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A Way to Better Games: Establishing Functional Theory

What will it take to make a real step forward in game design? Keith Burgun argues that we need to develop a standard by which to judge what is and what is not a game, and a way of looking at game design much like formal music theory.

Keith Burgun, Blogger

June 19, 2012

17 Min Read

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.

Current Thinking

The night What Makes a Game was published, I attended the lovely NYU Game Center for a talk given by well-known blogger and game designer Anna Anthropy (also known as Auntie Pixelante -- if you haven't read any of her work, you should certainly check out her article To the Right, Hold on Tight, which is one of her most useful and thoughtful articles, detailing the brilliant level design of Super Mario Brothers).

Her talk was essentially about how what the world of games needs is for more and more people from outside our world to come in and bring their new, fresh ideas to the table (which is also the primary topic of her new book).

According to her, our problem is that there's too much "inbreeding", too much of us talking to ourselves; we need the infusion of as many new creative minds as possible to help take us into the future.

While this is primarily a positive message, I have one problem with it. In my view, this equates to a "spray-and-pray" solution; a "do what we're already doing, but more!" solution. If five thousand more people began making video games tomorrow, but they were still all tower defense, puzzle platformers, and FarmVille clones, wouldn't that only be a bad thing?

Of course, just based on the fact that there would be such large numbers of people participating, it would be reasonable to expect that at least a few of those new games would be innovative, but it's probable that only a few would, and even those who did might not fully even understand why they were so great.

The NYU Game Center

The problem is that we don't have guidance, and Anna was not coupling her call to arms with any sort of direction; in fact, her message was almost "just make things without concern for quality or completion or what it is you're even making". This may have tremendously positive effects for individuals, and I, too, encourage everyone to make anything they feel like making. But for the state of game design in general, I think it's pointing us further in the wrong direction.

New individuals will bring new ideas and a few of those new ideas will be great ones. But actually, our problem isn't a lack of good ideas. Our problem is a lack of understanding, of theory. We don't really need another fish as much as we need to learn to fish.

I've long been of the view that we don't need more games, we need better games. If anything, we also may do well to produce fewer games. Games are, by their nature, not disposable commodities that we consume and are done with inside a month. A single game can be an activity that is a part of our life, for our entire lifetime: it can be an art form, like learning to paint or learning to play the piano. A great game should be a lifetime hobby, not a hype-fueled six month romp that ends in regret. Creating a game that is meant to be discarded inside a month is like creating a musical instrument that is meant to be discarded inside a month.

Yet there's an increasing trend of "creating more disposable games", partially due to the increased ease with which games are made due to better tools, and partially due to things like game jams and Seven Day Roguelikes and such. These things can be great for the creators themselves, in that they are great practice at the skill of "game development", but they are not generally helpful for the rest of us. Even Chris Hecker, co-founder of the Indie Game Jam, says this regarding the game jams:

"We need more depth and understanding. We don't need more wacky ideas and shallow games shipped on time."

I am concerned with the path to making better games, and saturating the market with more undirected noise will only take us further in the direction we're already going. If one wants to see what this future might look like, take a gander at the iOS App Store (or almost any other "app store", for that matter). This is what pure, raw, unbridled and undirected creation looks like. Or the 2012 IGF Pirate Kart, which was much-celebrated by Ms. Anthropy: is there even a single title out of those three hundred games that you could see yourself playing even a month from now?


It bothered me that during the talk, there was so much discussion of simply "more", without really any discussion of "how", or "for what purpose". So during the Q&A section, I asked, "don't you think that calling things like The Path and Street Fighter both 'games' makes it more difficult for us to develop any guidelines for designing such things?"

"Why would you want to develop guidelines?", she responded. "So that we can make better games?" I said. She dismissed the question entirely after that. I couldn't help but feel that there was an implication there that I had felt many times before; that my idea of "developing guidelines for better game design" was patently absurd.

To me, this is an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, anti-progress idea. No aspect of human society could have advanced to where it has come to today without first acknowledging the idea that we may be able to develop guidelines, or principles, that will help us do things better.

Music theory is my favorite parallel. In college, I was a composition major, and so I know very well how much functional music theory can help a musician create and understand music. Knowing how harmony actually works, being able to identify chord progressions, being able to write down a melody and know what it means to "develop" it, even understanding time signatures -- these are all fundamentals of music that are of tremendous help to anyone wanting to compose music.

Knowing music theory does not mean that a person will make nothing but great things. Obviously, music (like game design) is an art form, and so the best we can do is to establish guidelines and principles, not rules.

Nonetheless, we simply could not have our John Williamses, our Paul McCartneys, our Freddie Mercurys, or our Yoko Kannos without having established music theory first. Modern music is built on hundreds of years of development of the science of music.

This is what we have to do with game design, but it cannot happen until we organize our interactive systems in a way that makes sense.

Types of Interactive Systems

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.

Practical Benefits

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.

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About the Author(s)

Keith Burgun


Keith Burgun is lead designer at Dinofarm Games, creators of the iPhone game '100 Rogues'. A music major in college, he now teaches music and visual arts classes himself. He is 28 years old and lives in Westchester, NY.

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