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What is a Game?

Hi everyone, I’m Tom, and this is my first post for the Derailed blog. I’m going to cover a lot of topics about gaming on this blog. Hopefully you find it interesting.

I thought for a while on what I want my first post to be, and I decided to make it on a topic that is:
1) Difficult, and
2) Probably pointless.

With those goals in mind, I decided to take a stab at answering the question: “What is a game?”

Now, before I get much further, you should know that I have been ruined by years of college-level philosophical training. That guarantees that what I say is mostly nonsense. This discussion is more to have fun with some ideas than to really get at something fundamental. Arguing about definitions or the “essential nature” of a thing is typically not worth the trouble, and is often impossible (see Wittgenstein. Also, the rest of philosophy). The point of this is to give an interesting definition of game and see what it implies, not to say this is the end-all of gaming discussion or definitions.

Anyway, here is my proposed definition of game:

A game is an activity in which those involved (the players) temporarily adopt a set of unusual behavioral conventions for the purpose of physical, social, or logical experimentation or competition.

Let’s unpack this definition. The first part says that a game involves adopting a new set of behaviors. These are the behaviors and actions that are characteristic of the game. In football, you line up at the line of scrimmage, pass a ball around, attempt to tackle each other, etc. In chess, you sit down across a table from each other and take turns moving pieces according to certain rules, with the goal of capturing the opposing king (or, strictly speaking, creating a checkmate scenario where the opponent has no way to avoid their king’s capture).

These behaviors are conventional because they aren’t random or arbitrary, and the players generally agree upon the accepted behaviors in advance. In soccer, you can’t touch the ball with your hands. That’s the whole point of the game. Soccer is defined by the “no hands” convention (except for the goalie, of course). If players began to blatantly disregard this convention without penalty, the game would no longer be soccer, it would be a different game, or it wouldn’t be a game at all.

The last part of the definition addresses the reason we adopt these behaviors. Often, we want to engage in competition or experimentation that would be out-of-bounds according to normal social standards. People are wired to compete with each other, but obviously we can’t run a society where people routinely beat each other senseless to prove their superiority. Instead, we structure the competition as a game, where certain rules are followed. This lets us establish a winner and a loser without needing to resort to brute physical violence. This kind of behavior can even be seen in certain animals who engage in ritualized fights where lethal attacks are out-of-bounds. Human games are often substantially more complex, but the principle is similar – we want to compete, but we want to structure the competition to be limited in scope.

The other side of gaming is experimentation. This is the type of game that kids are playing when they play “doctor” or “cowboys and indians.” In these games, kids adopt roles they would not otherwise get to play, and experiment with what it is like to be a doctor or a cowboy (or a patient or an indian). They also get to experiment with interacting according to uniquely adult hierarchies, like the doctor-patient relationship. In these games, kids engage in social experimentation, seeing what it’s like to have power over others, or be under someone else’s power, all with the knowledge that the scenario is temporary and they can walk away at any time.

Many games can best be understood as a combination of the experimental impulse and the competitive impulse. Chess is competitive, but it is also experimental. A big part of the appeal of chess is that you can try different things and see what happens, or you can sit at home and try to devise new strategies to defeat an opponent, possibly in response to the way they beat you last time. Even games that are mainly physical, like basketball or hockey, can contain a great deal of experimentation. Setting aside mental aspects of the game, an experiment can often be something like, “can I jump high enough to dunk the ball? Let’s find out,” or “how long can I hold on to the football in the pocket before they pull me to the ground?” Not all games are both competitive and experimental, but many are.

The competition or experimentation of a game can take place on a physical level, a social level,  a logical level, or any combination of the three. Chess has few physical components, but contains logical parts (seeing ahead in the game and understanding the logical entailments of the rules and the current game state) as well as social parts (“Will my opponent take the bait?” “What is he planning?”). Football is heavily physical, but also contains some logical and social parts (“Do I have better chances if I go for it or if I punt?” “I’ve run three pass plays in a row and they’ve all worked, should I keep doing it or is that too predictable?”).

Some games are more obviously social. Games like the TV show Survivor or the board game Diplomacy are explicitly about cultivating alliances and navigating a complex social space. Roleplaying games, or children’s games like “doctor,” are all about social interaction, and may do away with competitive elements altogether in favor of encouraging players to pursue independent or cooperative goals.

Our overall image of a game, then, is that it is a chance to do things differently.  We set aside our regular rules, adopt a new set of rules, and live by those for a bit until the game is over. This lets us try things out in a controlled, structured environment, meaning we can access ideas and behaviors that would otherwise be totally inaccessible. That sort of thing is why gaming is fun.

Tom Goldthwait (@Authw8)
Tom is a furry woodland creature. At times, he emerges from the enchanted forest to make a new blog post.

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