change!

Dan Felder
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Precisely. I don't mind making subcategories at all, it makes sense. Heck, we already have game genres. But what Darren is doing is trying to define the essence of a "game" and that's useless.

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm sorry Dan, but you're trying to deny the entire definition, and then purpose and use of language itself!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Language is a STRUCTURED form of communication.

Language has RULES.

What we call the English language has very SPECIFIC rules, and the ONLY reason we are having problems, is that these rules are NOT BEING RECOGNISED, then understood and TAUGHT consistently!

The problems we have with the word game, in use and application, are a DIRECT symptom of this problem. To try and dismiss such a thing is to therefore dismiss the purpose, and even presence, of language itself - let alone the English language, specifically.

If people were not TAUGHT the difference between addition and subtraction, would that mean the difference does not exist? NO. Only our consideration and understanding of such a thing would be problematic, in that it no longer would match such an existence.

That is the problem we have with the word game currently.

The differences between game, puzzle and competition EXIST. The fact that the language already has words to represent such different concepts, and are used independently when applicable, should be evidence of this.

But if people are NOT TAUGHT about such differences, then how can they know any different?

Anyone who is therefore not part of recognising and understanding how our language functions and should be taught - is part of the problem, not it's solution - which is what the language exists for in the first place.

Dan Felder
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Sorry Darren, but the purpose of language is to communicate to one another. No amount of exclamation points will save you from this simple fact. If you try to argue the definition of 'game' is anything other than what the public at large uses - you're the one who tragically misunderstands language.

Your math example is laughable. The word 'game' is an umbrella term, like 'animal'. It's then sub-divided.

The only definition that matters is the one the public at large uses, so we can communicate with them and get them to understand what we have for sale.

Your work has absolutely no practical purpose. And frankly, I seriously doubt it has a theoretical purpose either.

But let's take a test.

Let's say a developer is building what they internally refer to as a 'game' where players try to solve puzzles competitively in a time limit. Now you march up to the door and announce that what they're making isn't a game... It's something else.

What on earth do you imagine that this developer would change about how they develop this title based on your new claim? Not one thing would change.

Darren Tomlyn
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You completely fail to understand.

Language HAS TO BE TAUGHT in order for it to exist.

If language is NOT TAUGHT CONSISTENTLY, it cannot do it's job properly, and so we have problems. If the language is then further taught based on such inconsistent use, then the problems multiply.


All of the arguments we have are about trying to understand what it is the word game represents in a manner that is consistent with it's use.

The problem, is that we're not understanding such use in relation to the language itself, including it's rules, and how it is taught.

Which is why it's all subjective IN THE WORST POSSIBLE WAY and built on sand.

This is a matter of LINGUISTICS.

Guerric Hache
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"Language HAS TO BE TAUGHT in order for it to exist."

It is taught. Are you saying it is not? That is what the caps seem to indicate.

"If language is NOT TAUGHT CONSISTENTLY, it cannot do it's job properly, and so we have problems. If the language is then further taught based on such inconsistent use, then the problems multiply."

The second sentence is redundant. Usage teaches language, with the exception of technical jargon (and even then...).

Also, it is taught consistently enough, otherwise nobody would be able to talk about anything. Consistency would require all speakers learning from a single source and never, ever changing their own use in response to other factors, but at the moment we have speech communities that overlap enough for understanding. What is the problem here?


No. We are all familiar with the current, vague meaning of the term within the context of video games. Some people would rather it mean something else, but even they are aware of its current use (except in a few rare borderline cases, but the same is true of most words in the language, since the universe isn't clear-cut into categories).

"The problem, is that we're not understanding such use in relation to the language itself, including it's rules, and how it is taught."

Er, what? What rules of the various languages using terms analogous to "game" impact our understanding of it? It's a content word, it has no syntactic or grammatical role that impinges on its meaning. The fact that a game is masculine in French and neuter in German has precious little to do with what the term refers to. Declining the word for game into the instrumental case in Russian doesn't change what it refers to. What "rules" are you talking about?

The way a word is taught does not change anything either. Whether it is a new word you are told means X, or a word you observe usually means X, or a word you deduce must mean X by process of exclusion, by intuition, etc. doesn't change that it communicates "X".

