The endless discussions about the plausible definitions of what constitutes a ‘game’ have ceased to be productive. It is time for a new game about games – to stop being concerned about the question “what is a game?” and instead focus our interest on the wider and deeper question of “what is a great game?”. And to do this, we have to replace our fixation with the definition of ‘game’ with an attempt to recognise the different aesthetic positions within game design and game criticism.
I've now spent about a decade explicating the idea that ‘game’, as Wittgenstein correctly recognised in 1953, is a fuzzy concept that can only be accurately defined as an arbitrary step in a further process. However, the debate over the boundary conditions of the term ‘game’ continues to rage on as if some definitive conclusion were somehow just out of reach. Each new geek to arrive onto the scene seems to believe it is they and they alone who can pull Excalibur from the stone. We will not – indeed, cannot – resolve this debate. By all means continue playing this game if it entertains you, but do not pretend that you are advancing game studies in any way by doing so. You are more likely to be holding it back.
This said, new and interesting perspectives on the nature of games and play can be extremely productive. This might involve new definitions of ‘game’, albeit tentatively, within the context of the approach being discussed. Raph Koster, for instance, has got good ground out of his definition of game, and argues that the naming excercises are still valuable – but he also makes the important point that going to war with one another over our definitions is pointless. Besides, none of these individual definitions will rise to the challenge of correctly subsuming all things considered ‘games’ under one category. Problem cases, such as children’s games of make believe, Mornington Crescent or Snakes and Ladders (Chutes and Ladders in the US, where snakes are apparently too scary for children!), will always end up either excluded despite being widely recognised as games, or included under an umbrella definition too vague to be particularly helpful.
Could we please consider shifting the focus of our discussions from the fruitless argument about “what is a game?” and towards something potentially more productive? One possible candidate might be to recognise that the discussions about what-is-or-is-not a game are deeply parallel to discussions that have been had about what-is-or-is-not art. In these latter cases, we readily recognise that what’s at task by its very nature concerns aesthetics. My claim here is that we could benefit from recognising that this is also true in the former cases. Games, as I argue in Imaginary Games, are a form of art – indeed all art is a kind of a game, following the work of the philosopher of art Kendall Walton, and is contiguous with (but more complex than) a child’s game of make-believe. On this line of approach, instead of “what is a game?” we might ask the aesthetic question “what is a great game?”
It’s important to recognise that this switch in focus will not allow us to reach agreement any easier – as a matter of fact, there are very distinct and different beliefs about what constitutes a great game that are every bit as irreconcilable as the boundary dispute over the definition of ‘game’. However, by switching our discussions to deal directly with the aesthetics of play we will be far more likely to expose what is interesting about the debate, and considerably less likely to be bogged down in minutiae. As Ian Bogost suggested last year in his discussion of the tendency to dismiss odd games as 'aberations', repudiating unique aesthetic instances as anomalies to be excised is “as boring a response as it is blinkered.”
Identifying and debating the aesthetic criteria to be applied to games may allow us to identify ‘camps’ or ‘schools’ of game aesthetics. I’m sure some will argue that one of these is the “real” account, but that’s neither here nor there – the important thing is turning an unproductive debate into a productive discourse by asking different questions. If we can identify different aesthetic positions on games – or, which is the same thing, form into different factions extolling different virtues concerning play – we will not only have moved on from the futility of the definition of game, we will have advanced the argument for games as an artform immeasurably by seizing the high ground.
As two cases in point, here are examples drawn from a morning trawl through my endless sea of social media. Dan Cook, in an excellent brief discussion of his concept of loops and arcs in the context of games, offers a critique of contemporary videogames by saying “Too many arcs. Not enough focus on great repeatable loops.” By ‘loops’ he means recurring game systems with interesting feedback and dynamics, and by ‘arcs’ he means “a broken loop you exit immediately” e.g. a game puzzle, or a fixed challenge. His argument for “great repeatable loops” is an advocation of a specific game aesthetic, namely one in which dynamic systems are preferred over static or linear content. For my personal play preferences, I too prefer this loop-aesthetic (or open aesthetic) – but I also recognise that there are many players for whom the arc-aesthetic (or closed aesthetic) is more appealing. Our aesthetic experiences of games are not the same and we would be wise to explore this further.
