Quest Log is a feature in which I set out on adventure to learn how something works. This might be game mechanics, social issues, or technology. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the topic and spread awareness.
So …what is it? What makes a game a game? I dare you to try to define a game.
For gamers, we know a game when we see it, right? We’ve played tons of them …and yet any one of us would have a terrible time trying to narrow down what makes a game a game. I can name a few games for you. I can tell you how they make me feel. I cannot tell you what a game is.
Things that come to mind: games are interactive, they’re fantasy, and they’re fun (though that’s probably too subjective a term to mean anything). This is all I can name without getting into gray territory, such as saying that games are competitive and have goals – because that’s not always true. Minecraft isn’t competitive, nor does it have goals. Same for The Sims and plenty of other games. There are also games that aren’t fun in the traditional sense, but are highly engaging – say, To the Moon is a great example. Despite knowing what games are and being able to point to one when we see it, don’t you find it interesting that you can’t describe them?
Roger Caillois, a french sociologist, wrote a book in the 1960s titled Man, Play and Games in which he asked this very question. He concluded that games consist of six characteristics:
- Games are non-obligatory.
- Games are outside of the routines of life
- Games have an element of randomness.
- Games are unproductive.
- Games have rules separate from ordinary laws.
- Games involve fantasy
I’ve quoted Caillois before in an essay I wrote on game ethics. In that essay I proposed that some software that we call games may not be games at all. I think that point applies here. Even though we love all the things we own that we call games, it’s possible that some of them aren’t games after all. That fact doesn’t change our enjoyment of them. It changes nothing at all in practical terms.
Several rules stand out on the list that might have raised your brow or perked your ears, because some of your games probably game to mind. For example, rule #4 means that true games create no wealth. Just a year ago Diablo 3 wasn’t a game according to these rules. Add any freemium game with “insert coin” mechanics to that list of Games That Are Not Games. Only a week ago I was writing about gold farmers and even before then I’ve made the point on several occasions that when games involve real world economics, we’re outside the realm of games. In this case, it doesn’t matter who receives the wealth (the player or the developer), the fact that game activity is generating it removes it from the definition of games (because player activity becomes productive and obligatory, violating both rules 1 and 4).
We should also consider that MMOs and VR are challenging rule #2, as they become a routine part of our daily lives. When full-body VR finally arrives, I fully expect to see a world very similar to the movie Surrogates. One could argue that the growth of the internet has already made people disappear into their homes for entertainment, instead of going outside for it. As technology increasingly puts us inside our games, rule #6 will gradually fall away as reality and fantasy meld. And even after all of that we still don’t quite know exactly what makes a game a game!
There’s one other crucial point that Caillois made that’s important here: society corrupts games by institutionalizing them. For video games, eSports would be a corruption of gaming. It could be the case that all of our games were totally real games until society corrupted them into something else. Just think of all the conversations that have become more frequent over the past five years about gamification. We want everything to be fun, and to that end companies turn to gamification to make mundane routines more engaging, to use games for business ends. I don’t think this is a good thing, though it all sounded really cool when the concept became popular. I think it’s fair to call gamification a corruption of games and play, but I’ll have to speculate for now and revisit this question on another day.
So given Caillois’ definition of games, how many games do you think you own now? I think I own about 3 …