What relations here are we supposed to understand? How do these relations change what the term refers to?

"Which is why it's all subjective IN THE WORST POSSIBLE WAY and built on sand."

What worst possible way? That would seem to imply nobody knows what it means to others, yet we do, even if we disagree on what it ought to mean.

"This is a matter of LINGUISTICS."

Which, if I may, you don't seem familiar with. Have you ever heard of standard language ideology? Do you know what the term "language" generally refers to? Do you know, for instance, how dictionaries are compiled? What are your thoughts on the causes and effects of language change? I hesitate to broach the topic, but what are your thoughts on neologisms? Fossil words?

Linguistics is not about discovering the true meaning of words and making sure everybody uses them that way.

Dan Felder
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You continually restate how everyone fails to understand your ideas. Either you, someone focusing on language and communication, are so terrible at language and communication that people can't understand your true meaning... Or else perhaps your ideas aren't that relevant after all. I suppose just about everyone responding you could be an idiot too, but that doesn't exactly seem likely given the quality of the responses. Your opponents continually cite examples and demonstrable historical principles. You just assert theoretical claims without backing them up.

So we come to the crux. Despite years of this, you still haven't satisfactorily demonstrated why your work is either theoretically correct or practical. That is a terrible failing, so I'll explain how you can solve it.

1) If your arguments can convince the actual professionals, the experts at defining what a word means, that your definition of games is the 'true' one - then I'll be willing to accept their verdict and grant your idea's theoretical validity. This is an argument from authority, but while I study language on an amateur level - I'm willing to leave it up to the professionals here.

How to do it: If you can get the creators of a single significant dictionary (something that we actually could find in a chain bookstore, not a Ma-and-Pa dictionary with a circulation of 74) to change their definition of "game" to what you argue - I'll grant your argument theoretical weight. If you can't perhaps you might consider that perhaps *you* are the one who doesn't understand linguistics.

2) Even if your argument is theoretically valid, I still think it's useless for any real work by a developer. You can demonstrate its usefulness if you stop ignoring the scenario I presented and answer the question.

How to do it: Answer the following from above.

"Let's say a developer is building what they internally refer to as a 'game' where players try to solve puzzles competitively in a time limit. Now you march up to the door and announce that what they're making isn't a game... It's something else.

What on earth do you imagine that this developer would change about how they develop this title based on your new claim? How would they change their production model, the design of their mechanics, their soundscape, their soundtrack... How would *anything* change?"

Personally, I can't see a single thing that - even if your theory was correct and they fully believed it - would change.

Care to demonstrate it?

Darren Tomlyn
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The basic problem in all of this, is just how fundamental it really is:

The literal confusion of how we use a language, for what (information) it is used to represent.

ALL western languages I know of, are affected by this. (Asian and African languages, I have no knowledge of, so cannot say one way or another.) (The root of the problem, IMHO, probably lies with someone like Plato or Aristotle).

The problem, is that we perceive language as HOW DEFINING WHAT, when for people who use the language - it is the other way round. Since language needs to be taught for how it is used, we have problems.

The basic rules of English grammar are about two things:

How words are used.
What type of concept they belong to/represent.

In order to explain and inform people about these - we split languages up into types of word, based on HOW they are used. Since most languages represent similar types of information, many types of words can be found in many different languages, and can therefore also be used to describe them.

For the English language, we have a number of recognised types of word, based on how words are used, such as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction etc.. Because the basic concepts languages represent tend to be very consistent, we can also use such words to describe other languages.

But what if we do not describe and teach such types of word consistently?

It would mean that the basic rules of grammar would not be fully recognised and understood.

This is what has happened, and is happening, PURELY because we're trying to define WHAT types of concept words are used to represent BY how they are used, and not the other way round. Some dictionaries have even described types of word for what they represent AS how they are used!

EVERY type of word the language has, suffers from problems in describing BOTH of these elements in a consistent manner!

The very concept itself - the type of information - the word game is used to represent IS NOT RECOGNISED TO EXIST in a manner consistent with the basic rules of the language itself.


