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The More You Know: Making Decisions Interesting in Games

July 27, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Stardock's Jon Shafer, who previously led development of Civilization V at Firaxis, explains how it's possible to create a game full of "very interesting and very difficult decisions."

Knowledge is power. Game designers ignore this old adage at their own peril. As developers we want our games to empower people to live out their fantasies, but all too often the games themselves get in the way.

Whether in games or in life, we've all experienced that uncomfortable feeling of having no idea what to do. Most games require players to make a vast number of decisions, and if they're not provided enough information to make those choices confidently, the end result is nearly always frustration.

In this article we'll examine in detail the role of information in games, why meaningful choices require context and the consequences of omitting it. We'll also look at a few examples of how, in unique cases, hiding some things can actually make a game better.

Interesting Decisions

A designer's goal is always to make every decision the player faces interesting. An "interesting decision" is when a player has two or more options which are (roughly) equal in value over the long term. Conversely, there are two main factors which can make decisions uninteresting: when one option is clearly better than all others, and when the consequences of the options are unclear.

If someone is confused by a decision, their feelings toward the choice will range from ambivalent to annoyed. With no context, they'll simply choose the option that is easiest, sounds coolest, or (gulp) is first in the list. It's impossible to be heavily invested in such arbitrary decisions, and if the excrement hits the fan later on, they're much more likely to blame the game than themselves.

After people fail, the goal should be for them to think, "Dang, I really should have chosen X back there instead of Y. Let me try again and see if I can do better." This only happens if players feel like the game was fair and sufficiently prepared them for what was to come.

If you want players to really be making strategic decisions, then the mechanics of the game need to be laid bare. For example, a game with upgradeable equipment needs to fully explain the consequences of equipping a weapon.

Knowing how much more damage you'll be doing is much more useful than being told the player's mysterious and arbitrary attack value is increased by 5. Five what? It's not a big deal if all you're dealing with are weapons with a single attack value, but what if you have to choose between a +5 attack weapon and a +7 defense shield? How does one compare their value without a full understanding of what these stats actually mean?

Another major issue with making uneducated choices is that it's hard to get excited about them. You feel a real sense of progress knowing your old weapon did 10 damage per swing and could kill those monsters with four hits, but that new one you bought does 16 per hit and can kill them with only two swings. Just knowing that now you'll do "more damage" doesn't provide quite the same thrill.

When you know exactly what's going on, that's the point at which a game really takes off. This provides the opportunity to start making plans, and the trade-off between short-term and long-term interests becomes a very tough call. If players are able to reach this level of comfort, they're likely to stick with a game for the long haul.

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Maximilian Lundsten
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Thanks for writing this very interesting article.

I your choice to include an image of Chrono Cross is very telling as that game failed to communicate what was fun about it to most of it's target audience. Resulting it's many systems being left hidden to most people.
Nothing is sadder than a good game that fails to find players.

This discussion I think is very timely as there seems to be a divide in design philosophy developing between the traditional path of making games more and more accessible and a new counter culture of design extolling the joys of brutal games, games that intentionally give very little guidance, with the intention of player confusion.

An interesting time indeed.

Jon Shafer
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It's kind of ironic, because I actually enjoyed Chrono Cross quite a bit - probably played it for close to 200 hours over the years. That having been said, the combat system was definitely NOT why! I found the designer's choice to have three basic attack types with close-but-not-quite-the-same odds of hitting (illustrated in the screenshot I chose) to be the most aggregious sin. It's a real shame that so much effort is put into these systems, and yet the end result is nearly always incredibly dull... made worse by the fact that you're subjected to dozens, sometimes hundreds of hours of it.

- Jon

Joshua Darlington
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"You won't find me arguing against the value flavor and "feel" provide. There are an innumerable number of valid design approaches that can result in a game enjoyed by a large audience. The point is simply to recognize that when it comes to game mechanics there's basically a scale that has strategy at one end and flavor at the other."

