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Yung Sing Lim, Blogger

May 12, 2010

9 Min Read

What is the game? In my last note, I wrote about how games are systems. A quick definition from the Wikipedia entry writes that systems are a set of interacting or interdependent entities forming an integrated whole. They have the following characteristics of:

  • A  structure, defined by parts and their composition;

  • Behavior, which involves inputs, processing and outputs of material, energy or information;

  • Interconnectivity: the various parts of a system have functional as well as structural relationships between each other.

  • Functions or groups of functions

Of course by that definition, many things can be considered a system and this is interesting because we are immersed in all kinds of such systems. Some are physical, like the world we live in and some are abstract like our minds, our thought processes and our social conformities; it’s an abstract layer that exists in the background, subtly organizing us in ways we do not yet notice.  

And here’s where the question pops up; just what is the game? Are they the constructs that we interact with in our computer and consoles? The flimsy pasteboards that we pass around at poker matches? Or maybe the dynamism that exists in a real life soccer match? 

Let’s explore that last question. Soccer has been around for thousands of years in many forms and the subject to much iteration. The days of kicking rubber balls through a ring on walls have been replaced with an open field full of lines and sponsor banners along with rows of spectators, cameramen and bookies and it makes you wonder again, just what or more exactly, where is the game? 

Is the game happening in the field, or is the game happening in the stands, between the bookies, the cameramen and the spectators; and even the ones at home watching?  Are the players of the match playing the game, or just part of the show for the spectators who are betting on one side or the other, or are the spectators merely the malleable values that make up the numbers in the competition between the TV networks.

Like or not, tuning into that sports channel probably means you’ve just willingly participated in some on-going meta-game between the TV networks.

This leads us to the next question of just who is the Player? And this is probably the most compelling question because it means we have to deconstruct everything around us to find out the answer. 

At the most fundamental level, a game will always have a creator and a player. Someone shapes the system; the rules and structure of the game, and someone who engages with the system. Notice that there is no distinction between the creator and the player. They can both be different individuals and they can both also be one.

A child can create the arbitrary rules of say, blinking at every red car that passes by and then engaging herself within the rules of this game she has created. Of course, the extended rulesets are not consciously thought out; each time she fulfills the rule, she would then reward herself subconsciously with the stimulus of having performed the task correctly.  

“Someone” however may not be the most precise use of terms. Sometimes we create the games out of our own desire for a certain stimulus, and sometimes the games find us; like the reality TV shows such as Candid Camera and MTV’s Boiling Point where ‘victims’ are randomly chosen. It is in the latter that has a closer structure to that of a game; there are rules, definable challenge and best of all, a reward for being able to maintain cool throughout the entire session of the prank.

This brings up a very strong philosophical question then of what we consider a Player. Is the Player someone who consciously participates in a game, or is someone considered a Player even by unconsciously participating in the game?

The answer here may very well be the same.

Were we to go with the former definition, then this would make us very much a Player by association as we too have become aware and are conscious of the game. Our roles may differ from the Player who is making active participation but we may well have become a part of the system, like the NPCs in your everyday MMORPG.

Subscribing to the latter definition on the other hand, would mean that we may or may not very well already be Players of some game that we are not yet aware of. Hence, like it or not, we are all Players in the game.

So what is the game?

Maybe it is in the way you improve on you typing. Maybe it is how many Gamasutra articles you can write before it gets buried by someone else. Maybe it’s your boss eyeing you and evaluating you, trying to figure if that look of concentration is because of the work or the flash game he caught you playing yesterday.

Or maybe, just maybe, that game is life itself. Maybe it’s bigger than life. Maybe there’s a bigger system in place, and we’re just a cog in that system that’s also just a part of another even bigger system.

There are countless possibilities and then there are conclusions; temporal ones for the now that we live in. There’s yet to be a concrete stand on what a game is, but one thing’s for sure is that there is a system in place and we are all a part of this system. There are rules and there are challenges and there are arbitrary numbers that govern the way this system works that we have yet to fully comprehend.

Perhaps the answer lies in a different place. Perhaps it is here we must ask the last and most important question: Why does this matter?

A social revolution is going on right now and the traditionalists are bearing their weight down on the social games like Farmville, citing how such games throw gamers into a Skinnerian box and trap them there to milk them dry for whatever they’re worth while the fundamentalists insist that Farmville can’t be considered a game at all. Don’t take my word for it. Just read up on the responses to Zynga’s Choice Award during the San Fran GDC and you’ll see a generational crisis in need of reform.  

Society is changing at a pace faster than what some of us might consider comfortable. If societal and technological equilibrium was a strand of rubber, the further you stretched one end, the greater the force of the rebound when the other part is let loose.  Right now, we are that other end, and we’ve already been let loose to catch up with the technology. The only question that lingers on is how to make sure we don’t spring blindly and end up hitting the metaphorical wall, one that would see us having to pick ourselves up to start all over again.

If we look history we can see it riddled with walls like these. The dotcom crash. The housing bubble. To his credit, the housing bubble was probably the last thing in Philip Gramm’s mind when he helped to enable the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.  Closer to home for those of us in video gaming circles is probably the day Atari decided to fold, paving the way to a brave new world of PC gaming and Japanese console surge. Had the American consolers foreseen the trap of the video game boom in the 80’s, we might be living in very different times so maybe this might not have been a bad thing after all.

If we look at our current situation, Zynga and the others may have done the unthinkable, using questionable methods to get their results, and likely setting us up for another wall, but their success and their presence may very well be what will spur the rest of us to genuinely take this reform seriously.

It may be what we need to jolt us out of our comfort and complacency, forcing us to become aware and hence active participants in the restructuring of our society and future. The problem is that the future is always shifting its goal post and at the very best, we can only make calculated guesses to determine if we’re headed the right way. 

The solution then, is to stop looking into crystal balls and instead start looking at mirrors. The answer isn’t in the future; it’s what we can do with the present and how much we can learn from the past. It’s time that we start taking apart our conventions and reexamining them through the lenses of today’s technology to see what holds or breaks down completely. Question and re-question everything that we know and believe in because the rules of the system has evolved.

Games like Farmville may or may not be a step in the right direction, but they are a step forwards. The question that remains is whether we want to leave the future of gaming in such hands while we continue to deny the reality of the change that is slowly creeping up on us each day. Let’s face it, social media is here to stay and likely to become an overreaching concept that will deeply integrate with our lives and that of the coming generations.

Companies like Zynga and others in the social field have taken the first steps into this new world, but they aren’t the last ones to enter the arena. How it all plays out has yet to be determined by the people who step in next. What’s left to do now is to stare hard at the screen before us, and ask ourselves if we’re ready to join the good fight and visualize these pseudo imaginary words as we contemplate our decision:

Click start to enter.

Perhaps, this is the game.

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