Because we're not recognising and understanding that WHAT words represent ultimately DEFINES HOW they are used, and can, and should, be considered separately, especially if related to, or even derived from, other concepts, and therefore other types of word, themselves.

What we're taking about is something called a taxonomic hierarchy. Types of word exist to define two things: The different groups (width) the hierarchy contains, and the root concept each group is used to represent.

The problems are:

a) we're not recognising what different groups exist, since the basic concepts words are used to represent are not being recognised and described in a manner suitable for an entire group. This is especially problematic if words used in a similar manner can represent different concepts. (vertical)

which means that:

b) were not understanding the relationship between different groups due to the concepts they represent.

which further means that:

c) we're not either recognising or teaching how and why words are related to each other for WHAT they represent, independently of HOW they are used (horizontal).

As an example:

Verbs represent a particular concept, a particular group of words within the language, that are used in combination with words representing things (tangible or intangible).

Since verb is a type of word - it needs to be defined as and by representing the basic type of concept words belong to, that are used in such manner, so we can understand WHY they are used that way, to begin with.

Is the word verb described in a manner that is suitable to represent such a basic concept?

NO. NEVER - (or least I've yet to see it).

The concept verbs are used to represent can ONLY be described, at this time, as representing:

Things that happen.

NO other description is suitable or consistent. Unfortunately, other words are used instead, which belong to a type of concept that represents an APPLICATION of what verbs themselves, represent:

State, occurrence, action etc..

State, occurrence and action are nouns, not verbs. Yes, thing is a noun too - but it's the right type of noun, as what we are dealing with is information - an intangible thing. All definitions come back to that, eventually - and since information and thing are nouns - the basic loop of all definitions for WHAT they represent, is:

noun is a noun is a noun etc..

Yes, Wikipedia winds up with philosophy, instead - but that's because of HOW and WHY - not WHAT.

The word game itself, belongs to the concept of an application of what verbs are used to represent (things that happen). But because this type of concept is treated in the same way as THINGS, that can and do exist in isolation, but doesn't, we have problems.

Since the word game is used and treated as though what it represents exists in isolation, and yet what it represents does NOT, nor CANNOT exist in such a manner - and the differences are not being recognised and taught, we have problems.

This is all in my blog, if you'd care to read it.

Darren Tomlyn
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@Dan pt 2.

(The edit function is now really **** up for me atm, and so I'm not going through the post above just to add this to it).

A race to complete a puzzle IS a game - the only 'true' puzzle-game that can exist.

A race, structured combat, and competitive throwing/movement for accuracy/precision/distance or time (duration) are the basic games all others are derived from.

If a race wasn't a game, neither would be Snakes and Ladders, for example.

Again, this is all in my blog...

Dan Felder
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And again Darren, you completely ignored either of my points in favor of spewing the same useless gunk over and over again.

This is why we don't want to read your blog. Your ideas, even if correct, are useless and you're incapable of having an intellectually honest discussion. And again, just for emphasis, it's useless.

I think that's enough for now.

Darren Tomlyn
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Obviously this problem is too fundamental and specific for you to understand - in which case I'll ignore you from now on, since there is obviously no way in which anything you say can possibly matter...

Dan Felder
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Ah Darren, you're becoming all too familiar. Your ideas are so useless you have to ignore any specific challenge to justify them in any way. Seriously, I gave you the easiest possible test. Name ONE way in which ANYTHING a game development company would change what they're doing as a result of your ideas.

Of course you can't, and so you just ignore the question and focus on attacking the other person.

Until you change your attitude you will remain officially a waste of time.

Darren Tomlyn
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If people actually challenged anything in a manner that is consistent with that actual problem itself - then things might make more sense.

But because people, (such as yourself), consistently demonstrate a failure to understand the basic problem - indeed, even to accept that the problem itself even exists - no explanation I can ever make, even if based upon the logical rules of the language itself, will ever make sense.

Until you understand and recognise the basic problem, and then understand its nature, and therefore how and why it must be solved, nothing I say will ever make any sense to you at all...

