Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Undefining Games

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.

A Summary

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?

My Take

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.



Anonymous said...

Mathematics covers more than computing a score.

ekted said...

Games ARE about mechanics and math. Games are objective. Anything objective is quantifiable. Even games with subjective elements--such as player voting--result in a number of countable votes.

I appreciate that you are thinking outside the box and in some repects simply proposing a straw man, but I think you are going to have a hard time making something "fun" (in the game sense) if you take that away. If you insist on taking it too far, you might as well stop playing games and go for a walk or learn to tap dance. :)

Yehuda Berlinger said...

I may be talking about walking or tap dancing.

Maybe I'm simply confounded by designers who are trying to create a "game" that does X when they could simply create an "activity" that does X - but they're stuck, because it has to be a "game".

And I don't think even if we're talking games that it must be math. Even if I accept that games structure themselves according to competition, I reject the idea that winning the game takes primary goal over everything else.


Anonymous said...

Neither the competition nor the question of winning or losing has anything to do with whether games are math, though. Games are math because games are mathematical models of systems. I realize that sounds tautological, but it is so.

There's no opposition to making "activities" instead of games, that I can think of... there's just the observation that mathematical models of systems may not be able to capture everything in human experience -- and that it's worth thinking about what that means.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Raph: You are right that it is tautological.

My wife has chided me for trying to co-opt the discussion by "insisting" that the right question hasn't been asked (And she says that I did the same for my review of the book).

I will probably write more.


Anonymous said...

Most games are systems (the rules and mechanics) with goals (how you win or what you strive to maximize). Any system which has a goal can be reduced to math; it is simply a matter of deciding whether it is worth the time to create a mathematical model, as opposed to just letting our subconscious fill in the details for us.

However, the purpose of playing a game is (usually) to have fun, and for most people, it's more fun to let our subconscious fill in most of the details. Some find pleasure in micro-managing, but for most the process of mathematically maximizing for whatever value within the system is too complex of a solution to be bothered with.

A game is a mathematical system. However, if a game requires you to understand and take advantage of the system, it's probably not a very "fun" one. It is up to the player whether he wants to play consciously or subconsciously, whether he wants to maximize using math to win or maximize subconsciously to have fun. There is the rare case where the player has fun while still using math to maximize towards his goal (I being one of them); but the player who thinks within the system plays the game as it was originally intended, develops his ability to comprehend without thinking, and has fun at the same time.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Jeb: I think what is confusing the issue is that the artists are focusing too much on their tools, and not their painting.

I may as well say that painting is nothing but a series of colors as applied by brush strokes. Therefore, I will never get anything more than colors and brush strokes out of it.

The mechanics of games, assuming that you insist on having competition and a victory condition, are mathematical, yes.

But people don't play games to win. It's not about the winning, and it's not about solving the mathematics. Any party game is proof against that. We do not play party games to win the game, even though we go through the motions to do it.

We do not play party games to absorb the lessons of the game mechanics. We play them for the "picture" on the frame.

And the same goes for any other game, even Chess. Highly strategic mechanics are one thing; some part of us wants that lesson. But even having solved that lesson, we still play the game for other reasons.

Look at "Why we play games" on my sidebar for some of those reasons. The most important is that games have multiple stories beyond simply winning or losing the game.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I wasn't clear (or maybe you were just elaborating), but that was kind of my point :) I was just trying to say that yes, the mathematics are there, and no, most people don't care.

Both views are correct; it just depends on your perspective.