Saturday, March 27, 2010

Versus Series 4: Games vs. Play

In one of his posts, Remy77077 pointed me to Chris Bateman's blog, particularly to a post about what Bateman terms "Agon."  Bateman's musings about agon and other dynamics in play are fairly interesting, but reading him reminded me of a tendency in this budding school of game-making theory to conflate "play" with "games," as if the words were interchangeable.  I think there are some crucial differences between the two ideas, and I hope clarifying those differences will go a long way in better explaining how I view the world of games and play.

The idea of "play" is one that captures two key elements: participation and imagination.  Play involves activities that are designed to reward the participants.  Playful activities care little if at all about outside spectators.  At the same time, play relies on the imagination of its participants.  At the heart of play lies a conceit, or many conceits, that the participants will have to accept in order to participate properly.

The first element differentiates play from such things as watching a movie or reading a book.  While "watching" or "reading" may be considered activities, the initial activity in the creation of the movie or book was done with the eventual spectator in mind.

The second element differentiates play from business enterprises and town hall meetings.  While some of you cheekier readers might comment that money and democracy are essentially imaginary, we'll hold on to the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief  here.  We'll say that participants in a playful activity will understand that the conceit is indeed untrue, but are willing to ignore that fact.

You might be noticing that games could fall easily within this definition, and that's because they do.  Games are a subset of play.  More specifically, they are a subset of structured play.  Play does not require structure.  An activity that centers on imaginary propositions can rightly be called play.  This is not true for games.

As I said in The definition of a game, games are composed of four parts: goals, progression, obstacles, and strategies.  Without all four, you might have a playful activity (fun, even!), but you don't have a game.

Some things that are true for play is not true for games, and of course vice versa.  Bateman's post about agon starts to get confused when he starts talking about "one versus many" agon.  Bateman's apparent failure to understand that video games support many forms of play (not just games), I believe is partly to blame for this.  "Play" does not require challenge, but the idea of agon will always be at the heart of any game.  While I can understand the differentiation between the "Hard" and "Easy" agon, the appeal of video games like Hulk or GTA is much better expressed simply through the ilinx dynamic than performing the mental contortions necessary to justify it through their agonistic properties.

Not all video games are games.  The term "video game" is a rough designator, not a theoretical term.  When we are talking about theories of games and play, we need to keep in mind the difference between them so as not to confuse our interlocutors or, more importantly, ourselves.


Remy77077 said...

I think this precision is very useful in this discussion, where the semantics are very unclear and ill-defined in the 'general' sense. I am quite sure Chris Bateman does not start with the same definition of a game as you at all; his take is very much from the starting position of 'all things we currently consider as videogames' and does not attempt to make the distinctions you do.

Are you dismissing 'easy agon' though as 'not a game'?

Ferguson said...

As I understand Bateman's distinctions, "hard agon" emphasizes the competition while "easy agon" downplays the competitive aspect. Again, Bateman here is talking about 'play' in general, so you could have "hard agon" and "easy agon" in any form of play, game or not game.

I see no reason to limit games to "hard agon," just as I see no reason to limit "agon" to "games." My definition of games is specific, but it is quite flexible within those parameters.

The only real issue I have with those designators is that they fail to capture the subjectivity of the play experience. Essentially, I believe it is up to the players, not the game or play, to decide whether to be in a mindset of hard agon or easy agon. While Mario Party might be engineered for a fun family experience, there's nothing to stop hardcore gamers from organizing Mario Party tournaments or sling out the trash-talk like they were playing Halo or MW2. Any game will support a wide spectrum of competitiveness, so I'm not sure we'd be able to label any specific video game as hard or easy agon--at best we could describe the type of agon it appears to be catering to.

Remy77077 said...

Thanks for the clarification, in that case then (as seems to be common!) - I completely agree with you.

I find also that the players may not even be in such direct control of that subjective experience. In single player gated games for example, a new player or someone of a low skill at a particular game might be getting "hard agon" out of just trying to pass the first level, or to actually use the controls. Whereas someone very experienced at that game or even just the genre, may find it trivially easy and be receiving no challenge at all.

I find my tastes are definitely towards 'true agon'; the way this affects my game taste is noticeable.

Ferguson said...

Yes, my previous comment was poorly phrased. There are many aspects of our subjective experience we have no control over.

So like you said, two players could approach a game with wildly different capacities to play it, and that would be part of the subjective experience. No game is objectively "difficult" just like no game is objectively "easy." It depends on the player's previous experience with games.