I'm not sure that strategy and flavor are necessarily mutually exclusive. What is the logic behind that?

Jon Shafer
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Much of the time what is believable and realistic isn't much fun. For example, one-hit kills, or the randomness of, well, pretty much everything. A game about the medieval era should have the bubonic plague represented if it wants to 'properly' represent that period of history - but such a mechanic may not be fun or at all strategically interesting.

It IS possible to do both flavor and strategy at the same time, but the vast majority of times you have to pick one side or the other.

- Jon

Jacob Germany
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I would think execution would be the main, and perhaps only, determinant of the "fun" or "strategy" of the bubonic plague. Frankly, it sounds awesome, and I wish someone did implement such a thing (well).

Meanwhile, the most common concept in gaming, "combat", can be done really well or really, really poorly.

Jon Shafer
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I agree, it would be awesome if a game were able to incorporate the bubonic plague in an interesting manner! But to get to that place you'd have to greatly abstract it. There are genetic and biological reasons for why some people contract it and others don't, but from our perspective who it affects is basically random. My argument is that the appropriate 'flavor' for the plague is just that - random. And that randomness is why the plague is SO feared and such a large part of our collective consciousness. To make a system out of the plague that is more predictable and offers strategic choices inherently requires 'diluting' that flavor. You can make interesting gameplay out of basically anything, but most of the time the closer you lean in the direction of realism, the further you get from strategy.

- Jon

Klaude Thomas
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It's interesting that in the reply to Jacob, Jon relates flavour to realism. In another sense, flavour and feel are often produced as the tactile - non-thinking - part of the game. They're things one experiences. However, I think what is meant by the alternative conflation (flavour == realism) is that strategic decisions are abstracted and re-balanced unrealistically to produce interest.

If you want the plague to be strategically interesting, it needs to relate to players' strategic decisions. An old boardgame Machiavelli capture a little of this, but ultimately the randomness of the plague was not well enough mitigated by the table that biased which cities were more often subject to it. A better system for provoking player strategy might have included some completely safe havens, as well as other places of high-value that were near 100% certain to be hit.

One might describe the basic strategic loop as
Receive rules and objectives
Observe situation and materiel
Imagine possible actions
Pick a subset of possible actions for implementation
Observe (and be afflicted by) consequences
Be surprised, delighted, or appalled (but in any case, be provoked)
Appreciate (hopefully) possibilities for improved imagining

A definition of a game that I'm working on is something like 'games are manifolds defined by arbitrary axioms, which users navigate toward objectives against opposition'. Flavour (in Jon's sense if I have it right) is not arbitrary, it is dictated to us by the real universe. The more flavour, the less 'game'. Strategy games are very gamey indeed.

As a total aside, I cannot decide if 'phase-space' would not be clearer than 'manifold'? I find manifold produces a better visual image (to me at least), but phase-space is more strictly accurate.

Jacob Germany
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I'm not even sure I disagree with the overall assertion that strategy is much easier with abstracted mechanics. However, something about it nags at me.

Even the thought of giving a plague, using the example, environmental and genetic predictors, I could imagine mechanics that revolve around the interesting choice of saving as many people as possible through some version of eugenics or racial cleansing, or choosing to abstain from such atrocities knowing that the plague may run rampant.

But, apart from that specific example, I think what gets me is that all too often, I play a game and wish that certain mechanics were done in a specific way that would be both more realistic and "still fun". I think I see abstraction and realism as its own dimension, at least partly separate from issues of strategy and "interesting decisions".

In other words, I think choosing to be more or less realistic certainly changes the flavour, but I'm not sure that either strategy or flavour must be lost.

I would agree, though, that formulating strategy/interesting decisions is difficult enough that any other factors/requirements affecting gameplay certainly increase that complexity, making it quite a bit rarer.

