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What's in a Game?

Devin Wilson talks about the future of "games": finite games, infinite games, games, Games, non-Games, game designers, Game Designers, the game of Game Design, and the game of defining Games.

Devin Wilson

April 11, 2013

13 Min Read

Playing the Infinite Game

I didn’t have the opportunity to attend GDC 2013, but the story coming out of it, as Leigh Alexander suggested, was that the good guys are finally winning. I think this is true in a lot of important ways, and it’s indescribably encouraging!

Violent, big-budget games simply aren’t cool anymore. At least, not among the people who I think are cool and not to the extent that they’d been accepted to be cool in the past. The overwhelming success of Cart Life, Journey, and The Walking Dead is hard not to take as a wonderful sign of the changing culture of games. Cart Life explores subject matter that is normally not the focus of our medium, Journey is an incredible achievement of presentation and minimalistic online multiplayer, and The Walking Dead–while certainly a zombie game with its share of gore–is mostly about talking to people and making emotionally difficult commitments.

And these examples only account for the most visible indicators of change. There’s an incredible community of brilliant artists and critics eager to be part of the next generation of games. To be sure, the good guys are winning.

But the good guys haven’t won, and the good guys will never win. And I’m not being pessimistic! This is simply because culture is not something to reign victorious over. Not game culture, not American culture, not Francophone culture, not sewing culture, not any culture. Culture is something that evolves and is formed over time, hopefully for the betterment of all involved... but it’s never static. It never halts to allow for an uncontested champion.

Culture is not a game, at least not in the colloquial sense of the word. If it is a game, it is an infinite game, to refer to James Carse’s fascinating book Finite and Infinite Games. However, the kind of games that we’re all concerned with as we tinker away at our computers and sketchbooks are decidedly finite. Other games are finite, too, and these finite games exist in a wide variety of settings. At some point, almost anything can be called a game. Reading a book can be a game played in effort to understand the text. Eating an apple can be a game played to enjoy its sweetness and nourish one’s body. Political action can be a game played to affect policies and opinions.

But, for better or worse, this isn’t usually what we mean when we use the word “game”. We tend to mean something narrower, though something that’s still quite amorphous. And who’s to say that there’s any true meaning to the word “game” at all? Certainly there’s a wealth of theory suggesting that there is no fixed meaning to anything at all, and I think such a sentiment is very convincing.

That doesn’t mean that the effort to define Games in some formal sense is reprehensible, though. The important thing to consider is why we’re doing it.

Defining Games: The Game 

After all, if we take a broad enough perspective, even the attempt to define Games is a game as well. The rules are: to be self-consistent and to propose something that gives us sufficient and necessary conditions to define the idea. If these rules are broken, the player has failed. The result is a poor definition (and a poor definition is as good as no definition at all).

But if the rules are followed, what is the reward? A sturdy definition, but its quality and usage depends on the players, just as a traditional game can have cheaters, gloaters, and sore losers.

In the case of Raph Koster and many other intelligent folks who attempt to formalize games, I sincerely don’t think it's an attempt to shut anybody down. Of course, intention isn’t all that important if the effects are harmful.

There is a clear difference, however, between someone who is appealing to a formal definition of Games to dismiss a work of art entirely and someone who is simply trying to make useful formulations for further consideration.

The best examples of the latter I’ve seen are humble, pragmatic, and lightweight, able to be used as necessary to intelligently (and intelligibly) navigate this strange medium of ours.

But in the case of the former, this person is effectively saying, “This is not a Game and I am exclusively interested in Games, so I am not interested in this and, as such, it isn’t interesting at all.” Obviously, this would be an extremely unhealthy individual! Hopefully we’re all better-rounded than to only be interested in Games.

What's in a Game? 

So, I’m very confused about the outrage over insisting that certain things count as Games. To be that invested in the label indicates to me a privileging of Games over other media forms. Why? Games are very exciting and very interesting, but they’re not the only legitimate medium. To reject other forms of media in service of desiring the Game label is disrespectful to these other media forms and their communities, and these rejections deny productive conversations about best practices, tactics, and intriguing challenges inherent to any given medium.

