Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Life of Game Play

The life of game play

Past, present, and future intersect around game play.

Some games are found, played, and forgotten in moments. Others occupy years of research beforehand, weeks or months of play time, years of reflection after the fact. The impact of the game on a life isn't always directly comparable to its length. A short game may change your life. A long one probably will.


A game play begins when you learn about the game, whether moments or months before commencing play.[1] You may look forward to playing it at some nebulous time, or make plans to play at a specific time.

You may learn about the rules, or you may acquire the components of the game. Either one of these may take some time.

You may need to teach the rules to others. In my game group, this usually happens moments before game play. For some groups it happens along with the first round or two of play. This is true for many video games, as well, where learning may continue well into several plays of the game. Or, you may learn or teach the rules a good deal of time before the game play, often to decide if the game is for you, or if the rules are very complex, or if more extensive game preparation will be required.

Many games involve you in building the game setting. RPGs require one player to build the entire world of game play, in preparation for the other players. Months of preparation, terrain building, and paint coats precede games of fantasy miniatures. Stadiums must be built for professional sports games, while only stones and sticks need be placed to mark the boundaries of a friendly game of soccer.

Many games also involve you in building your personal game assets. Professional sports involves days, months, or years of personal training. Character building in RPGs can take nearly as long. Many collectible card games require you to build your deck, and many people find the process more enjoyable than the games themselves.

You may also find yourself reading a few good books on Go before you play your second, or six hundredth, game.


While similar to, and often overlapping with, preparation, setup is required before the start of each game, while the types of preparation I mentioned above should serve for many games.

Circumscribing space - such as the sticks and stones for the soccer game border mentioned above - are a form of game setup. Simply choosing the location is a form of setup.

Along with space, time is allocated to the game. When to start the game is nearly universally understood and employed. A well-defined end-time, or at least an understanding of an approximate end-time, may also be present. Times for a game, or series of games, may be allocated over several time periods within a day, week, or months.

The players who agree to this time and space must be selected and gathered together.

The rules for the game may be known, but the rules for this particular match must be agreed upon, explicitly or implicitly (in the latter case, there is often cause for disagreement, especially among children). Touch or tackle? Deals enforced or unenforceable? The random opening move? The komi rule? Are breaks allowed? Who's the referee?

The components, having been acquired, must be organized: board and pieces setup, ball inflated, joystick plugged in.

For many games, teams are decided upon, and a starting player, if any, is selected. The starting player, and all other players, received their starting components, if any.

Someone, or the clock, now calls the game to start. Or clicks the mouse.


A player's whole being may be more or less devoted to the game during game play. He may be thinking of something else, which may be to his detriment during a game of high speed and concentration. Or he may have ample time to mix and match game play with other activities.

If the game lasts more than a few seconds, the course of play is typically divided into three time periods: the start game, the mid game, and the end game.

Nevertheless, there is room for time travel within and between these periods. You can go back in time by restarting the game, or a round, or by taking back a move. You can go forward by conceding a point or the entire game, or simply by quitting. And you can freeze time by calling a time-out.

Start Game

The start of the game is used for assessing your opponents or building an infrastructure, learning the lay of the land. Some might go for the quick unexpected knock out or an early lead, physical or psychological. This may backfire, if the lead cannot be sustained and the energy has been too quickly spent. Some may decide after the first round that the game is not really for them, after all.

Mid Game

With repetition setting in, and the end-game not in the immediate future, you may find yourself lagging here. It is mid-game where infrastructure turns to initiative. A solid lead here can follow through to a final victory. Find your second wind.

Traps are sprung. Here is where there is the least amount of luck and the most amount of game play; this is the part of the game on which you will look back to decide if you played well or not.

End Game

The reserves of energy can now be freely spent, with no expectation of needing them after the game is done. Infrastructure is discarded if it hampers progress.

You must, as they say, keep your eye on the ball, however. Casual mistakes or overconfidence can lead to an unexpected loss.


At some point, the game ends, permanently. A victory condition is met. Time runs out. The game is canceled on account of external interference. Someone quits or resigns. The game play is over.

After the game play, one or more players or teams may be rewarded: points or money is totaled, someone may be a winner, they may receive a prize external to the game rules. Any player may feel good or bad about his performance.

Someone then needs to clean up: reverse and take down the game setup. Put away the pieces, fold up the board, store the equipment, press ESC.


Many instances of game play lead to discussion, writing, even feature films.

Games inspire personal growth, whether from the math, language, and history learned, the strategy, tactics, and decisions implemented (or missed), or simply the patience, delayed gratification, cooperation, and courtesy experienced. Lessons learned may carry over to the next game, or may be transferred to experiences far afield from game play.

The game's memory may leave an indelible impression. You and your fellow players, even if you exchanged little in the way of conversation, shared a unique experience, which creates a social bond. One game is a shared experience; many games experienced, a game club, the language of a sport, discovery of a game flow: these form a community among people who share the experience and the love of the game. You have something in common. A living touchstone.

A game play may be long or short. A love of games is a whole life.


[1] Some argue that you can play a game without being aware of the fact.


Steerpike said...

May I suggest "Finite and Infinite Games" by James P Carse ?
An interesting read for those wishing to think more deeply about the philosophy behind playing

Yehuda said...

Read the book and gave up about half-way through. It has very little to do with games, and just uses the word game as a metaphor.


Steerpike said...

I think most philospohers would describe life as a metaphor too. If fact everything except a metaphor, itself, seems to be a metaphor for something. A meta-metaphor ?

I agree that the book had very little to say, directly, about games - it's focus is more on the notion and concept of play

As such I found it very insightful and intriguing, though clearly not everyone's cup of tea :-)