Sunday, January 13, 2008

Do Games Matter?

Direct Consequences of Games

A game is only a game if its direct consequences are divorced from relevance. The game's indirect consequences may be relevant; in fact they are inseparable from relevance.

This aspect of the definition of "game" is essential in order to separate out games from other activities that merely follow game-like patterns. A classic example is a war.

War is often called a game, despite the dire consequences of its being played out. This is because in war, like in games, the people who control the maneuvers rely on strategy, luck, tactics, and many other elements also found within games. In fact, a great many people would have a hard time trying to explain why war is not a game while Chess is.

The answer is the relevance of the play and outcome of a game versus the play and outcome of a non-game.

In a game, the actions taken within the game are not directly consequential to achieving any real-world goal. Moving a piece on a Chess board may have indirect consequences, but the direct consequence must be irrelevant for it to be a game. You may learn from it, you may impress someone from it, you may even signal someone by doing it. But picking up the physical piece off of one square of the board, and then placing it back down on another square of the board is, in and of itself, an irrelevant act of no consequence.

Similarly to the actions within the game, achieving the goal of a game is entirely inconsequential as a direct act. The physical act of knocking over your opponent's King is entirely inconsequential, in and of itself. Winning the game may result in someone committing suicide, but that would be an indirect result of the game's conclusion.

In a war, on the other hand, an "act" such as moving a platoon from one place to another place holds real-world significance and consequence. So is the act of forcing an surrender from an opponent. Therefore, according to my requirement, war cannot be considered simply a game.

(Ah-ha! What if you take a Chess game and wire up the pieces so that pressing a piece onto a board space blows up a building? Is this no longer a "game"? In my opinion, it is still a game; the act of placing the piece may blow up a building, but that is an indirect result of the game play; a very nearly direct result, but still indirect.)

Therefore, regardless of any other ways you have to define games by competition, interaction, goals, rules, and so on, I suggest adding that a game is abstracted from reality; that playing a game is, by definition, a step outside of direct consequence.

Indirect Consequences of Games

It is trivially easy to think of the indirect consequences of games. So trivial, that it becomes difficult to think of games that don't have indirect consequences.

Games raise of lower self-esteem. They teach logic, patience, math, pattern matching, and manners, and sometimes history, geography, science, and a host of other lessons.

Games create social connection and foster family and friend relationships. Games facilitate communication and community.

Some games result in small or vast amounts of money changing hands, make or break fortunes or lives, swell national pride, start wars, end wars, unite or divide lovers, inspire or drive away congregations, and so on.

From Rock Paper Scissors to a Marathon, games give us focus, challenge, inspiration, perspiration, joy, deep thought, laughter and fortitude.

Indirect consequences are the stuff that games are made of. That's why we play them.

It is impossible to play most sports without building muscle and health. People often play sports for this very reason.

Similarly, it is nearly impossible to play many mind games, such as classic abstracts, word games, negotiation games, and the like, if played regularly and with some seriousness, without building some mental muscle and health. Again, some people play these games for this very reason.

A great number of games are played for stakes: money, beer, or prestige. A great many other games are played to avoid loneliness.

In many situations, the game is played primarily for its indirect consequence. If these consequence were absent, the person would not play the game. In many of these situations, the consequence is an unavoidable result of playing the game. Still, no specific move in the game is directly related to the consequence, nor is the outcome of the game, nor is the consequence relevant to the rules of the game.

Still, considering indirect consequences, games matter a great deal.

Yehuda

7 comments:

MadPuzzler said...

I read your post and initially nodded my head in agreement, but now that I've given it more thought I have to reconsider. IMO, games are games by dint of have an agreed-upon and observed ruleset regardless of the stakes involved.
What makes your point generally true in practice is that people who have something really important at stake aren't going to abide by a rules construct if they don't have to. War is not a game because while some might argue that in theory there is a set of rules (the Geneva Convention), participants often will not adhere to those rules because the stakes are so high. By counterexample, Roman gladiatorial games *are* games because even though the stakes may be life and death, there is an outside authority which does not allow the rules to be countervened or ignored.

bbrathwaite said...

