Wednesday, May 9, 2012

[Spin-Off Central] What Constitutes a Game?

I was going to review Hive, an abstract chess-like game that has been reviewed very favorably by lots of people I like.

The game looks cool and appeals to me due to the two player nature. It's portable and seems straightforward enough, and doesn't have any math or random elements- all of these were plusses in my book. 

So I busted it open and discovered that to ME; it's not a game. It's a problem that needs solving. It didn't have "rules", it told me what I could do with certain pieces. There weren't any examples of "how to play". It confused the crap out of me. I decided I was not smart enough for the game and put it away.

(I will be totally fair and let you know I will give it another try before completely writing it off.)

What's the difference between a game and a problem? To ME, the difference is games have rules. Especially with board games, there are clear sequences and operational things to do, with an end goal in mind.

Hive does things differently. It tells you "here are how things work", and then asks you - "how would you make X happen?".

Based on this specific understanding, at the moment, I don't consider Hive a game. I consider it a puzzle. I don't mind that, but it wasn't what I was expecting.

While I was thinking this little idea over, I came across this post and the conversation it generated. I was very taken by the comments made between Sandwyrm and CaulynDarr. Here's the part I found most compelling:

CaulynnDarr: Games on the other hand are math, cognition, and memory problems, with art supporting the implementation.

You can have great process and great products at the same time. Usually great process is the difference between having 1 great product and several great products. Process is often that thing at the end that sends the whole project back to square one if it needs it.

Actually McDonnell-Douglas had the better design, but got out lobbied by Boing and bought out. Though all three designs would be in the same shape now, due to the conflicting requirements.

sandwyrm   23 hours ago in reply to CaulynDarr

Don't be silly. Games are not about math or the technical stuff. They're about the experience. The interactions. Making the interactions of a game interesting and rewarding is just as much of an art as any film or video game. The technical stuff has to support an artistic vision, as Star Wars taught us so long ago. As Apple teaches us now. As Blizzard, id, and Valve prove every day.

Good processes require consistency and predicability. But creativity is never consistent or predictable. So you have to optimize on one or the other. You cannot have both together. Or both end up mediocre at best.

I know these guys were talking specifically about miniatures games- table top war games with figure soldiers and dice and whatnot. But the comment put me in mind of something Porky asked me a while ago:

What is a game?

I think I discovered that anything I will consider a game (at least a board game) has to have operational structure- who does what when; that's essential to me. I think that my tastes have shown that I want a combination of math and/or logic problems ALONG WITH the experience and the interactions for almost any OTHER kind of game.

What about you? What do you consider essential components to be considered a game? What turns you totally off? If you understand either answer, why are those your answers? I'd love to hear.


  1. What is a game?

    That is not an easy question to answer, and it's one that I've actually been struggling with myself for nearly 6 months now in a series of articles that quite frankly at this rate are never ever going to get finished.

    I've read philosophy books and I've read psychology journals. I've asked countless friends and I've had many heated debates. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that a 'game' is some form of structured play.

    That's where it gets divergent really, really quickly. That word 'play'. I think both Sandwyrm and CaulynnDarr are being too narrow focused for me personally. It's tempting to restrict what something is to make it easier to define, but for me the more you restrict such a broad definition the more useless it becomes.

    I would agree with you that puzzles aren't games... but here's where it gets hinky... games can be puzzles. Or have puzzle elements. So how do you separate and define the two things? I've taken the following approach in one of those articles I mentioned I'm working on:

    1) A pure puzzle will have a single solution that is the end in itself.
    2) A game puzzle or a puzzle game can have multiple endings and interaction with others can change the solution outcome. In short it has multiple outcomes those interacting with it can shape.

    Now that's not any academic definition and I can't quote you an eminent scholar who defines things thus. But, it's how I've come to understand the relationship between puzzles and games.

    Does that help you in further defining what Hive is? God only knows, I've not come across the product before. :)

    1. If it's a reference you're wanting, you could do worse than Chris Crawford and his series of dichotomies. A game is only a game if it has an active agent against whom you compete (otherwise it's a puzzle), and if you can actively disrupt their performance (otherwise, it's a competition, which he means in the sporting sense of 'comparison of pure achievements').

      I quite like Crawford's approach, although it does cause me some trouble with How I Think About RPGs - since I'm adamant that the central conflict of most RPGs is Player vs. System with the GM as mediator of that conflict, and since a system is a passive opponent that needs to be mediated through randomisation and games-mastering... does that mean an RPG is technically a puzzle and not a game unless the GM is actively against the players, or the players are actively competing against each other? Or does the system become 'active' when it's invested with the random numbers that make it go, and when players are disrupting it by trying to manipulate that randomisation in their favour (clever use of circumstances, power gaming, whatever)?

      It's a knotty one.