Finding the boundaries: What is a “game”?
Ethan Ham (my son) wrote this article for First Person Scholar a while back, and I got to rereading it today and found it interesting enough to re-blog:
I have had three careers in my life: game developer, contemporary artist, and professor of both. Being a contemporary artist comes with the knowledge that a significant portion of society is hostile to what you are creating. When people outside of the insular art world view your work, there is a good chance that they think “that is not art,” even if they are polite enough not to utter it.
Lately, I have been hearing similar statements in the game world; that a given interactive fiction, or a role-playing game, or a massively multiplayer game is “not a game.” Sometimes the dismissal seems motivated by a desire to protect some cherished form of game, other times it comes from a more dryly academic desire to define and categorize.
An example of the latter can be seen in James Wallis’s argument that the experimental tabletop RPG Microscope (Robbins 2011) is a brilliant “exercise,” but not a game. In a personal communication (shared with Wallis’s kind permission), he explains:
Microscope is not a game. It’s Caillois-complete but then Caillois’s six conditions are a definition of play, not strictly of games. It’s an exercise of constrained creativity, it’s group storytelling with a structure—but not a structure that imposes anything gamey onto the experience. One player adds a bit to the story, then another player adds another bit to the story, and so on until you stop. Everything else is details. There are no winners and losers, no successes or failures, no competition or overt co-operation, no rules for resolution, no puzzles or conflict except in the very removed ‘scenes’, which none of my players have ever actually bothered with, and which contains the only thing that actually looks like a game mechanic. Microscope is a series of interesting choices, to use Sid Meier’s definition, but then so is a trip to the supermarket.
I’m not saying it isn’t fun. But after this week’s session three of my students separately made the point that it wasn’t a game. If it doesn’t look like a duck, doesn’t walk like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck it may turn out to be a cygnet, but it’s certainly not a fucking duck.
Wallis later added, “I don’t think that the fact it’s not a game matters particularly, but I think we need to draw a line somewhere, and I think Microscope is on the far side of it.”
James Wallis makes a smart and compelling argument. But he is wrong about one thing—we don’t need to draw that line. We can allow anything to be a game, and we will have better games (and better conversations about games) for doing so. The idea that anything can be art sometimes provokes a response of “if anything can be art, then nothing is art.” If the idea that anything can be a game seems categorically wrong to you, please bear with me while I make the case.
In “The Game, the Player, the World” (Juul 2003), Jesper Juul provides a nice roundup of “game definitions before proposing a new definition of his own. Juul examines his definition by seeing how it categorizes three kinds of activities: those that are generally accepted to be games, borderline cases that might or might not be considered games, and activities that are generally not thought of as games. Juul writes: . . .