Reading Notes #1

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

Of the 8 definitions provided I found the 6th definition to be the most thought provoking. Chris Crawford’s definition from his book The Art of Computer Game Design, details 4 primary qualities (3 of which I agree with).

1) Representation:

Crawford explains that a game exists in a closed structure, creating a system of interactions that create a simplified representation of emotional reality.

I found the sentiment of completeness appealing, especially from the perspective of a designer, because it highlights the importance of the “realm” of a game. While other definitions discussed the necessity of a game to be fantastical or opposing reality, Crawford more clearly defines that a game exists within it’s own boundaries, pertaining to real life or not.

Secondly, representing emotional reality I find to be one a crucial aspect overlooked by many of the other definitions. While the objective of a game is an incredibly expansive and broad thing to determine, nearly all outcomes ultimately create an emotional response. Whether the goal to be winning, losing, completion, monetary gain, teamwork, or progress, the overall objective of game play is emotional response. The major purpose of everything from a crossword puzzle to high stakes gambling, is the mental and physical response of relaxation, laughter, or adrenaline.

2) Interaction:

The means of a game exist in an intricate network of cause and effect. This highlights how the representational realm of a game is set in place with deliberate intentions to drive the involvement of the player(s) through an experience. The existence of a game implies that it is meant to be participated in, so the relationship an object or a system has with the player is crucial to its classification as a game.

3) Conflict:

Like with representation, I think emotional response plays an enormous part in the importance of conflict. While not every game may throw specific obstacles at you or require chaos, the desire for participation and interaction is essential. Conflict could be internal or external. A game’s conflict could simply be the desire for completion, progression, education, or enrichment. Conflict doesn’t necessarily need to come as an opposing force within the game itself, but could be the living internal conflicts that create the motivations to pursue a game. This also clarifies the uncertainty of whether a game must be voluntary. If a friend forces you to play a game, it may not be voluntary, but participation is then motivated by the desire to resolve a conflict.

4) Safety:

The fourth point I do not agree with, considering the prevalence of dangerous games. In popular culture alone, I can’t help but think of violent movie franchises such as The Hunger Games and the horror villain “Jigsaw”, who’s famous line is “I wan’t to play a game with you.” While Crawford notes games are a “safe” way to experience reality, it may be closer to say it is an abstraction or symbol for larger problems in reality. The Hunger Games could be an abstracted representation of social uprising, and the Saw franchise games a representation of the larger issues of mortality and worth. From drinking games, to Russian Roulette, extreme sports, and high stakes consequences, I find it inaccurate to conclude that games must be safe.

2. How would you define a game in your own words? 

I would define a game as:

A constructed set of interactive boundaries, participated in by one or more players, creating a dynamic progression whose outcomes elicit an emotional response which motivates the game play.

Deciphering the semantics and abstractions associated with the word “game” makes solidifying an accurate set of criteria nearly impossible. While determining a definition, it is also crucial to question the strictness of boundaries in a written definition. Does an exception to a rule mean the automatic exemption from a classification? Does a definition aim to educate an unknowing reader of the most common or widely understood description of a game, or is it made to be determining and all-inclusive?

3. 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 notions of colour and competition? What about his idea that games should be considered “art”?

I found Costikyan’s definition of games to be overly narrow and cynical. While it poses interesting considerations as to what aspects of a game are truly crucial to it’s engagement and complexity, I found the criteria to be too exclusive. Claiming that a game is not a puzzle, toy, or story, strips away three major components of what a game could be.

Claiming that a puzzle has no opposition suggests that the experience of finding solutions exists in isolation to all other thoughts and emotions. A crossword puzzle was not created in a void, and the participant must engage in opposition against the cunning tricks of the newspaper writer and the wordplays of language and popular culture. A jigsaw puzzle challenges the player against the game-maker’s tricks of matching the colour of the sea with the sky, and deceptively designing piece shapes which trick the eye.

Similarly, a toy may not have an evolving opposition, however its creation exists with intention. A toy is a catalyst for certain goals and behaviours set it place by the designer. A toy or computer “game” which may not have specific set goals, but is designed to respond and facilitate progression, is therefore creating the landscape for a game and allowing for more freedom from the player to explore the possibilities for progression that the system has provided.

While total and isolated reliance on logic, form, and narrative alone may not itself constitute the classification of a game, the rejection of these characteristics seems a bit counterproductive. A book is not itself a game, but a game can be almost exclusively based on narrative and the progression through a story. Purist classifications for what makes a game in its essential and unadulterated form strips away the richness of what makes up an entire gaming culture and communicative form.

Concerning colour, I found the example of Monopoly to be interesting, considering its reputation of having dozens of different thematic variations, each altering their colour and design. Costikyan’s comment that “Monopoly isn’t really about anything” I actually find quite humorous, considering that whatever the theme or colour scheme enacted, the point of the game continues to be about chance, investment, risk, and consequences. While colour does play a large role, especially in the bright shades of children’s marketing, I feel as though it incorporated but not defining.

Costikyan’s thoughts on opposition I find to be much more agreeable, acknowledging the significance of competition, but also that its source can be found not only in another player, but in the internal struggles to achieve a goal.

I also agree that games should be considered art, but Costikyan’s thoughts on the subject are brief. I associate game design to be a highly commercialised and popularised art form, largely defined by its ability to engage participants and encourage social use. While many forms of high art have no reliance on the viewer’s understanding or approval, I find it harder to separate the appreciation of a game as an art form from its functionality and abilities to captivate its users.