Home / Gaming theory - why it matters and a definition  
Image of Gaming theory - why it matters and a definition

As this is an article about the theory of games, I thought that, as I intend to do this systematically, I should start with a brief post defining what a game actually is. You might think that I could tell you to open up a dictionary or to Google "define: game" instead; however, you are not too likely to find a good definition for the concept of "game" by doing either of those. Which is a terrible shame and might explain why there are some game design theorists out there that seem unable to provide a good definition for this simple enough concept!

My dictionary defines a game as: "A pastime, a recreational activity, where players may compete against each other."

Well that is not much good. Many things could be validly referred to as a pastime or a recreational activity, including: watching TV, reading a good book, sex, programming... depending on what you are into, this could be a long list of things with very little in common besides the fact that they are often considered to be recreational pastimes.

A definition is a statement that identifies the units subsumed under it, for the purpose of differentiating the referents of the definition from other things. Definitions are, in other words, statements that uniquely identify certain concepts, so we can distinguish them from other concepts.

Ideal games should strive to be more than simply fun: they should offer something else that sets them apart from those pastimes that are easier and less productive uses of one's recreational time

We need a statement that captures the essentials of games, which allows us to distinguish games from anything else that might happen to be somewhat similar. This is done by restricting one's definition to the essentials of the concept in question and then attempting to differentiate a concept from all others on the basis of these essentials.

What are the essentials of a game? Well, a game should obviously be somewhat fun. That is, after all, what differentiates a game from, say, something we might not find fun at all, such as many forms of work which we might find are not entertaining, yet might be classified as a "pastime". (Playing a game can be work; though, if it is also fun, it might actually be both.) But a game clearly cannot be something that is simply fun, else we still have not differentiated games from a lot of other things.

Games have objectives. Every time you are playing a game, you have some sort of goal in mind. It might be simply throwing a ball around in order to practice your manual dexterity, or to keep fit, or even just to have some fun with your friends while socializing. Or you might be seeking to play some computer game in order to practice your math skills (games for this sort of thing do exist). However, all games have certain objectives that the player is trying to achieve. The objectives might be very simple, or very complex. However, in any case, the nature of the objectives will have a definite impact on the game. Complicated objectives tend to result in more complicated games. However, as this is not the main point of this article, I shall return to this in a later article.

In order to achieve the objectives of the game, all games also have some sort of constraint on permissible player actions. These constraints exist as an attempt to make meeting the game's objectives easier/possible by preventing actions which would make it more difficult, or by encouraging the players to act in ways that are intended to make meeting the objectives easier. These constraints are often referred to as "rules". They might be very formal, or very informal; however, all games have rules of some sort, even if only a few or very simple ones.

Is it essential for games to teach the players something and/or to allow them to practice skills? No, I do not think that either are essentials for games in general, though a great many games attempt to teach the players something, and most games are a good way to practise certain skills. Both are very common parts of the explicit objectives of most games that I know of while, for other games, it happens that a side benefit is that certain skills are also potentially developed. Also, in order to progress in many games, one is required to develop a certain set of skills to pass certain points. However, not all games are really about either of these.

What about the fact that many game theorists claim that storytelling is an essential aspect of any game? No, this is also not true. While many games do tell some sort of story, this is not an essential aspect of games. Many activities that any reasonable person would classify as a game, such as the card game Snap, have no apparent storytelling aspect. When is the last time you heard a story when playing Snap? And what about the really detailed story behind Monopoly? Oh wait, that's right - it does not have any story aspect either...

Finally, what about the common claim that games are a form of art? Art is meant to express the artists [metaphysical] value judgements, and a great many games, particularly those with a storytelling element, do this. However, what about simpler things like Snap once again, or Scrabble? It is pretty hard to see any sign of art in either of these activities.

So, in short, I define a game as:

"Any recreational activity bound by a set of constraints on permissible player actions, with the intention of achieving one or more objectives."

In other words, a game is some sort of activity that you do for fun, and bound by some sort of rules in order to achieve some goal. Seems pretty simple, right?