What’s wrong with a work being digital art or interactive fiction, without being a Game? Certainly we can call works of interactive fiction “games” to save syllables in casual conversation or characters on Twitter, but in a critical context it’s often useful to have strict parameters for what constitutes a type of thing. There may be no absolute, substantial basis for this definition, but to communicate at all we need to agree upon some rules for communication. There’s no such thing as a wholly private language, and the only way to have a functional language is to establish some functions somehow. These functions require a degree of formalism, loose as these formal definitions may be (and invariably will be). 

I’m similarly concerned with why people are so quick to appeal to narrow definitions, but from a different direction. I think there is an extremely troubling trend in our discourse to ignore games that don’t depend on a video monitor. Too often, when people say “games”, they mean “digital games”, and if we’re going to be careful about our language, we need to make sure we’re not excluding the rich history of non-digital games. 

If we ignore non-digital games, the state of Games seems even more hegemonic and commercial, given that–regrettably–games of the digital era have become more like commodities than communal pastimes. We can’t forget that games are not a decades-old medium, but a millennia-old medium.

As a result, we need a formal lens now more than ever (and we also need to recognize that there were attempts to formalize games long before the rise of digital games). A formal lens can help us discover what is redeemable about this medium we’re all so interested in. Surely there’s nothing inherent to Games that dictates that all we can do with them is ask players to kill everyone who doesn’t look like them. 

But if we don’t try to establish a strong model for what constitutes a Game, we risk unconsciously retreating to other media forms rather than wrestling our own away from those who would use it only for profit and poison. Of course, if we’re too unforgiving with our formalism, we’re bound to miss the forest for the trees more often than not. We can’t reduce our analysis to “Tetris studies”, only discussing the abstract mathematical functionality of any given work. It’s pretty much a given that any game will depend upon other media forms to give it meaning.

Making Games 

Still, Raph Koster was right to wonder if many avant garde games (as well as AAA titles) are showing a tendency towards the (relative) monologue of forms other than Games, and that this may not help us figure out what to do with Games as an expressive medium in and of themselves. I’m guilty of this monologic trend myself, and it’s something I’m trying to overcome as a Game Designer.

I do take some pride in the fact that I can call myself a Game Designer and not feel like a liar. However, I also feel like a number of the “games” I’ve made aren’t Games (or even Puzzles, which can be considered their own form as well). I’m fine with that! To me, it’s not exclusively symptomatic of an unquestionably fascistic game culture. Certainly the popular notion of what constitutes a “game” (or, worse, a “gamer”) is far too restrictive, but that doesn’t mean that an academic examination of the form is irresponsible or abhorrent.

If I were to describe my one Twine effort as a “game”, I would do so fairly casually. If someone looked closely at it and said “well, this isn’t really much of a Game, per se”, I probably couldn’t disagree. It’s a piece of hypertext fiction. That form has its own qualities and deserves respect, so my work within that form doesn’t need to count as a Game for me to feel fulfilled as an artist.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to feel fulfilled as a Game Designer, though. In my opinion, formal definitions of Games set up explicit rules for the game of Game Design (and what an interesting game it is!). When I wrote my Twine piece, I wasn’t playing Game Design especially well, if at all (not that one can’t play Game Design using Twine). I was playing another game: Hypertext Fiction Writing. My goal was to have the audience navigate through passages of English words and sentences. Game Design typically has different goals from that, and having a lucid framework for what types of goals we can aim towards to be successful Game Designers is very helpful, in my mind. Otherwise, there’s a lot of unnecessary struggling.

Not being a successful Game Designer is only a problem if you want to be a successful Game Designer and are not that. I want to be a successful (as in, effective) Game Designer, but I can only do so if I know the rules of Game Design. How can one succeed if there are not parameters for both success and failure? The penalty for failure should not be dismissal, but simply–upon strict analysis–recategorization into something more fitting than the title of Game. This is only a problem if we have already assumed that Games are absolutely better than other forms.

