What’s in a game?

Several game developers have put forth their definitions of the word game. The one that’s always stuck out in my mind (for no particular reason, since I’ve never really found it sufficient) is Sid Meier‘s, “a series of interesting choices.” You can find some others here.

I have a definition of my own: a game is a toy whose user is presented with goals in the toy’s manipulation.

Okay, then, so what’s a toy? I say that a toy is any system with variables that can be manipulated.

Yes, I know: if you accept these definitions, then life and the universe are both toys. (Well, or games — but that’s a question for personal ideology.) So what? That doesn’t sound incorrect to me at all. I see almost everything as being a toy, in some way or other.

Where, then, does that leave Drinking With God? Is it a game?

By the above definitions, not really. Yes, when you’re playing there are variables that you can manipulate, but you aren’t presented with any goals. You’re free to guide Violet in her interactions in any way that you wish, with no particular encouragement to go in any one direction. But you aren’t presented with any explicit goals.

Nonetheless, I still call it a game, even though I know that it isn’t. Why? Well, first of all, there isn’t a reason not to. There’s plenty of precedent in using the word “game” to describe things that are actually software toys, like SimCity, The Sims, Spore, and possibly event some titles not developed by Maxis.

But the main reason I call it a game is pretty similar to the reason that Chris Crawford refuses to describe his interactive storytelling work as a game — market perceptions. (And I wish I could find a URL to cite in support of this, but you’re just going to have to trust my creaky memory. Apologies if I’ve got this all wrong.) His feeling is that the word “game” is associated in people’s minds with interactive systems that involve the manipulation of things rather than interaction with people, that focus on flash and pizazz rather than depth and emotional substance. Whether or not this is true of all games, or has to be true of all games, isn’t relevant — this (he claims) is simply how people have come to think of video games and computer games today, and so to appeal to the people who want more than that, who want narrative depth and real emotions, we need to leave the word “game” behind as a misleading distraction.

The definitions I provided above should tell you how I feel about that. If as many things are games as can fit into the scope of that definition, then thinking about games in disparaging terms doesn’t make sense at all. The whole universe might be a game. Do you hate the universe? (Don’t answer that.)

Of course, it was market perceptions of the word “game” that he was talking about, and the world as a whole probably doesn’t subscribe to my definition or my opinion — after all, how often do you hear the phrase “just a game” bandied about?

In my next post, I’ll continue assembling my thoughts on why I feel “game” is still the best way to describe Bleating Sheep Theater, even though it isn’t one. Check back here next week!

Thanks to my sister Frumie for unwittingly inspiring this post!