As a second example, Tadhg Kelly (on the unfortunately titled blog What Games Are), espouses his view that Dear Esther isn’t a game. This is Bogost's lamented dismissal of aberrations once again; a game with unusual aesthetic properties is criticised because it doesn't fit into a presumed category. Tadhg's argument runs that a game is defined by “the ability… to cause meaningful change within it.” Within the context of the boundary debate, this claim is clearly false – there is no meaningful change in Snakes and Ladders unless the experience of play counts, and if the experience counts then Dear Esther also qualifies. But as an advocation of a specific game aesthetic, Tadhg’s argument has teeth – he is expressing the view, not that Dear Esther isn’t a game, but that it isn’t a great game, or isn’t a good example of what games can achieve (aesthetically). His position could be seen as an aesthetic of meaningful change (or an agency aesthetic) that prescribes specific virtues in respect of what a great game can or should be.
Taking this approach seriously, we can go back to one of the most famous examples purported to deal with the definition of a game and see it very differently. Famed strategy game designer Sid Meier did not claim that “a game is a series of interesting decisions” but in fact suggested that “a good game is a series of interesting choices” – this was always an aesthetic claim about games, namely that those games with aesthetic value as games consist of sets of interesting decisions or choices. This decision aesthetic overlaps with the aforementioned agency aesthetic, and depending on one's stance could be seen as a subset or a superset of it. Either way, one of the most oft cited examples of a definition of game is really an assessment of the aesthetic value of games.
The terms I’m suggesting here – open, closed, agency and decision aesthetics – aren’t intended to be definitive, exhaustive or even preferable. There are doubtless more and better options for categories. My point is solely that we advocate different aesthetic stances to games, and we will gain much more if we stop arguing about the irresolvable question of the ultimate definition of ‘game’ and start arguing about the irresolvable question of the qualities of ‘great games’. This would be to move our focus from the trivial to the majestic, from lexicography to aesthetics, from games as geek fetish to games as art and entertainment. To my mind (and presumably to Ian Bogost's too), this would be an inestimable step forward for both game design and game studies. We might not be up for the task or, more likely, I’m too much of a voice in the wilderness to help kick discussions sideways. After all, a spinning object resists attempts to move it because its rotational momentum overpowers any linear momentum, and this particular issue has been spinning around and around ad nauseum for decades. At the very least, this modest proposal deserves some consideration.
There might be some resistance from the more positivistic fellows in our midst to the extent that “I’m not interested in games as art, I’m interested in the science of games” – Dan himself leans heavily in this direction (I jokingly chided him in Seattle last year by suggesting that when he was on his physics degree he must have “drunk the Koolade”!). To this end, I must point out that a definition of ‘game’ is not, even in principle, a scientific possibility, whereas distinctions between aesthetic preferences is a potential avenue of scientific research. Open and closed aesthetic preference might correlate with goal or process orientation respectively, for instance, while agency and decision preference is likely to correlate with orbital-frontal cortex activation. Identifying aesthetic preferences for games unlocks a whole vast panoply of options for new research, both philosophical and scientific. Continuing to argue about definitions attains next to nothing.
I implore everyone involved in games – academics, game designers, players – to give up wild Grand Theory of Everything approaches and turn these issues on their head. We don’t agree about games – why not? What are the different viewpoints that are in conflict? (It’s not, I can assure you, about narratology versus ludology – although each of those terms may well express an aesthetic preference). The aesthetics of games is the gateway to a whole new discourse on play that could be infinitely more productive and satisfying for everyone.
Take the challenge and ask yourself this one, deceptively simple question: “What makes a great game?” Don’t worry about what to include in the term ‘game’ – a ‘great game’ is always going to be within your definition of ‘game’, whatever it is – just stick with your intuitive impression of the word and we won’t go far astray as long as we let go of the obsessive need for a perfect definition. Once you can express what makes a great game, you are better equipped to see how your preferences fit into the wider schemes available. If we can find patterns in our aesthetic beliefs about play, it cannot fail to offer us more than the interminable debate about the boundary conditions of games.
The opening image is Still Life with Pac-Man by Musat Iliescu, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.