Obviously, games are a very influential medium. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t argue so passionately about them! I understand and am subject to the impulse to use the medium to enlighten people rather than perpetuate violent, sexist, and otherwise unhealthy attitudes (like they often do).

So I understand the anxiety over having one’s work being included in the category of Games, because it definitely helps for gaining an audience and–frankly–many of us are very fond of games. Interactive fiction has been pretty niche for a while, and if you don’t want to be relegated to something less popular, that’s understandable. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore which creative game you’re playing as an artist, and it doesn’t make sense to insist upon which game you’re playing without appealing to some sort of formal definition. We can’t play games without learning the rules. This isn’t to say that there’s one correct way to paint or sing; it’s simply to say that you can’t use a paintbrush to sing (unless we’re being metaphorical). The rules may not be completely understood beforehand, but the attempt to identify the implicit rules at play (like trying to discern the fine-tuning of a competitive computer game) is not an unjust endeavor.

Making Non-Games

I think the studio Tale of Tales makes for an important precedent. They clearly investigate the formal qualities of their work and related media, and they’ve explicitly said in the past that they attempt not to make Games, but something else (realtime art, notgames, etc). They’ve been making art that’s peripheral to the medium of “games” for years now, and they’ve received critical acclaim from “games” people for doing so. They’ve definitely had an influence on Games, even if they weren’t making them.

Clearly the boundaries between creative communities are porous, unless we insist that they’re not and guard the borders with machine guns. Some people do that, but I see Raph Koster as unarmed and peaceful. Gripping definitions too tightly leads only to negativity, but we need not take a completely hands-off approach. We both can theorize about our practice and welcome all practitioners to experiment.

We should strive for interdisciplinarity (which is hard not to achieve in Games), but also not utterly dismiss any efforts towards intradisciplinarity. To completely destroy all distinctions just isn’t practical, even if the understanding behind such a gesture may be very wise. Unfortunately, that gesture suggests that there’s no useful knowledge to develop within Games (as there would be no Games category at all), and it tacitly refuses to recognize knowledge from outside of Games (knowledge that might be more applicable to the practice in question!).

We can’t get too carried away with fantasies of utter chaos. At the end of the day, most people find having a separate identity from everyone else pretty useful for everyday activities. The same is true for ideas. We can all be united without living in the same studio apartment, and we can all make incredible art without all being Game Designers. To be a Game Designer means to play the game of Game Design (which, as a game, needs rules), and that still allows for game designers and other artists to make games that are not Games. (The previous sentence makes sense, I swear!)

Respecting and Developing Games

It’s hard to say with absolute certainty what constitutes a game, and we shouldn’t be too anxious to go to war over it. The easiest solution is to take a cue from James Carse and call nearly everything a game. However, the attempts to analyze what makes digital, tabletop, and athletic games tick are often revelatory and productive. That doesn’t mean that a work of interactive art can’t be called a “game”. It just means that it won’t fall under the category of Games when we look at things closely, and that’s fine! It’s not a moral crisis, nor is it cause for alarm if a non-Game gets called a “game”. We can have multiple levels of meaning, a perspective we’re familiar with in games already: a king in chess is just a carved piece of wood that may be manipulated freely or chewed on by pets, but it’s also something that positively may not move more than one square at a time. This isn’t a contradiction; it’s simply two different domains, and as long as we’re not kicking people’s game boards over while they’re in the middle of playing, there should be no problems about what means what.

A work of art need not be a Game to merit attention or admiration, unless we’re assuming that only Games merit attention and admiration (an assumption that can go unchecked in these discussions). What we might call Games can often learn a lot from what falls outside of that classification. As Game Designers, we can and must learn important values from non-Game games. We’ll owe those game designers (writers, painters, filmmakers, etc) a debt of gratitude as we play our creative games (of which Game Design is only one), and the infinite game of culture will be better for it. Otherwise, games and culture both become stagnant, and that’s something that no party in this debate wants.

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