Wylie Garvin
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re bubonic plague:

It reminds me of the 1977 board game "Machiavelli", which is much like the earlier (and completely non-random) board game "Diplomacy". One thing added in Machiavelli, was an optional "plague" rule where at a certain point in each turn, random dice rolls might decimate certain armies. It was "fun" because it sometimes wiped out a key army (frustration for that player, relief for their opponent). This little bit of luck could sometimes tip the balance of the game.

So yeah, I guess even bubonic plague can make a fun game mechanic, if you have the proper context and good execution.

Michael DeFazio
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genius post. thanks.

Biz W
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Making decisions interesting is definitely the essential part, but it doesn't stop there. The hard part and the things designers haven't figured out how to do well (in strategy games) is make interesting opponents. Opponents, specifically the threats that opponents present in an adversarial setting, are what ultimately make the choices meaningful and difficult (and therefore interesting).

Without challenging opponents, decisions aren't very interesting or difficult because they won't affect the outcome. When opponents cheat in a typical strategy game, the player's decision is almost always less informed because they don't have a sense of what they're up against.

This is where most grand strategy games fall short (for the type of player who knows exactly what's going on and is making informed decisions). The player thinks one way in terms of risk-reward (the way that makes sense in a human vs. human setting), but in practice the risk-reward depends entirely on how some mysterious opponent decided to use its massive bonuses. The game becomes more about learning the nuances and habits of the AI rather than being able to make informed plans.

But non-strategy games (like action games) tackle this issue extremely well. It's probably because those games are about more than just making decisions.

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Michael DeFazio
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cool enough.


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Steven Christian
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"If you want players to really be making strategic decisions, then the mechanics of the game need to be laid bare."

Ironic that you should say this as the lead dev of Civ V, the strategy game famous for hiding mechanics (even more ironically, the previous versions of the Civ series did lay these mechanics bare).

Jack Everitt
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Ha, this is the most intelligent article I've read on game design in quite a while. Thanks!

Darren Tomlyn
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As usual - my reply is built upon the contents of my blog (that I'm re-writing (again)):

This article has problems - and the reason for that is that it does not exist in its full and true context - (of what games are, and therefore how such behaviour, (and all ingredients of such behaviour) ,truly relates to such an activity, specifically).

The phase 'knowledge is power' is not actually true, but is merely a short-cut a simplified opinion - a 'truism' that has become commonly accepted - and is a similar problem to one we have with games, and which this article demonstrates:

Understanding the difference and relationship between, and of, cause and effect, in relation to human behaviour and our perception and understanding of it - (including the language used to describe it).

Knowledge can be used to enable power, (as can money etc.) - the ability to do something, (anything), usually for oneself.

The act of choosing (or deciding) to DO something, is NOT the same as actually DOING IT.

The problem, is that games are DEFINED as and by the latter behaviour, purely in relation to the player(s) - and not the former, which is what this article is about.

Without truly describing such decisions in relation to the specific behaviour the word game represents (an application of) - something a person does 'for themselves', (as opposed to something they do 'for others' or something that is done to them) - the full relationship between the decisions and the information required and involved in making them, will never be truly understood, and therefore described.

For example - Solitaire can be seen to be either a game, a puzzle OR a competition, depending on the behaviour it enables (and is perceived) by the person taking part - competing by writing a story, interacting with a story being told (to discover or choose the solution), or interacting with a story being told, to be told whether a solution exists or not.

Solitaire rarely involves a written story at all, which is why it cannot be defined or labelled as a game. Since a solution is not always guaranteed, it cannot also be defined or labelled as a puzzle, either. A competition is therefore the only activity that it can consistently be perceived and labelled as.

But, of course, the difference and relationship between games, puzzles and competitions at this time, is not fully recognised and understood, which is why we have problems.

Since there is a difference between things a person does 'for themselves' (writing their own stories), things a person does' for others' (telling stories), and things that happen to a person, (being told a story), all of which can be the result of making a decision, any decision made, not just for the amount or type of information required to do so, requires additional context to be consistent with being present 'in games'.

