Reading Notes #1

After reading Salen & Zimmerman’s taxonomy of game definitions, explain which definition(s) for game appeals to you most?

Chris Crawford and Greg Costikyan’s definitions for games appealed to me the most in terms of their scope, simplicity, and mention of important concepts.

Chris Crawford describes games through the qualities of representation, interaction, conflict, and safety. Although not explicitly definitional, he thoroughly details what constitutes a game in what I found to be an appropriately vague yet specific set of descriptions which frame games in the sense that I perceive them. To me, an important distinction when it comes to games is the aspect of being a “closed system” which Crawford describes – “complete and self-sufficient as a structure.” (77) Although each participant in a game comes in with his or her own knowledges and biases, with a set of rules, context, and limitations, a game does not require anything beyond what it comes with in order to operate as a system, no matter how complex the interactions are within it. I was also quite fascinated with how Crawford described games as creating “a subjective and deliberately simplified representation of emotional reality” – which I don’t find is always the case (what emotional reality do puzzle games like Tetris represent?), but often is depending on how you think about it, and is interesting to consider nonetheless.

While Costikyan’s definition is simple, it touches on most of the important things that define a game to me. For instance, games entail player(s) in pursuit of a goal who manage resources through “game tokens” (or “the means by which players enact their decisions”). Costikyan’s definition also includes games as a form of culture which resonated with me, as many games tend to take on a life of their own, both reflecting and generating culture.

Aside from those two definitions, the rest either failed to define “games” and instead attempt to define “play” which I think is a much vaguer concept, or included too many holes or contradictions in terms of appealing to me. For instance, Abt’s definition makes some key points about defining games, but his definition is much stronger when considering his own acknowledgment of its shortcomings on page 75.

How would you define a game in your own words?

In my own words but borrowing concepts from the definitions which appealed to me above, I would define a game as: an activity governed by a set of rules in which one or more decision-making participant(s) manages resources and contends with conflict in pursuit of a goal.

What is your opinion of Costikyan’s definition of games? Is it too broad, too narrow? Which aspects of his definition do you agree with and which do you disagree with? Are puzzles games? Is Second Life a game? What do you make of his ideas about narrative in games? And his notion of color and competition? What about his idea that games should be considered “art”?

Costikyan’s definition of games appealed to me, however I would say that it is at once too broad and too narrow. It is too broad in the sense that it does not touch upon the limitations and further details which define a game – “participants making decisions in order to manage resources in pursuit of a goal” could apply to many things aside from games – i.e. business and filmmaking. It makes no mention of rules and of the aspect of conflict, interaction, and system. It is also too narrow in defining games as a “form of art.” While I agree that games can absolutely be a form of art, is every game a form of art? In order to answer that question we need to define art and discuss intention, which is a whole other conversation.

In “I Have No Words & I Must Design,” however, Costikyan makes some thought-provoking distinctions. He states, “A puzzle is static. A game is interactive.” He also states, “A toy is interactive. But a game has goals.” Thus, a game must be both interactive and include goals.

I do consider puzzles to be games, as well as games like Second Life and Sim City, despite Costikyan’s attempts to define them as toys because they do not include a specific set of goals. While these games do not inherently express a specific set of goals, it is impossible to approach any of them, or anything at all, without a set of self-established, perhaps subconscious objectives. In that sense, these toys do have goals, always, and are therefore games, always. While there are not necessarily victories, the participant is always playing to some personal motivation.