I believe that this is about the only completely valid definition of the concept of "game" that I remember seeing. It covers what I consider to be the essentials of gaming, and nothing nonessential (like that many games are a form of art).

So why does the theory of games matter? Why do games matter and why are we devoting so much effort to understanding them theoretically?

A theory is any attempt to explain observed facts in terms of a possible explanation that accounts for the observed facts.

The theory of games (not to be confused with the mathematical discipline of game theory which, although can be used to help analyze games, is something quite different) is a body of theory intended to explain the nature of games, how games work, why games succeed or fail, who to judge the quality of a game, how to create new games or improve existing games, how to better understand the role and possible importance of games, how to better play games, and more still.

It is only by theorizing about games that games can be fully understood in the correct context(s). Without proper understanding of the theory of games, it is not possible to systematically create new games in order to meet certain objectives, to understand the role of existing games and how they might be improved, how they should be best played, or why we should bother choosing to play them in the first place.

All of the above reasons are important issues if games are not to be trivial uses of time, as they are often accused of being. While fun is an important element of any game, many ideal games should strive to be more than simply fun: they should offer something else that sets them apart from those pastimes that are easier and less productive uses of one's recreational time.

Do games matter so much? Traditionally, games have been seen as recreational activities. While this is largely true, games have a potential to be so much more, and they can be wonderful educational tools as well. There have been many games created that help kids learn and to help adults keep their mind in shape (the brain training games are good examples of this). Games can help to engage people in the process of learning in ways that are not otherwise possible, while still serving as good educational tools. Yet, it is virtually impossible to do this well and to continue to create innovative educational games without a coherent and comprehensive theory of games.

Game theory is important not only to those who play games. It is obviously most important to those that make games, whatever form the games take: be they simple board games all the way up to the latest high-definition computer game on the very latest hardware.

Creating a game is often fairly simple generally (at least if one is not attempting to create a computer game). Creating a fun game is not generally all that difficult either. However, creating a game that is both fun and potentially beneficial for other reasons is generally a challenge which requires a fair bit of understanding about the needs and values of the target audience and how to best go about meeting these needs and appealing to these values.

This is the main promise of the theory of games: to facilitate the creation of truly good games that stand out as unique and fulfilling experiences. Good games are often more than just fun - they have other things to offer as well. At the very least, the theory of games furthers the creation of fun games and perhaps a day when games are more often used for things beyond purely recreation! Games have the potential to be so much more than what they are now and hopefully the continued development of a sophisticated body of gaming theory will help. Until then, game on...


Original posting by DwayneDavies on Aug 12, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=620

You need to be logged in to comment.
search only within braincrave

About braincrave


We all admire beauty, but the mind ultimately must be stimulated for maximum arousal. Longevity in relationships cannot occur without a meeting of the minds. And that is what Braincrave is: a dating venue where minds meet. Learn about the thoughts of your potential match on deeper topics... topics that spawn your own insights around what you think, the choices you make, and the actions you take.

We are a community of men and women who seek beauty and stimulation through our minds. We find ideas, education, and self-improvement sexy. We think intelligence is hot. But Braincrave is more than brains and I.Q. alone. We are curious. We have common sense. We value and offer wisdom. We experiment. We have great imaginations. We devour literacy. We are intellectually honest. We support and encourage each other to be better.

You might be lonely but you aren't alone.

Sep, 2017 update: Although Braincrave resulted in two confirmed marriages, the venture didn't meet financial targets. Rather than updating our outdated code base, we've removed all previous dating profiles and retained the articles that continue to generate interest. Moving to valME.io's platform supports dating profiles (which you are welcome to post) but won't allow typical date-matching functionality (e.g., location proximity, attribute similarity).

The Braincrave.com discussion group on Second Life was a twice-daily intellectual group discussions typically held at 12:00 PM SLT (PST) and 7:00 PM SLT. The discussions took place in Second Life group chat but are no longer formally scheduled or managed. The daily articles were used to encourage the discussions.

Latest Activity