Nice article, Yehuda.

Yehuda said...

MadPuzzler:

The trouble with defining any aspect of "game" (or anything else for that matter) is that everyone already knows what the definition is and therefore tries to find working that matches it.

For instance, you already "know" that gladiator games are games; therefore, if you hear a definition that includes them, it's fine, and if you don't, you have to disagree with the definition and find some way of stating why.

My entire post is the same thing. I don't like definitions of games that include war, so I propose a way to distinguish between what I believe are games and not games.

But words are cultural, historical, malleable. By my providing a definition for games, I'm simply highlighting an aspect of certain activities. Whether or not you agree with including or excluding the aspect from one category or another is not the point.

In truth, my job would be easier if I simply said "X are activities that include a, b, and c, while Y are activities that include b, c, and d", leaving the word "game" out of it entirely.

As to your point, you are highlighting an interesting aspect: activities in which the participants will adhere to the rules voluntarily, and activities in which they won't if they can get away with it. Whether or not one of these sides falls into the game category is an interesting discussion. Just witness the Tour De France, or any game of Monopoly ever played.

Yehuda

Anonymous said...

You need to read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. All your questions about what is a game will be answered...or will they? Anyway, it's a very good book and discusses as fiction, the exact points you bring up.

Fraser said...

In a game, the actions taken within the game are not directly consequential to achieving any real-world goal.

The actions taken within a game can be directly consequential to winning the game. This may not be important in all games, and may not be important for all players of games, but it certainly is true for some people some of the time.

MadPuzzler said...

But words are cultural, historical, malleable. By my providing a definition for games, I'm simply highlighting an aspect of certain activities. Whether or not you agree with including or excluding the aspect from one category or another is not the point.

The entire article hinges upon your opinion that a certain aspect should or should not be included. Suggesting a redefinition (or even a refining of that definition) of a word that has been in use for over a thousand years deserves at least some critical thought to whether it is justified.

In truth, my job would be easier if I simply said "X are activities that include a, b, and c, while Y are activities that include b, c, and d", leaving the word "game" out of it entirely.

It would certainly be easier, but not useful (and therefore not used). The word �game� is a way to communicate a logical grouping of things. Words to classify specific, unrelated groups of objects (other than the logical concept of a grouping of such items) do not exist because people think only in terms of groups that have logical relationships.

As to your point, you are highlighting an interesting aspect: activities in which the participants will adhere to the rules voluntarily, and activities in which they won't if they can get away with it. Whether or not one of these sides falls into the game category is an interesting discussion. Just witness the Tour De France, or any game of Monopoly ever played.

The point is not that a defined �game� requires people to follow the rules, but that it requires them to agree on what the rules are. A game in which players cheat is, of course, still a game, just not an honest one. A game in which players do not agree on what those rules are is not a game at all.

The chess example given in your article illustrates how games do not have direct real-world consequences, but it is quite possible to come up with examples that do. Few such activities exist in the real world, however, because of the quite reasonable preference by gameplayers that their games not require them to accept such consequences.

Yehuda said...

MadPuzzler,

"Game" may have been used for thousands of years, but it is one of many that nobody agrees with.

Open up ten dictionaries and look. Open up ten books on games: Chris Crawford, Raph Koster, Bernie Dekoven, and any others, and look.

Some people think that actual war really falls under the definition of game. Some call puzzles game, or parlor games with no goals or challenges games. Some call any interactive activity a game. Some call life a game.

Many people have tried to set the definition for game, and a whole of them are "right", in that they make good definitions which include what they want and exclude what they want. But there is no single correct definition: everyone will shape to include what they want and exclude what they want.

That's why talking about X and defining it exactly is more useful then talking about games, because people won't spend the time arguing about how you're wrong or right in your definition, when what you really want to talk about is the psychology of a certain activity and couldn't care less what the definition of games is.

Yehuda