I haven't yet insulted Raph enough with my review of A Theory of Games, so I would like to address his recent speech at Project Horseshoe called Influences. Raph was kind enough to provide a transcript of the speech.
Raph begins by noting that he is only one of many who are trying to break down the structure of the game experience into atoms of grammar. In doing so, he came to the conclusion that "just about all games were about math", and specifically NP-hard or NP-complete problems and/or probabilities.
He describes a simulation he created about flapping wings in order to fly a bird. It was enjoyable and soothing. "But it wasn’t what I would really call a game. You know, it was a toy, an amusement." So he created a goal for the game, as well as a scoring mechanism, and as a result, "it ceased being fun because the math came in big time."
This isn't what he wants. "I’ve been dreaming about making games that make you feel what’s it’s like to be a wolf living in the winter scrounging scraps from a nearby mining town. A game about the sensation of a kaleidoscope. A game that exudes 'treeness.' ... I think that these aren’t things that reduce down to math."
But every time a scoring mechanism is added to a game, it reduces to math again.
How can we create experiences beyond math in games?
I think the answer is staring us in the face: every time a scoring mechanism is added to a game, it reduces to math.
On the Gone Gaming blog, I wrote a few articles that examine how to eliminate the concept of winning and losing from games (here and here). In my latest, admittedly hastily written article, I take my first shot at why we define games as game, anyway (here).
Look at what we have from Raph's post:
Raph writes at one point: It wasn’t what I would really call a game. You know, it was a toy, an amusement.
Wolfe in a comment writes (about what, doesn't matter): This is not a game, it is a toy with which a higher understanding of things can be made accessible. A Game is by the definition of its word not this machine. A game is if I remember correctly a system which determine some winner between two or more competing actors. Of all the emotions you can sense only a tiny amount will be stimulated by competition.
Matt in a comment writes: It sounds to me that you want a game without logic, or at least not about logic: a game of expression and feeling. There arises a conflict. The very act of constructing a game imbues it with logic. If it has rules, then it has a defined logic.
And so on.
Why does game have to have such a strict definition. Scratch that. A better question: who cares if game has this definition? What is the difference between creating a video game and creating a video activity? Why do "game designers" have to be limited? Why do gamers have to be limited?
If we are using the interactive video medium to create, create! You don't have to get stuck on "scores" and "points". Of course everything will reduce to math if you have to achieve X point with Y resources. That's math. But not all games are about that. Certainly not all activities are about that.
More than Mechanics
It also doesn't surprise me that so many game designers or game enthusiasts reduce games to mechanics. After all, game mechanics are what makes a game from a designer's point of view. Not from a player's point of view.
Not every player is going to reduce his or her experience through repetitions of game play to the underlying mechanics, unless points are all that matters. That's simply not the case.
Earlier this week I posted to a perfect example of a game where the mechanics are totally irrelevant (here). The mechanics are important in keeping the game moving, but not in the lesson that the game teaches. The game teaches an experience, lessons about fear and anger, love and responsibility. Sure, there are dumb games that try to do this, but background mechanics with a beautiful theme doesn't automatically make a dumb game. I could very well see someone playing this game and concretizing the lessons of the game simply by virtue of having seen the pieces move from here to there and focusing on the theme.
Want to make a game about the smell of peaches? Include heady text, colors, and picture about peaches in fall. Walk through the experience. Winning the game is irrelevant.
It's an activity. It's a game. Does that make one more boring than the other? One less in need of design than the other? One less replayable than the other?
And by the way: I still greatly disagree that opponents, self-mastery, and luck have anything to do with learning patterns. In the latter case, I know very well that my odds of winning by rolling one die versus your die are 50/50. It's still fun to play. It has nothing to do with not having absorbed the lesson. It's not simply about math.