Dan Felder
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Right Darren, because everyone who disagrees with you fails to understand. Isn't that convenient for you. Your ideas must be truly high-level then, because the excellent staff at Gamasutra don't find your ideas - ideas you consider to be monumentally important - to even be worth featuring on the amateur blogger pages. That's how hilariously unimpressed people are with your ideas.

We all understand what you're saying. The difference is that what you claim is a problem we don't consider to be a problem. You're like those people who shriek at the moral decay in society because women now show their legs in public. It's not that we don't understand their objection, we just don't see any actual problem with women wearing shorter dresses. This might violate the arbitrary rules of polite society, but so what? What actual HARM does it do?

The same is with your ideas. We understand what you're saying, we just don't think it matters at all. That's why no one wants to feature it. That's why your comment threads on your blogs, the few ones that got any views at all, are masses of people disagreeing with you.

You're spending years of your life on ideas no one thinks are worth featuring and that no one can see a single practical application of. And you can't even provide any yourself.

How old are you anyway?

Darren Tomlyn
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This is PURELY a matter of logic based on the basic rules of English grammar, and how the language is used.

The word game belongs to a type of word that represents an application of whatever verbs are used to represent - (things that happen).


The word game therefore represents an application of things that happen, (or an activity), ONLY on the behalf of the player(s).

THIS IS A FACT, logically derived from that above.

Based on how the word is used in general, games exist WITHOUT ANY MEDIUM, (except the player(s) themselves).


There is a difference between what the words GAME, PUZZLE and COMPETITION represent, based on their use.


What the words game, puzzle and competition represent, exist independently of any medium used to enable such an activity.


Therefore, a computer can have no place in DEFINING what any of these words represent.


A computer can be used as a medium for any of these activities.


The differences between these activities are not being recognised, specifically when using a computer as the medium.


So if game, puzzle and competition cannot represent the same thing, as is demonstrated in their use, and any medium being used has no place in defining them, why is every such activity being called a game when using a computer?

The answer is because we do not understand what the words game, puzzle and competition represent in relation to each other, based on the basic rules of English grammar.

If you do not see that as a problem - then don't bother with the language at all, because you obviously shouldn't care enough to use it in the first place - and so why you bother having anything to do with this site, is a complete mystery...

Dan Felder
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And still you can give no practical reason anyone should care. You just laughably claim that if people don't agree with you, they shouldn't be allowed to use language. How did you get so delusionally arrogant?

Time for your reality check. We've all explained it to you many, many, many times and you always ignore it... But heck, I'll take another minute and do it again.

Language is a creation of humans to communicate with one another. This is a fact. The meaning of words changes over time, based on how people use them. This is a fact. How else do you think slang comes about? Or multiple meanings for the same word?

People who choose the words that go in the dictionary and their definitions find out how the vast majority of people use the words, they don't sit in an ivory tower and dictate what a word should mean.

The world has assigned the title 'videogame' to a wide variety of things. This does not create the mass confusion you describe. Language does not become unworkable, the game industry steams ahead, people don't writhe in confusion due to overlapping definitions of words. The issue you scream about over and over again simply does not exist.

Your ideas are unsound because you fundamentally don't understand how language works or how official definitions are designated. There's a good TED talk on this, where a *real* lexicographer talks about her job in crafting the dictionary. Here's the link.

Your ideas are useless because you can't provide a single example of how a developer or anyone else could use them in a practical way.

Almost no one seems to find your ideas compelling in any way shape or form. People who comment on your blog don't agree with you, people in other comment threads don't agree with you, the staff of gamasutra don't even bother featuring your work. Either you're absolutely terrible at communicating your ideas (odd for someone who claims to know so much about language) or perhaps... Your ideas are just terrible to begin with.

Do something else with your time.

Darren Tomlyn
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You really have absolutely no idea of THIS PARTICULAR PROBLEM AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You obviously have no comprehension of language and LINGUISTICS whatsoever.

What you are talking about IS NOT THE PROBLEM HERE.

This problem is CAUSED by the problems you tell of - about NOT BEING CONSISTENT WITH HOW THE LANGUAGE IS USED, that is then TAUGHT and then CAUSES MORE PROBLEMS/SYMPTOMS.

CAUSE: The basic functionality of our language is not being recognised or understood because of HOW IT IS PERCEIVED.