Since games are about writing stories - the most fundamental option of making a decision in a game interesting, is to have them enable interesting things for the player(s) to DO, for themselves... It's the effect that matters here, not the cause... As such, any information that is required, should be related to what is being done, no matter how much, or detailed it is (or not)... Without an understanding and description of such a relationship, any decisions, in themselves, are meaningless for, (by being isolated from), games in general.

Klaude Thomas
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"Since games are about writing stories..."

Huh? What, wait?! What do you mean by 'story' in this context?

To repeat an earlier post, a definition of a game that I'm working on is something like 'games are manifolds defined by arbitrary axioms, which users navigate toward objectives against opposition'. I would happily admit an explicative or imaginative duty, but not a linear narrative telling one.

Darren Tomlyn
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I linked to my blog, first, for a reason - if you have any questions, I suggest you read it... (Even if I am still working on it).

Story is (used as representing) an intangible thing - (NOT an application of behaviour/things that happen) - a form or arrangement of information of, or about, a series of events, either real or imaginary.

The only place such an imaginary series of events can exist, that can then BE told, is (a person's (or some other entity's)) memory. Which then helps to define what the terms write, tell and told represent in relation to such a thing - describing three basic forms of behaviour that is applicable to any (animate, if not living) entity:

Things they do 'for themselves' - writing stories.
Things they do 'for others' - telling stories.
Things that happen to them - stories they are told.

These are the only three forms of behaviour necessary to describe the words game, art, puzzle and competition (as activities), and so that can now be done, whilst also demonstrating how they are then related to and by what it is that is behaving - (using the word story as an objective representation of such a person/entity, that the behaviour is being described in relation to).

Games are an activity - an event which represents and contains many others (many things that happen), as opposed to an action, which is a single event - (a single thing that happens).

The basic taxonomic hierarchy is simple:

Application of things that happen -> event -> activity -> game/art/puzzle/(a) competition.

(Competition as a basic application of compete is not an event, but a state, as is work and play).

Game (noun of the second type) - an activity in which people compete in a structured (rules-based) environment, by writing their own stories.

This is the only true definition of the word game that:

a) is fully consistent with the basic taxonomic hierarchy of the language, and the basic rules of English grammar.

b) describes the main elements it represents without being too specific or general - (e.g. becoming more consistent with an application, rather than its definition - (e.g. as being 'play')).

c) describes the word game in a manner that other, similar, words can be described in relation to, so we can understand how such words are both related, but different from one another, as per the use and rules of the language, itself.

All of these three elements are currently a problem for the recognition, and therefore definition, of the word game, at this time.

If we take your definition:

Manifolds = activities
arbitrary axioms = structured/rules
navigate towards objectives against opposition = compete/competition.

That's the applications of such behaviour (things that happen), sure - but where's the behaviour itself? The answer is that it isn't there - and so your definition is incomplete and inconsistent...

Games are merely things people do for themselves - no other type of behaviour is necessary, which is why writing stories is suitable for its description and definition.

The basic games are:

A race
Structured combat
Competitive throwing/movement for accuracy/precision, distance or duration.

Guess why the Olympics are called games? (Though not every activity in the modern Olympics is, in fact, a game - some are competitions (those that involve judges) - since they're about competing to be TOLD a story (whether you've won or lost), even if it's still based on a written story, itself.)

Klaude Thomas
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Sports are not games to the extent to which they are governed by axioms that are not arbitrary, i.e. the physical affordances of the tangible world. That is why sports have 'laws' and games have 'rules'.

However, I see you focus on behaviour of players within a game, whilst I focus on what a game is in and of itself. To some extent your line of argument presents a fair challenge to my definition, and certainly some commentators judge that a game comes into existence only when decision-making agents are engaged with it, i.e. only in the act of play. However, such an approach is not definitionally complete. It doesn't tell us much about what the game itself is. It does not tell us why decision-making agents will act differently in one game over another. It fails to suggest the forcefulness of the game itself in propelling action. It is that latter aspect that Jon's article relies on after all.

