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A Way to Better Games: Establishing Functional Theory
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A Way to Better Games: Establishing Functional Theory

June 19, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

We each have a small part to play in how the next few decades of video game history will go. The future will certainly always continue to evolve. So far, most of what we've seen has been a slow, somewhat random progression of somebody stumbling onto the next big hit design that then gets cloned a thousand times over.

This has been the pattern with digital games since day one, and so it's easy to feel that this will always be the pattern. And as it currently stands, the official game plan as of right now seems to be this:

- Continue to increase the levels of graphics technology...

- Try out some new input devices...

- Hopefully, some interesting new designs will pop up.

That was the game-plan 40 years ago and it's still the game plan today. In about four decades of development, how far have we really come with regards to game design? If you only look at the abstract gameplay -- the rules of a game -- how much have we really advanced?

Our technology and ability to implement stuff certainly has evolved, but have our game design sensibilities? Do we feel like game design, as a craft all its own, has really matured? Is it even on a path to maturation? What is the path to maturation?

Okay, maybe this is what game design was missing all along!

In my opinion, we have grown, but we haven't matured. We are still shooting into the shadows of the game design dark ages. We are still waiting for our scientific method, our Enlightenment, our Renaissance. I think that we can never achieve those things until we come up with a useful, functional way to refer to our medium in the first place.

Talking About Words

My previous article, What Makes a Game, stirred up quite a conversation here on Gamasutra, so I thought I would take a moment to reflect on some of what was said in response. For those who haven't read it, my basic proposition was that in "video games", we actually have several different kinds of interactive systems. My article was an attempt to break these types of systems down into several sub-systems. Specifically, I proposed new definitions for "contest", "puzzle", and "game" (I review this in more detail in the later section, "Types of Interactive Systems"). The absolute biggest disconnect occurred due to confusion about my definition of the word "game".

It must be understood that I am not trying to override the current definition of game. Instead, I am proposing a new, additional definition for the word (as well as new, clearer definitions for "puzzle" and "contest", although these are closer to the common definitions) that can help us to define different kinds of systems. One doesn't necessarily need to use the word "game" to refer to the concept I proposed, but I feel that out of all the words in the English language, it is the best one we can use to the specific type of system I proposed: a contest of ambiguous decision-making.

My real point is that within "video games", there exist several types of distinct systems. This shouldn't be too contentious; very few people would disagree with the idea that The Path and Street Fighter are not the same kind of animal. They both exist to do very different things and have very different kinds of mechanisms that allow them to achieve different goals. Regardless of what words you use to point to them, the most important thing is that we -- creators and others who are serious about understanding interactive systems -- understand the fundamental differences between various kinds of systems.

Talking about games in a productive way is currently nearly impossible, because the word "game" has not only many different definitions, but many different connotations. So many arguments occur solely because of two parties are intending a different definition for the same word, or even a different "coloring" or "flavor" on the word, which causes an emotional reaction. Since video-"games" are such a massive cultural phenomenon, the word "game" has a lot of cultural and personal baggage that gets dragged along with it.

Several commenters appeared at first glance to be disagreeing with me, but in actuality were probably not, due entirely to this problem. For instance, Ara Shirinian seemed to want to disagree with me on the grounds that under the current, descriptive definition for "game", ambiguous decision-making isn't necessarily an attribute. Guitar Hero doesn't have any of that, and it's a "game" (by the current definition), so it would appear as though my argument that ambiguous decisions are a fundamental part of "games" falls apart right there.

Except that, of course, my definition was a presciptive one. Precisely because Guitar Hero doesn't have ambiguous decision-making, it does not meet my criteria for a game. Obviously, I agree that it does indeed meet the criteria for the extremely vague "activity engaged in for diversion or amusement " definition of "game" (which is the first dictionary definition in Merriam-Webster.)

Jason Bakker implied that I was trying to put games (as I define them) above games (as most people define them). The only reason anyone would have to respond this way is if they have a romantic attachment to the word "game". If someone proposes a theory that throws some of your favorite titles' "game-status" into question, then that could be seen to them as an attack. Of course, there's nothing wrong with not being a "game", by my definition or anyone else's. Legos aren't a game, but I'd rather play with them than play some medicore 2D fighting game, despite the fact that the latter is undeniably "a game" by any definition.

I know I'm not the first to point this out, but we don't really have a super-solid definition for the word "game" to begin with. Many have been proposed, many have been repeated. Yet there hasn't been one in the history of digital games that everyone has agreed on. My definition is just one more, and so it shouldn't be a threat to anyone.

Further, it should be understood that my definition is a tool. Unlike so many definitions that have come before it, my definition is not doing its best to explain what games are, it is prescribing a philosophy about what games should be. It is a lens, a paradigm, through which we can better understand interactive systems.

One of the more popular responses I got was along the lines of "the current definition works just fine", implying that a new proposed definition wasn't necessary. These people were correct. For most people, the current dictionary definition for game is not causing any major problems.

However, my proposed definition wasn't for most people. It was for game designers, game journalists, and others who want to understand these systems in a more profound and helpful way. Understanding that within our current concept of "video game", we have several different types of systems is the first necessary step toward the development of functional theory.

Sadly (yet predictably), there seems to be a bit of an anti-progress attitude among some I've encountered in our little world of talking about games; a resistance to changing how we think about games. Some have even gone as far as to argue that the way forward is backwards; that we need our words to have less explanatory power than they already do.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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