EFFECT: Our language is not being TAUGHT/INFORMED consistently with how it functions.

Further EFFECT: Our language is no longer fully recognised for WHAT it is used to represent, based on how it functions.

Further EFFECT: The type of concept some words belong to is not BEING RECOGNISED, which then causes problems with their use - such as confusing applications with their definitions.

By trying to say that words DO NOT HAVE TO BE CONSISTENT WITH THE FUNCTIONALITY OF THE LANGUAGE, you call for a split between English, and whatever language it is you wish to have.

If you wish to invent your own language, then that's fine - but it won't be English any more - will it? And I have no wish to learn any more languages than I have to, thank-you very much.

"This does not create the mass confusion you describe."

You do no know that. I've been talking to people now for a long time - long before I started all this - and MANY people were, and still are, struggling for how to describe a lot of things they see, and often don't like, in their 'videogames'. But precisely BECAUSE they don't know any better - they merely think that that's the way it is and always has been - which is wrong.

I knew there was a problem LONG before I started getting involved in arguments about what the problem itself was - (which then led to where I am, now).


If you deny that, then as I said - why bother posting in a thread in which someone else is discussing the nature of this problem, and raving on about how they're completely wrong and the problem they describe doesn't exist either...?

Because IT DOES.

Just because you can't see it - doesn't mean it's not there...

If you do not understand why understanding games is naturally a matter of linguistics, and HAS to be treated as such, first and foremost - then as far as I'm concerned, you forfeit any meaningful information and any and all arguments you may have once had on this matter.

Jason Bakker
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I think my issue with this article is I feel the author is trying to take the word "game" and change its meaning to become "games with ambiguous decisions". I'm attempting not to be snarky, but it really does seem that a big part of the drive behind this article comes from the fact that the author likes that style of game and dislikes other styles.

It makes more sense to me to instead take this specific subset of games (games focused on ambiguous decisions) and make a new word that describes them.

Guerric Hache
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I had a similar feeling.

I am reminded of the term "novel," which used to have a lot more information about the content and style of the book back when it was competing with "romance," but has now morphed to become a very vague term that describes little more than the format.

Instead of trying to bring "novel" back to its roots in the kind of contemporary realism that used to define the term, we now have a perfectly serviceable genre label for that kind of writing - "realism." The term "novel," meanwhile, no longer tells us much about the content - and it doesn't really need to, given how it is currently used.

Keith Burgun
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No no. It has nothing to do with my personal preference. It has to do with the fact that within the as-currently-used word "game", there are several different TYPES of interactive system which are really, seriously different.

A puzzle is a totally different animal than a game (as I defined it). A contest is a totally different animal than a puzzle. Etc.

Since these are all so different, it is worth having words to point to all of them, so that we can develop guidelines for these things.

Jason Bakker
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But why do you need to use the word "game" to define "games with ambiguous decisions"? Maybe we need to create a poll or something, but I feel for the vast majority of people, the word "game" has a different, more inclusive meaning than that.

I feel like your work to develop guidelines for different types of games* would be better served by creating a new term to define "games with ambiguous decisions". It would have the same effect as what you're trying to do now (you would be able to create guidelines for it, and separate it from puzzles, contests, etc), without the hassle of having to retrain everybody to hear "game" as something different from what they hear currently.

* What I would call games, what you would call Interactive Systems.

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Darren Tomlyn
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The problem we have is that the English language already HAS words to represent such different applications of behaviour, aswell as just the behaviour itself, if necessary.

(Game, puzzle, competition, art etc.).

The problem, is that people are not being taught to use such language in the first place, when and where it is applicable.

It's the equivalent of calling a bed, a chair, just because it's made out of wood - but if you think that wood is what defines something as furniture (because you've never been taught and informed otherwise), then it all appears to make sense...

As I've been saying all along - this is a matter of linguistics, (the study and teaching of language), and has to be dealt with as such. The OP has tried to do so, but inconsistently with the basic rules of English grammar and logic - (in mixing cause and effect).

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Darren Tomlyn
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"We use the word "game" to mean almost anything."

Only because we don't know (are not being taught and informed) any better, (or don't care, which is worse) - which is why it's a matter of linguistics.