WRT to your claim about English grammar. English grammar at this stage is likely incapable of producing a complete sample set of possible games (and it would be extremely difficult to prove otherwise), but do you really need to make that argument? Is it in some way essential to your claims? Manifold does not == activities incidentally. The game manifold encompasses the whole phase-space. Activities occur within, but in no way increase or alter the shape of, the phase-space. The game manifold dictates and contains all possible behaviours that can occur within the game (not just some of them, but all of them). There may even be 'behavour-less' spaces possible within the manifold (I'm not sure, it needs further cognition.) Note also the special nature of 'arbitrary' axioms versus non-arbitrary ones (although admittedly there is a complex issue with this argument and arguments about dualism).

The word 'story' just obfuscates your argument? It seems like you don't really mean the experience of a single-entity passing through the game space. So far as I can tell you're using the word in a special way and would really be better using some more neutral jargon for that purpose.

Structured combat is not formally distinguishable from the other two game types you list, however that list does nothing to illuminate or cast into doubt any other part of your (or my) argument.

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Darren Tomlyn
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Game is a word that exists within the English language (and others, yes - but I'm deliberately limiting myself to the English language, because it's the only one I know ;) ).

This means two things:

a) It is used to represent a specific piece of information.
b) It exists within a framework of rules that determines HOW it is used, because of WHAT concept it represents/belongs to.

ALL of the problems we have with the word game exist for one, very simple, reason - that b) above is not being recognised and understood for the word game itself - (aswell as other, similar words).

The word game represents an application of things that happen (behaviour), usually on behalf of people, or a person - specifically, those taking part in such an activity, i.e. the player(s).

What does this mean?

It means that if we want to know what the word game represents, we must study the behaviour (aswell as its application) of the player(s) taking part in such activities.

The moment you do that, it becomes obvious that there are a few basic games, from which all others are derived, (in isolation or combination):

A race - (e.g. snakes and ladders etc.).

Structured combat - (e.g. chess/draughts/tug of war etc.).

Competitive throwing/movement for accuracy/precision, distance or duration.
(Such games rarely exist in isolation, except in their most basic form - (e.g. high/long jumps, javelin throwing, weightlifting etc., and are most often used in combination with those above - (such as dice in snakes and ladders, or for the game of darts, etc.)).

That these are the basic games should NOT be surprising at all, given the nature of the original Olympic games and the Highland games etc.. The only real surprise, should be that it took us so long, (in the English language at least), to come up with a specific word to represent such a thing! (After, and now, using the word gambling to cover what it previously represented, instead, with the word game as a verb still being used in relation to such a thing).

(Note: structured combat is the only one that requires ANY interaction between players/competitors in its most basic form. (Yes, I know it's probably not the best description, but I've yet to think of anything better.)

Without a player, a game, (as an activity), does not exist - they do not exist until they are played/taken part in. That we call things, games, that can be (or are intended to be) used to enable such an activity to exist, is neither here nor there, since that is derived from the former definition, itself, and inconsistently applied. (We do not call many individual objects games, even though they can be used to enable them as easily as many other things that are).

Sport != game

A sport is any competitive (usually physical) activity - (including some competitions) - that has a strict degree of regulation governing its rules, (and often its presence), usually at national, (if not international) level, and usually incorporating some organisation or association responsible for such governance.

Whether or not something is a sport, often has little to do with the activity itself, (apart from being competitive and usually involving some physical action), but the regulation and support surrounding it.

Which is why being a game or a competition means nothing for it being a sport - (though most sports are either games or competitions).

Also note that games are obviously played (verb) for work (noun), - (we're paying people to take part in (the Olympic) games as we speak) - meaning that there is no link between the nouns and verbs of such words in this context. (I also play a musical instrument for work, so it's not like it's a unique relationship).

