Saturday, March 13, 2010

The definition of a game

Even though I've briefly outlined my definition of a game before, I'd like to take the time to fully explain my vision of what a game is and what are the main components from which every game is constructed.

A game is an activity which has a goal, obstacles to that goal, ways to reach the goal (progression), and ways to overcome the obstacles (strategies).  All games have all four of these components, and anything that has all four can be rightly called a game.  Let me just put that down in outline form just to see it:

A game is:
1. a goal, and,
2. a progression, and,
3. an obstacle, and,
4. a strategy.

By nature of having a goal, a game is an activity in which participants either achieve the goal or fail to achieve the goal.  This is what I meant in Home arcades and the death of a game when I said that a game can be defined by the ability to win or lose: upon entering a game, each player knows that he or she will either a.) win, or b.) lose--there is no middle ground.  Activities that have been called games in the past that do not have clear goals are not games, in my opinion.  I also believe that the best games have ultimate goals, which means that they have goals that signal the end of the game when achieved.

The progression of a game is how the player gets from the start of the game to the ultimate goal of the game.  This is where dice come into the picture.  Progression may be mistaken as simply one component of the goal.  However, many games will share goals but will be considered different games because they have different progressions to those shared goals (e.g., the goal of all gambling games is to walk away with more money than you put in, but each game has a different way to progress to that goal).  This indicates that the goal does not suggest a progression and that we must treat the goal and the progression of a game as two separate entities.  In my experience, the best progressions act as simple and sturdy foundations that allow for great complexity once obstacles are added.

Right now I am in the midst of an obsession with obstacles.  I think obstacles are really where the zest of games is found.  Games would truly be boring with no obstacles.  When we talk about the "journey being more important than the destination," we are talking about obstacles.  The obstacles are what make things interesting.  We learn things from obstacles--things that achieving goals don't teach us.  In fact, it could be said that we don't learn anything from goals--only obstacles to those goals.  As discussed in the Obstacles vs. Annoyances post, I view an obstacle as something blocking the progression to the goal that can be neutralized with the right strategy.  I'm definitely going to be talking more about obstacles in the near future.

Finally, strategies are the complement to those magnificent obstacles.  Strategies are how humans interact with the game.  The progression can be done by a robot--it can be seen as fate, as the hum-drum boring life that we all fear.  One decent obstacle will stop it in its tracks and it will be content to stay there.  That's when human ingenuity must swoop in to save the day with a strategy.  Strategies are never told to anyone by the rules--they are the rules created by the player using the mechanics provided by the game's rules.  Exploits are a very important part of the game, especially of the expression dimension that I'll be speaking much more on in the weeks to come. 

Try to identify these components in your favorite games.  Start simple and then work your way to the most complex video game you can think of.  Keep in mind that most games are composed of smaller "games" that have their own goals, obstacles, progressions, and strategies--identify those, as well.  You'll learn a lot about games this way, and how ingenious some of our favorite games are when it comes to giving us obstacles and strategies to overcome them.

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