The word game represents an activity(<-event<-application of behaviour (things that happen)), as opposed to an action.

What this means. is that it is essentially an event which can and will contain many other events. This means that it cannot be described and defined as and by any single action, even though it might contain such a thing.

A game must be described as and by the TYPE of behaviour (things that happen) it contains, not any specific actions themselves. In combination with whatever application such behaviour has, as being part of such an activity, it will be enough to define it in a consistent manner.

This is what my blog exists to do - to try and describe what it is the word game must represent based on it's general use. The problem we have, is that its use has become inconsistent in relation to one particular medium, (a computer), simply because people either didn't/don't know any better, or didn't/don't care. And since looking into the matter, I've discovered that there are far bigger reasons for people to now actually know any better in the first place...

Andrew Traviss
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I really enjoyed this piece, but in my opinion calling out specific features as being inherently incompatible with being a "game" is presumptuous. I would prefer to look at these cases as particularly difficult design challenges if you intend to build a "game" according to this definition.

Player perspective also affects whether the decisions in a game are meaningful or not. My experience with the original Max Payne was that the core experience was to try to succeed in the most cinematic way possible. If played this way, the core challenge is evaluated in a qualitative way instead of objectively, and no amount of quick loading will guarantee a "perfect" experience.

This doesn't exactly fall under "house rules", because I didn't modify the rules for the game in order to get this experience from a game that many others just played through as a story-based "puzzle" according to your definitions. From my perspective, completing the game was not the victory condition, and nothing in the games rules actually disagrees with me. The end of the game is simply where I ran out of content.

The comparison isn't perfect, but I think a good analogue to this is how some films are perceived very differently by different people. Many watch the Halloween films or other cheesy horror movies as thrill rides. Others treat them like comedies (at least I do and some others I know). If puzzles, simulators, and "ambiguous challenges" are some of our genres, does a particular work's classification between those partly depend on the player's perspective and how they experience the game, independent of the system's rules?

Every other medium acknowledges the role of the observer in defining it. It's not just the tools you use as a creator. Games, which involve the observer an order of magnitude more than other media, are surely no different. We need to be careful about making classifications based on our own way of perceiving games.

Robert Chang
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so The Impossible Game is a puzzle? It doesn't have a contest, it doesn't have meaningful decisions. Each decision that is made is just a simple correct or incorrect answer to the problem.

Robert Chang
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actually, not even multiplayer games have meaningful decisions. There really is no decision that affects the final outcome of the game beyond "you won" or "you lost," which the article has defined to be a puzzle system.

Every game ultimately resolves to finite states. The idea here comes down to defining games as a system with infinite emergence, one that does not conform to finite states, but sort of starts at a state and extends in all direction in infinite ways like a tree structure, and that every branching of the tree defines a meaningful decision.

Does such structure exist? Or is it true of "games" to have this structure, but I'm just failing to recognize it.

This is an excellent article on the idea that emergence ultimately resolves to a single state.

Lewis Pulsipher
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I have maintained for years that the "video game industry" should be called the "interactive entertainment software industry", because so much of what is produced is either a puzzle, or a form of toy (e.g. Wii Music, Wii Fit).

Where there is a clear best move, a "solution", we have a puzzle. I differ with Keith in believing that card solitaire is a puzzle, because there's a clear best move at every juncture, even though the player might not have enough information to choose the best move. In a game, thanks to the intervention of other players (opponents) there often is not a clear best move, there's a choice of moves that might be best depending on what other players do. In Game Theory terms, there's a mixed strategy rather than a saddle point. Gameplay depth implies that there are mixed strategies in the game, with a possibility of losing. A key to "game" is at least a semblance of intelligent opposition (which you certainly don't have in card solitaire).

You never "complete" a good game, people play chess and many other games literally hundreds of times each and are still willing to play again. You can complete a puzzle, or story, or simulation. No one would bother to play such hundreds of times.

It's clear that the proportion of video "game" players who want gameplay depth, who want to risk losing as well as winning, is much smaller than it was amongst game players 40 years ago. Over the years the desire for entertaining variety, often the desire to be told (and perhaps to participate in) a story, has largely displaced the desire for intriguing gameplay. As David Jaffe once said though far more vehemently, players pay their 60 bucks to be entertained, not to be challenged.