Types of games are defined by ONE thing:

1) What the players DO - (the types of stories that are written.)

(Which is why we have shoot'em'ups and beat'em'ups etc. for computer games.)

They are also perceived and LABELLED by another thing:

The medium (objects, when applicable to enable the written story) used - such as a board, or dice, or a computer. But computers, boards and dice etc., are not required for games to exist, which is why they do not define them.

Perceiving any activity purely as and by the medium used is therefore a problem, and is one reason why we're having trouble recognising and understanding puzzles and competitions in relation to games - just because we're using computers - (which can be used to enable a wide range of behaviour, far beyond just that of the word game, itself).

Our language uses, and all words therefore exist, within a taxonomic hierarchy. Failing to recognise and use such a thing, when recognising and understanding individual words, and then describing what they represent, would be inconsistent with how the language functions.

As I said:

The basic taxonomic hierarchy is simple:

Application of things that happen -> event -> activity -> game/art/puzzle/(a) competition.

Our language exists for a reason - if people are not prepared to use in a manner consistent with that reason, then of course we'll have problems...

The language exists to describe the word game for what it represents according to its use and the rules that govern such use - the only reason I use the word story, instead of a person/entity, is because the effects of this NOT happening, has affected our perception and understanding of a GROUP of words, not just this individual word, (game), in itself.

As I said, the word game represents an application of behaviour - the word story represents an objective representation of a person/entity by which such behaviour can then be described.

If you do not see the value in that, then you're not recognising and understanding the problems we have.

Darcy Nelson
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Stopped reading this retort as soon as I saw this "Solitaire rarely involves a written story at all, which is why it cannot be defined or labelled as a game. "

Soooo tired of these semantics arguments.

Klaude Thomas
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Your observations contain a lot of moving parts and I'd like to cogitate more on some of them. However, it is clear your list of basic games needs work. Is area-control a 'race' or a 'structured combat'? If area-control is a race, then why isn't materiel-dominance a race? If both are structured combat, then can you explain how area-control and materiel-dominance are identical? Where does Roshambo fit in? What about randomisation and betting? Isn't movement for distance or duration really about force and stamina, in which case why are tugs of war in structured-combat? Isn't a tug-of-war a race using force and stamina?

Also, do you understand/agree-with/disagree-with the dfference between arbitrary and non-arbitrary axioms? I considered your notion of games as behaviour. How do you deal with inert elements (e.g. the board in Chess), robotic elements (e.g. the card-flip in Dune), and random elements (e.g. throws of the dice)? Is your redefinition of 'story' really 'some events'? If so, how is it helpful?

Games are better described as systems, rather than information. A game system contains and produces information. Players access the system. Sometimes not all of it. Some parts their behaviour does not affect. Other parts their behaviour defines and controls. I feel like your behaviour-based definition is okayish, but leaves out much of what is structurally a game and how that dictates (contains) all the possible behaviours within it. By taking a behavioural approach, you risk producing a demagogic definition. You're limited to perception of games, and perceptions of play, rather than considering the game as machine. That's not to say player participation isn't vital to understanding, but it cannot yield a complete picture.

Actually, we're probably arguing at entirely different levels of understanding. The 'it's all stories' approach either doesn't work for me or maybe I use the words in a way that is very far from your meaning. Whichever, I don't see this argument advancing. Sorry :(


What are games for?

Darren Tomlyn
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Solitaire is based upon a story that is TOLD, per the rules of the activity, ultimately by the random draw of a pack of cards. You then need to interact with this, in order to gain a specific solution, again, as per the rules.

If that was all that it involved, then it would only EVER be a puzzle. But it's not.


Because a solution does not always exist/is possible.

Because of that, the basic behaviour Solitaire enables is to interact with a story being told to be told whether or not such a solution is, indeed, possible - which is a competition - (competing (in any manner) to be told whether or not you have won or lost).

