Whatever we consider games to be, people have incredibly strong opinions about them. I previously claimed that a great many attempts to define games could be interpreted as value judgements asserting a particular aesthetic stance, and in the series of pieces that follow I'll examine a number of definitions of the term 'game' and excavate the underlying aesthetic judgements. This is clearest wherever a definite boundary is being erected, and will become difficult when more general claims are made. There is ample room for many objections to my conclusions, not least of which being the need for further research, but it is not a plausible retort that one of the aesthetics that follows is the correct way of interpreting the term 'game' – the very nature of this approach voids any attempt to establish a single 'correct' definition. As Wittgenstein remarked, the meaning of a word is how it is used, and all of these aesthetics relate to ways the word 'game' is used by different people. We may prefer some of these uses to others, but this simply confirms that definitions of games involve value judgements.
At the start I shall take as essentially unproblematic only two conditions used within game definitions: that games entail rules, and that games entail fiction (or, in the terms discussed in my introduction to game aesthetics, that games have both functional and representational aspects). Both these apparently foundational assertions are sufficiently general that when taken singularly they exclude very few things people would consider as games, and indeed, include many things that a great many people wouldn't consider a game. Note that even play activities that have no stated rules can still be formulated in terms of rules – when I play Fetch with my dog, I consider this a game, but my Labrador probably does not conceive of what's happening in terms of the rules I can justifiably use to describe our game. Similarly, the fiction in (say) Chess is very thin indeed, but I don't think it's helpful to claim there is none at all. At the very least, Salen and Zimmerman's Huizinga-inspired "Magic Circle" sets apart the activity of the game from other activities, however porous this condition might be, and in this sense allows us to recognise a fictional world. Besides, we will later kick these blocks away in order to be left with a complete (but rough!) model of the aesthetics of play.
Because their stances are more strident and therefore more interesting, I shall start with the definitions of 'game' provided by professional game designers, and later consider the more moderate positions advanced by academics. It is the nature of this project to approach definitions of games on the assumption that they embed value judgements, but it is not necessarily the case that a proponent of a particular definition endorses the corresponding aesthetic judgement (although for the most part I believe they would, albeit with some considerable caveats). Nonetheless, in terms of the process of uncovering implicit aesthetic positions on play, each definition is archetypal of a wider viewpoint that is been reflected in my player studies over many thousands of players. The individual proponents of definitions, therefore, are akin to spokespeople for a particular aesthetic archetype and I apologise in advance to everyone involved for any violence I may have done to your specific views through the process of excavation.
To begin with, there is no better example of my claim that definitions of game conceal aesthetic value judgements than the famous taxonomy of creative expression given by Chris Crawford (2003), pictured above. Crawford is keen to note that his terminology cannot be considered definitive, but the nature of his definitions are so rigorous that they bring most out most clearly the kind of aesthetic judgements this exploration is aimed at uncovering. His taxonomy is constructed as a series of questions, each of which divides activities into two classes (sometimes with a subjective judgement aspect that Crawford is forthright in recognising). 'Game' is an accolade attained only by passing through each of the "gates" Crawford has set up, which implies value judgements that at other times in the same book he appears keen to disavow.
The sequence proceeds according to the following outline. Firstly, the motive of the creator is considered. If it is beauty, Crawford terms it 'art'; if it is money, he terms it 'entertainment'. Since Crawford places 'games' under 'entertainment', games seem to be immediately excluded from art, despite Crawford elsewhere (1984) yearning for games as an art-form. However, he also allows that this first step could easily be omitted. The rest of the steps are as follows:
- Within entertainment: "is it interactive?" – if no, it is in the same (unnamed) class as movies, books and films, else it qualifies as a 'plaything'.
- Within playthings: "is there a defined goal?" – if no, a 'toy'; if yes, a 'challenge'.
- Within challenges: "is there an agent to compete against (or the illusion of one)?" – if no, a 'puzzle'; if yes, a 'conflict'.
- Within conflicts: "can you impede your opponents?" – if no, a 'competition'; if yes, a 'game'.
Thus, only those things that are interactive, have goals, include opponents and allow attacks against those opponents qualify as a 'game' in Crawford's terms. However, simply listing these conditions doesn't do justice to the value judgements implicit in Crawford's taxonomy, since by placing 'game' at the apex of this sequence there is an unavoidable sense of priority to this order. Note that if the result of the final gate had been a different term – say, 'battle' – the entire taxonomy could be seen to refer to the space of play and games. By choosing to give 'game' this highly restricted meaning, Crawford appears to not only assert a number of aesthetic value judgements concerning games but also a hierarchy of aesthetics of play. The steps correspond broadly to an agency aesthetic (interactivity), a victory aesthetic (goals and challenges), and a conflict aesthetic (opponents and direct attacks) – all three of which can be found expressed by other game designers, although rarely in so rigid a sequence. Furthermore, other game designers do not tend to give so much weight to conflict: Crawford devotes two entire steps of his process to distinctions within conflicts, making direct competition a requirement of games rather than a class of games. This oddly groups games such as Snakes and Ladders, golf and all golf-simulations, Ubongo, Race for the Galaxy, and Knizia's Fits and its descendents, as being competitions rather than games, despite most people's strong intuitions that at least some of these are indeed games.
Over the next few weeks, we'll contrast the aesthetic value judgements found in Crawford's taxonomy with those found in other game designers (namely Greg Costikyan, Raph Koster, Dan Cook and Jane McGonigal) as well as those found among academics with an interest in play and games (Bernard Suits, Roger Caillois, and Thomas Malaby) in the hope of creating a very rough map to the landscape of the aesthetics of play.
Next week: Costikyan's Critical Language