One unfortunate effect of all the dizziness surrounding "words" was that in the comments of my last article, I did not hear anyone try to counter-argue with was the following chart, which is the crux of my argument here:
This chart was by far the most important part of the article (and yet I don't think anyone directly disagreed with it). These concepts, not the words, are what's important.
If someone else wants to propose other words to replace all of these words, and everyone can agree that those are better, more useful and consistent than the words I have been using, please go for it. Personally, I feel strongly that the words I am using are the best ones we have in the English language to refer to these systems.
Most people seem to be fine with accepting the "bare interactive system" level and the "contest" level. I believe that these are already pretty much universally used in the same way. The problem tends to come about most strongly on the word "game", and to some extent on the word "puzzle".
For "game", as I mentioned, this is a very emotionally charged term. Despite the fact that the word "game" is not currently well-defined, people get very upset if you say that something they like isn't a game. This should make it clear that there is a lot of somewhat illogical baggage with the word. Regardless, I trust that serious people are capable of understanding a prescriptive definition for the sake of progress.
With regards to "puzzle", this actually presents a very interesting case. Of course, the word "puzzle", in the digital era, has become more blurred. There is a breed of video-gamer that will call anything that's not an "action game" a "puzzle".
But that isn't what's interesting about the word. My definition for puzzle -- an interactive system plus a goal (but without competition or ambiguous decision-making) -- is already well-understood by people outside the world of video games.
Go to Target or some other store that sells boardgames and puzzles; you'll see that, almost without fail, somehow the genius employees have some way in which they are able to discern the puzzles from the games, as they are always on different shelves. How do they perform this magical feat? By using the same criteria as my proposed chart. They may not need to put it into words, but they do understand the difference between a puzzle and a game.
So, it's important to know that I didn't just "dream up" this chart out of thin air. It is, in my opinion, the most consistent and clear way we can use words. This clarity will allow us to move past the question of "what is a game", and onto the far more interesting question of "how can we make better games?" It's impossible to do this until we solve the first question, however.
I believe that my chart represents the foundational first steps that will allow us to begin to develop guidelines or principles for better game design. Not only game design, but those who are interested in puzzles can now have their application firmly focused on being a puzzle. Those who make bare interactive systems can drop the facade of half-implemented game-ish qualities, and focus on being a fantastic sandbox/simulator/toy. Eventually, these guidelines we establish will begin to harden into a useful, scientific theory of how such systems work.
One benefit is that we'll be able to critique our systems, for the first time in video game history. We will have reviews that have standards, or criteria, that they are looking for. We will be able to make objective statements that show a deeper understanding than just "it's fun" or "it's boring". We'll be able to see more clearly those times when a game was compromised by trying to be a fantasy simulator instead of a pure game. We'll be able to see the true effects of story on gameplay.
We'll remember that games are about rules, and we should be clearly stating our goals. We'll realize that having goals that are a foregone conclusion is a bad thing. We will see the absurdity of being able to save and load a game freely when we realize that games a type of contest.
We'll see that it's logically impossible to "win" if losing was not even possible.
We'll be able to understand, clearly and collectively, that grinding and Skinner Box mechanisms are not enriching, they are exploitative. Systems that use these mechanisms should be looked upon in the same way that slot machines and recreational drug use currently are.
Most importantly, we will understand that games can and should be judged by the quality and frequency of the decisions they present us with. The quality of a decision is determined by how interesting it is: how much depth and dimension there is to calculating the decision, and how much ingenuity an answer requires. Games should also have a high frequency of such decisions, since they are what make games games. Many of the games of today allow you to make one such decision every 20 minutes or so, and we will be able to see how terrible this is.
We're on the precipice right now, between a world of darkness and enlightenment. Much of functional music theory was developed in the 17th century, and do I really need to tell you what happened to music after that? Of course, there were plenty of social, economic and technical elements that allowed the Beethovens, Debussys, and Dvoraks to exist, but they also could not have done what they did without the establishment of functional harmony. Similarly, we cannot progress in game design until we establish functional theory of game design.