The ONLY way in which this can involve a WRITTEN story, is if the person interacting with the cards - (the story being told) - subjectively perceives that their actions have determined whether or not such a solution even exits in the first place - which can only truly happen if multiple outcomes and solutions are possible, when taking part in one specific instance of such an activity.

Since this is subjective, and inconsistent, it has no place in the activity's definition, even if it is possible, (though rare).

Solitaire is only consistently a competition, which is therefore how it must be defined.


You haven't read my blog yet, have you?

A race is basic game in which people compete to gain (or try and gain) a particular position or state, for themselves, before someone/thing else, whilst obeying a consistent set of rules about how/when/where to do so.

Tug of war is not a race. It involves combat - (as does roshambo (rock/paper/scissors)) - a player competing by interacting with another, again, based on a set of rules, in order to gain a specific advantage or stop the other from continuing, (often) by and for themselves, though this time involving doing something to someone else. Tug of war is NOT about duration - you do not win simply by holding the rope for a certain amount of time, or longer than anyone else... (Such as in weightlifting.)

Tug of war is about competing by interacting with your competitors to force them to a specific position/state. The difference between that and a race, should be obvious, based on the different people involved?

Roshambo is a very simple, limited game, involving combat - trying to gain a specific advantage over a competitor by making a specific choice. Since the outcome of such choice does not exist until it is played, it is not a puzzle. Since the choice each competitor makes is what matters, it's only a competition if one competitor gains an advantage, (knows what the other will choose/has chosen), before the other.

Combat is really the only term I can think of that describes the behaviour of 'interactive competition' (usually directly). Races, and competitive throwing/movement etc. do not require such interaction between competitors, which can merely form part of an individual game's subjective application.


A board etc. is merely the setting: all events - (things that happen) - require a setting (a time and space) in order to exist, which is implied in its (events) presence and meaning.

Playing pieces etc. are just objects a player can use to write a story with, as a condition of any media being used, in their stead, and are optional, depending on a game's subjective application - (the most basic games only require the player(s) themselves).

Do you understand and recognise the difference and relationship between a medium and a playing piece? And also recognise and understand why both are completely optional and do not define a game for what it is - (though both can be used to label games).

(Dice are often used as an additional medium, in combination with others (board/playing-cards etc..))

Games of chance/skill, real-time/turn/phase-based, single/multi-player (co-operative/competitive) are the basic ways in which games can be applied and exist.


The word game is used to represent an application of things that happen (behaviour). They represent an application of what words used as verbs, represent:

Competition / compete
Flight / fly
Movement / move
Speech / speak
Action or activity / act.

Therefore the concept they represent does NOT exist in isolation within the language itself, and has to be described as such.

Applications of things that happen is the MOST basic concept possible that the word game consistently exists within - (unless you take every word and piece of information as being purely a 'thing', which isn't useful at all for this purpose).

The main reason we're having problems understanding games in relation to everything else/the rest of the language is that this particular concept isn't being recognised and understood to exist and then be used, (and then taught and informed to people).

The only problem with this description, is that it is not really precise enough - just like describing a table purely as a 'thing' would not be precise enough, either.

But this is why words in the English language exist in a taxonomic hierarchy - we can steadily describe words in more specific or general ways by moving up and down the hierarchy, until we reach a level which is most consistent with the word we're interested in, and maybe sideways (horizontally) to find words that might be more suitable.

Trying to describe ANY AND ALL words without using or understanding their place within the hierarchy is NOT POSSIBLE - which is why we're having problems for the words game, art, puzzle etc..

This is the mistake you are making with your perception and description of the word game itself. You wouldn't describe the word table in general without using the word furniture, would you? Describing the word game without using the word activity is just as bad.

Thing->tangible thing->object->furniture->table
Application of behaviour->event->activity->game

That a game can be perceived as a system, is neither here nor there for its definition and presence, merely being a side-effect of what it is - (any structured activity/behaviour, (regardless of who or what is behaving), can be seen to be a system).