In most general terms, games used to be about earning something, and possibly failing; now what we call video games are about getting something for participation, without the significant possibility of failure. Variety (which often means playing lots of different games) is valued over gameplay depth (which involves learning more about, and getting better at, a particular game).

"Social network" games are at one extreme, very simple puzzles with no significant possibility of failure. Yet they're very, very popular, aren't they? (They wouldn't be if they weren't free, of course.)

There have always been many game players who wanted to participate in entertainment--in family and party games. A difference between 40 years ago and now is that now people are happy to get their entertainment from a computer, whereas people playing party games get their entertainment from other people.

Games are about people. Traditional single-player video "games" are about technology and computers.

Why is this important? Because "game" design is very different if you're aiming for entertainment instead of gameplay depth. There are other kinds of depth, story/narrative depth, puzzle depth, model/simulation depth, but they are achieved in different ways. We can hope that a "game" designer will benefit from understanding what he's trying to achieve. Though those who design "from the gut" simply may not care.

Jackson Wood
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Hi Keith,
I mostly agree with your article, and applaud your attempt to take on such a topic. I do have a difference of opinion though regarding "ambiguous decisions". I would presume by your definition that Super Mario would be classified more in the region of a Contest? My issue is that this definition only tells half the story.
Ambiguity in decisions can come from many places, and I argue, is more subjective than you have presented it here. I agree that from an objective perspective that Super Mario could be considered a contest, however I feel that it can be rightly called a game.
The decisions that I make when 'playing' Super Mario for the first time are full of ambiguity, regardless of whether or not the outcome will be the same on repeated attempts. On my first attempt of playing a level, I have very little knowledge of what challenges (or puzzles if you will,) lie to the right of screen.
In this way, I would prefer to argue that indeed, to somebody who knows every detail of a level's layout, Super Mario is a contest or puzzle, however this is what Super Mario *becomes*.

To the every day interactor, Super Mario is a game because, the decisions she makes are full of ambiguity. Whereas to a speed-runner Super Mario is a contest or puzzle. In this way, I feel that every title has the potential to a subjective experience, which is an important part of this discussion when considering games design - every person will interact differently with your product.

Jackson Wood
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As a further note: my motivation for this contribution is that the way I 'play' PicrossDS (as a series of puzzles) is entirely differently to the way I 'play' as Chrono Trigger (as a game). I have a different mood, a different goal, a different mindset, and different expectations.
I believe that focusing on the player's experience is an important part of developing this discussion, as ultimately that is what we, the games development teams are creating: Audience Experiences.
Again, my thanks for bringing this new perspective to the discussion!

Jamie Roberts
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Probably one of the most helpful articles I've read on developing a more precise language to describe games.

Mark Venturelli
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Sorry about raising the dead here, but thought more about this discussion and many like it in the last few months and I think I can contribute.

I believe the main problem people have with this kind of thing is that most of the time they are not working on the same level.

There's "vocabulary" and there's "semantics".

When people argue that "oh, I like this other definition of 'game' because it fits all the things we usually call games" - if that definition doesn't help us design games it's not vocabulary, it's semantics.

"Vocabulary", especially in design, means we are building tools. Definitions in this sense have no place on their own. It is useless to discuss the meaning of "game" in a vacuum, much like it is useless to talk about a game mechanic by itself. Both of these things can only be used as tools when taken into the context of a system.

It's not how you define "game". It's what you define 'game' for.

So if you take, for example, the powerful design tool of "meaningful decisions" and say: "Oh, this is not a good tool, because there are no decisions in Guitar Hero and guitar hero is a game". If you do that, you lose a very important tool. If instead of disregarding "meaningful decisions" you take Guitar Hero instead and put it in a different box, you now have a more useful toolbox. Now you know that for things you call "games" you can use "meaningful decisions" as tools. For things called "competitions" you can't. Improvement!

This is just one tiny example of how designers build vocabulary as systems, and how disconnected from the whole discussion it is to state isolated definitions of "game".