The powerful nature of games.

by anbrewk

First, the idea that games have a ‘nature’ requires some kind of explication which I am totally unprepared to do.  However short-sighted my title may be, I’m am excited enough about games as to consider that ‘game’ is some kind of limiting concept that not everything falls into and in this very liberal sense, I think games have a nature that other things don’t have.  Essentially I am saying there are things that are games and there are things that are not games and that the things that are games are of the same kind, despite perhaps appearing different. In this limited sense I’m saying they have a ‘nature’ – something that ties them together as being the same kind. Before I continue with what I know is going to be a feeble attempt to describe what strikes me as the nature of games, allow me to direct you to another post on another blog that does a really nice job talking about games. Now that you have that, I feel less bad about what I am going to write and what you’re going to end up reading.

I don’t really want to set out to define games so I don’t know why I started with such an epic opening paragraph. And I don’t even like the term ‘nature.’ It’s so messy and normative. But I’m going to leave that paragraph up anyway and continue on just like we were talking. All I really want to do is talk about games. I want to express my enthusiasm for play and gaming and maybe organize the thoughts I’m having in my head.  I think I’ll start by saying that play and games are different.  While play may be described as a  joyous expression, games are structured events.  If play was an ephemeral moment of joy, a game would be a mechanism to capture that moment.  Though maybe not all games. War games are not about joy, they are about practice and training. Play amongst predatory animals is closer to war games than hopscotch and hopscotch isn’t much of a game at all.  But let’s not worry ourselves with answering the questions these examples seem to bring up. Let’s worry ourselves with thinking of examples and then maybe try to sort them. I don’t want to solve anything here. I just want to talk about games and then maybe make a couple helpful distinctions here and there.

I said that hopscotch isn’t much of a game. I think hopscotch could be considered a game but it’s not what I want to consider a game.  If we consider it a game, then it’s a game of  physical skill (and not much skill at that) where the player throws their marker in a sequential sequence, beginning with 1, and then hops through the squares avoiding it only to throw it on the square marked 2 and so on.  Because hopscotch requires no decision making, I don’t want to define it as a game. I want to define games based on the amount of decision making one makes. I think the key to a game is how many meaningful decisions a player is open to make on a given turn or in a given game.  Games of physical skill, like hopscotch are less like games than they are physical activities because the player does little more than exercise physical prowess where as I think games are much more mental activities. A game, I think, is a mental exercise.  Now that’s quite the statement and I’m not sure if it’s a fair one to make.  I may be suggesting that the physical aspects of games, in themselves, only contribute to the game in so far as they are extensions of decisions being made.  If a sport is a game, it is because a player makes a decision out of a number of meaningful options and then, depending on that players physical skill, executes that decision.  Arguably, the skill of a player in a sport depends not only on that player’s physical ability but his or her ability to make intelligent decisions which he or she is then able to carry out.

There are two things of particular significance that I would like to single out. One is the inclusion of decision making as a necessary condition and the second is the concept of ‘meaningful’ decision making.  Before defending why I would say decision making is necessary, I’ll try to give a brief account of what I would consider to be a meaningful decision.  In Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life, one has a few decisions to make and none of them are meaningful. You get to choose the color of your car, whether you are going to be playing with a blue peg or a pink peg, whether you’re going to college or not, whether you get married to a blue peg or a pink peg, and, on a few occasions, if you buy insurance.   The only decisions of consequence in regards to the win condition of the game are if you go to college or not (if you don’t, you just don’t get as much money and lose) and if you buy insurance (never buy insurance). Neither of those decisions are particularly meaningful because they aren’t real decisions.   Anyone who knows the game is familiar that either not going to college or buying insurance only increases your chances of losing so no one familiar with the game would choose them. And even if you did choose them,  in the case of insurance, its liable to do nothing but be a waste of money while not going to college will just prove to be a perpetual mistake as you continually make less money than your ‘college-educated’ peers.  As a side note, what a depressing game.   The limited decisions in The Game of Life make it less of a game and more of an activity of chance: let’s turn the wheel and see what happens next!  Like a re-skinned Candy Land, a player merely moves his or her piece and sees what happens until the game is over. The Game of Life as it is ought to be renamed The Activity of Life.

I think what The Game of Life is missing is a structure of game play that gives a player the opportunity to make choices that have a real effect on the outcome of subsequent turns and ultimately the outcome of the game.  If the player’s win condition is to make the most money, then the player ought to make decisions that have an effect on that win condition. ie. a player ought to make decisions that either gain or cost him or her money so that in the end, a player wins because of his or her choices and not because of arbitrary choices whose outcome are determined through random chance. Choices like what color your playing piece don’t mean anything in so far as they don’t have any effect on the win condition.  Choices that effect game play by limiting or expanding further choices, allowing for multiple paths to victory, or affecting the other players, are all potentially meaningful choices and so would make what was an activity into a game. The assumption here then is that these are conditions that in order to be accommodated would require a complete restructuring of what was previously an activity.   I think that that is some kind of indication that in order for something to be a game, it must be of some fundamental kind – it must possess some kind of structure that allows for the kinds of meaningful decisions I am proposing are necessary.

Alright, well if that is at all convincing then perhaps we are onto making some kind of picture out of the mess of ideas in my head.  As for the rest of it, it will have to wait until later.