Until games REQUIRE more elements to exist, other than a player, a setting (whether created or not), and a set of rules, (however basic, which are created), and do not involve a written story, no other perception, definition and understanding of games, will every be fully consistent, and therefore accurate.

Which is why we have problems...

A story is an intangible thing that a person/entity can be perceived to have. (A form/arrangement of information of any/all events/things that happen, they perceive and/or create, stored within their memory).

I am using it as an objective representation of a person/entity, by which their behaviour can be described in relation to, also in an objective manner, because they way we currently describe and perceive people/entities tends to be too subjective or specific (we/me/them/you/us etc.) for words such as game, which do not have to be used in combination with such entities, unlike words used as verbs.

Leaving out such a person/entity that is behaving in their descriptions, is also a large reason we're having problems understanding these words for what they are, either in isolation and/or in relation to each other, and the concept they belong to/represent.

As I said - if you do not understand the value of having an objective representation of a person/entity, by which such words can be described and understood, then you fail to understand the nature of the problems we have.


Games are 'for' anything we want them to be, that is consistent with what the word represents. Since they are played for work OR play, they can be used for training, selection, or entertainment purposes.

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Keith Burgun
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Generally this is a fine article for introduction to some very basic concepts in game design. I particularly liked your bit about how randomness really doesn't make for very interesting decisions, which is something that I feel like a lot of people have trouble with.

On the topic of Dwarf Fortress, though: It is an exception because *it is not a game*, it is a simulator/toy/bare interactive system. It, unlike games, has absolutely no responsibility to deliver ambiguous decision-making. It does not have a win/loss condition. It is a markedly different kind of system than the ones you've been talking about.

Less importantly, Dwarf Fortress isn't a roguelike, but whatever.

Jon Shafer
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Don't get me wrong, randomness very much has its place. The trick is incorporating it in a way that players accept and can have fun with. I don't think anyone would argue that the Civ games would be better with fixed maps. Ultimately, the randomness is a key ingredient that helps make them so fun and addictive. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, for us designers!) there's no rule you could come up with for how much or what type of randomness is 'appropriate' - everyone has different preferences and something that I would find distasteful can still easily claim a massive number of fans. The randomness of the loot drop in games like Diablo and WoW are great examples... if you're curious, I dig into this topic more deeply in my recent article on Luck:

The line between game, simulation and toy is an extemely fuzzy one. I don't really think distinguishing between them is meaningful (unless you're paid to be a market researcher or something). I prefer simply analyzing what people find fun in all forms of "electronic entertainment," and applying any useful lessons I uncover along the way in my own work.

Oh, and JUST for the record: Wikipedia calls Dwarf Fortress a roguelike, so that means it is. ;) In any case, my point was simply to note its sheer randomness and brutality (a characteristic shared by all roguelikes), and how even that style of gameplay appeals to a significant audience. I don't think anyone could convince me that loot-chasing involves much strategy though!

- Jon

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Klaude Thomas
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Toys don't present opposition, until they become games.

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Klaude Thomas
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The line between games and simulators is a blurry one. I would call a simulator that includes objectives and presents opposition a game.

Brent Gulanowski
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This reply is so late it may be useless. But I think it's important to disagree with the idea that games and simulators are on some kind of spectrum, and that the distinction between them can be "fuzzy".

A simulator is a machine with imitates the process of another machine or system. Games are not at all simulators, and simulators are not at all games. However, many digital games use simulators as part of their programming. A physics simulator simulates forces and collisions; it does not, in itself, represent a game. An AI simulates an opponent, or characters.

Most importantly, a game engine simulates the referee or game "enforcer" (as per Jesse Schell) - it isn't the game. It is a part of the game the restricts the actions of the player(s) to conform to the rules, but the rules themselves are the game, NOT the simulator/enforcer.

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Darcy Nelson
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Fun article! Really made me think. :)