The Never-Ending Game: A New Category

Having finished reading Unit Operations by Ian Bogost, I can safely say that I now have loads and loads of ideas for things to write about for the next several weeks. I frequently found myself jotting down notes on who he was quoting, why he was quoting them and what I thought about it. I would then generate notes for myself on ideas to look into at a later date. At some point, I’m going to need to go through a half dozen pages of notes and pull out the things worth pursing.

Among all the note taking, I ran across the phrase of “software toys”. That is how Will Wright, creation of Sim*(s) and Spore, describes the ‘games’ that he has made. There is a whole chapter (Chapter 7) devoted to simulation and how that effects both the objects within and the perspective looking in. While there is some fascinating ideas on how that dissociation between perceiving reality and the bubble that the simulation represents, I got caught on the idea that while all games are in some way simulations, not all simulations are games.

While not quoted in any way, the ideas from The Grasshopper kept coming back to me in this context. For a book that seemingly cites hundreds of other works including video games, blogs and published books, I was a bit surprised that the idea of framing simulations as sharing qualities of games but being separate entries was not explored. After all, both require two of the increasing common ways I have begun to define games with:  means and attitude.

For a simulation to be useful it must mirror some subset of reality. It is a model for some experiment and thus must be driven by the formula and equations that govern the necessary reactions within the subspace that is created for its purpose. For this world, of which I will talk about in the next paragraph, there must be a ruling of the construct. Hence, rules. This is true of both games and simulations. Both require that the approximation have scripts for the various actors. Their exactness or detail is not important, only that they exist. Those using the simulation must understand the correctness and degree of error in using those means.

Dr. Bogost does quote Homo Ludens — of which I was both surprised and very delighted — in the section of trying to define “The Simulation Gap”. He uses the idea that Johan Huizinga popularized, games use a “magic cycle”. I written about it here quite a few times. It is the use of a paradigm that is seperate from reality, a bubble place where the means hold the ‘world’ together as the player works toward a goal.

That is where this post came from. The goal. What if the game does not have a true goal? That is, what if the acceptance of the game world is one in which there is not an end-game outcome? What if the purpose of the game is to hold you as long as possible? What if the only way to end the experience is for the player to leave the “magic cycle”? This would be the case for games like The Sims — which, when used an example, made me think about this idea. However, and more troubling, it is also the realm of games like FarmVille… and most MMOs.

If I consider that the goal of a game is that some condition is met and the play ends, then can any ‘game’ ever be classified as such if there is no end? That was the question I was left with after reading about games like The Sims. What is the goal of those games? How do they end if they continue with no fixed and defined objectives? Can they end? Is it that games that fall within the simulation sphere are often just left running as sessions and sessions built up? Are they just, as Will Wright calls them, “software toys”?

I would almost prefer that definition. I can think of playing World of Warcraft in the framework of a toy. It is something that is picked up, played with, adventures happen, but there is no real end other than when the player puts it back on the shelf. If nothing else, I could see classifying The Sims this way. Some fun is had — however you define that — but them you put it away. It is some approximation of something, it is representational. In order to play, you must adopt the  means of the experience. The situation, once the new world has been accepted, is govern by some rules. But there is not real goal, no true goal, but that which the player takes with them.

A toy can be re-purposed for the session. This time, Batman flies around the city! Barbie lives in her dream house… but has a horrible secret. The dinosaur speaks… in Latin! Just to give some examples. A toy requires that the player build goals as the play happens. Perhaps the goal is the same from session to session, but it need not be. It could change. However, the toy should not change during the experience unless the rules were voided in some way. The toy, like the world of these never-ending games, remains the same.

What if World of Warcraft was to be re-classified as a “toy”? What if FarmVille and it’s spawning progeny were? Other than branding, and probably definition confusion, would it change anything about the experience? If the “game” has no end, can it be a “game” at all? What if it wasn’t? What if it was something else entirely? What if anything that did not end, yet required the attitude and means, be lumped into some other category. How about making them just “toys”?

2 thoughts on “The Never-Ending Game: A New Category

  1. Really interesting post. You’ve got me wanting to pick up a copy of Unit Operations now. Been trying to read up on more before I start my third year in (BA) Games Studies.

    /bookmarked your blog

    1. Dan Cox

      Thank you, Lauren. It’s a bit of a vindication. I usually get blank looks when I start into the theory talk. Nice to know there are other Game Studies people out there.

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