What is game?

I have realized, as I read back over what I have written over the last few days, that I have been a little fast and loose with some definitions from the various research I have been doing of late. In my attempt to get some daily writing out, I have been neglecting to say were within each book I have cited things and what changes I’ve made to certain terms in order that they fit into what I was talking about. This post then will serve as a way to figure out not only a working definition of what a “game” is but attempt to have a working framework for a definition of “play” as well from two books.

I started my readings with Homo Ludens. Michael Abbott recommends it on his site and, since I like what he writes and thinks about, I thought it would be the best place to start. To that end, I was kinda right. It was written in 1938 in Dutch but made it way to English in 1955. It is, as far as I can tell, one of the best and first books to set down what “play” is in the contemporary age. However, it is also a very academic take on classifying things and divides up his ideas about “play” and how it has influenced the advancement of civilization in many different areas of development such as law, philosophy and science. It’s a great if tough read. It was from this book that I started my own definition of what “play” might be.

Johan Huizinga sets down, within the first chapter on cultural importance, the elements that define play. Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the ideas but I am going to define them here in the way that I like to think about them.

Play is:

  • Voluntary

In order to be part of the atmosphere of the game, something that Huizinga calls the “magic circle”, you must be both consenting to the idea of the venture and have the ability to leave the “circle” whenever you want. Huizinga calls this the characteristic of freedom saying “Play can be deferred or suspended at any time. It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty”. The action to take part of the “circle” must not be coerced. You must be able to come into the circle and then leave whenever you want.

  • Separate

Huizinga takes great care to to divide the delineation between what is “in game” and what is not. He calls games “temporary worlds within the ordinary world”. They are the adoption some new rules of behavior, interaction and motivation that supersede whatever was previously part of the experiences of reality. This comes from pushing the idea of a “suspension of disbelief” from the fiction creation side, the indulgence of a “fictional dream“. It is what performers use in the execution of their craft, the adoption of a persona within the framework of the experience. Within visual media, there is a ‘fourth wall’ between the performance and the participants. For games, this barrier is the “magic circle” concept that Huizinga uses.

  • Finite

Key to the definition of the separation between the “game world” and reality is that that the game is “temporary”. The use of a session of play has a finite limit at which point the ‘bubble’ that is created by the use of the new rule and behavior set is extinguished. This finite characteristic, limited in both “locality and duration”, allows the player to participate in something new but definitive. The journey through the experience has a time limit and can be “played out” once the goal or other limiting fact has been reached.

If we use these three aspects of play — that it is voluntary, separate and finite — we get a very workable definition of “play”. But part of the definition of a “game” is one in which “rules” exist to define and shape the “temporary world” that the game exists within and is experienced through. Huizinga doesn’t define rules and states just the following “All play has rules”. He is not bothered to state what might make up a rule set or help to define any pattern among them. For that, we turn to Bernald Suits and Grasshopper.

I’ve been writing in part about his work, Suits’, in my recent posts, but have not yet stated what Suits has said is his own definition of what play is, so here it is:

“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only the means permitted by the rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. (Author’s inclusions)”

Notice the emphasis on “rules” by defining, at least in part, that they provide means by which the goal can be achieved but only via means that are less efficient. Suits’ “more portable version” — his own words — is that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. The way the game may present such “obstacles” is a purposely constructed method of interaction. That intention is what leads to development of game-play, the act of subsequent definition of the elements of game-play.

Huizinga says that the primary element of play is the idea of “tension”: the battle between the uncertainty of the outcome and some input, the battle between players, and the battle toward the goal via the means. Each game has a degree of randomness, the introduction of an uncertainty, that allows the emergence of styles of play and the “testing of a player’s… spiritual powers  — his ‘fairness'”. The ability to stay within the “rules”, the means of play, is a struggle that each player must face in order to be within the game world. For some, they end up cheating and subverting the “rules” in order to achieve the goal. This tension manifests itself most clearly in the battle among players using the rules though. When two or more player are competing, there is an obvious situation of tension between them, they are acting toward the goal, either working together or against each other.This tension also exists in any solitary games as well. This base element of tension exists throughout the experience, there is always the constant choice of both leaving the game or breaking a rule.

Now that both frameworks, which mostly overlap, have been stated, let’s see how the definition of a “game” might be created from these notes. First, I would say that a game is the result of a session that it is  voluntary, separate and finite. In other words, the act of “play” creates the “temporary world” in which a “game” exists. Second, the “rules” of play outline the structure of the “world” operates, is maintained and ultimately ends. The instancing of the experience is defined by the “rules”, the means by which ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ maneuvers within the play-space are expressed. Since it is a part of the definition of “play” that it is finite, the “rules” must express a way for the “play” to end at some point, a timer or score variable whose value determines an end-state. Third, a “game” can be recreated, via its rule-set, for an additional, although not necessarily same, experience for players at a later time. Let me express this in a cleaner format.

A game:

  • Exists during a play session
  • Uses “rules” as its definition
  • Can be replicated in some form

I want to make it very clear though that is the a working framework from my current readings. If nothing else, is is derived from the work of both Johan Huizinga and Bernard Suits and reflects, in part, some of their ideas. I think it works for the general idea of what “play” and “game” might mean but is by no means a complete definition. In fact, might have to break out parts of this for future essays. That might be something to look forward to.