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The fallacy of defining games, or what da **** does it matter?
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The fallacy of defining games, or what da **** does it matter?
by EnDian Neo on 05/30/12 12:18:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The fallacy of defining games, or what da **** does it matter?

Semantics - the study of meaning and who cares

In my mind there are only 2 industries that functionally depend on/demand semantics: law and academia.

Law practitioners worry about semantics because interpretation of words/phrases determine liability, which means who gets to pay money to whom. You bet they will be splitting hairs.

Academia deals with knowledge, not just knowledge now but also knowledge as it changes over time. As an example, etymology studies the history and evolution of words like how kaput came from the French word for bonnet (capot). The first facet of studying is to be able to measure. To measure, you find out where you start from and where you are presently, then figure the difference between them. Hence the emphasis on semantics, like whether a species of plant belongs to this genus or that.

Everyone else? A certain level of vagary is expected. It imparts a freedom to do what you need to do to fulfill your function. It doesn't matter if lighting is a subset of aesthetics or level design (it's both) - but it becomes vitally important if a player cannot find the level exit because it's too dark.

The whole idea behind innovation is breaking away from tradition to achieve a result better than before. That includes definitions: if I invent a car that does not need wheels, will you claim it is not a car?

In short, make your own peace with the semantic god and leave the rest of us poor sods out of it.

Every definition has its own problems

One definition for games is that it is a "system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome". By that definition, my grade school math exam constitutes a game. Mind you I enjoyed doing the paper, but I am sure not everyone sitting the test that day agrees with me.

(My apologies to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman for using their definition out of many - it is for illustrative purposes only. I would still recommend the book to read.)

Here's my definition: Games are crafted experiences through interaction. If I give you a piece of string and ask you to form a shape with it, it constitutes a game. The player (you) interact with the artifact (string) in an experience crafted by my rule (make a shape). Different rules (make only primitives) and different artifacts (the string is tied in a loop) create different experiences. Watching, while a form of interaction, does not quite "cut" it - that is the divide between games and movies/books.

The problem with my own definition is the level of interaction that marks the boundary. How much interaction? What kind of interaction? Particularly tricky would be visual novels, where the sum total of player interaction is to click to access the next set of dialogue/plot, much like turning the pages of a book. In its most base form, that is all the player does - there are no dialogue choices to change the course of the story, you just "live" the story from that protagonist's view, exactly like an e-book. On the flip side, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and other "game" books are books - but they also can be interacted with actively. Some offer choices that changes the course of the story, others incorporate pen and paper RPG elements like combat systems using dice. The boundaries blur, and that's cool because we aren't limited by what others define to be true.

As they say: Nothing is True; Everything is permitted.

What matters is Value

As a would-be professional, the only knowledge that truly matters is the stuff that lets me work smarter, faster or better. Does defining what a game is help me make a better game? Probably not.

Until/Unless knowing the "exact'iness" of a game gives real benefits in making better games, any definition that works is a good definition; perhaps even my own.

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Comments


[User Banned]
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EnDian Neo
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Discussion is good, but not when it becomes a search for THE definition - then it stifles the very idea you seek to develop.

Regarding smarter, faster and better: A definition of a game most benefits someone who is working out a game idea because it focuses your attention on what your "game goals" are - what do you want your game to do/achieve? For people creating assets, realizing an existing vision - not so much benefit.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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When your words are vague and devoid of meaning no dialogue can take place.

We don't see artists debate what a "painting" is when they talk about it.

If you can't clearly communicate your ideas, you fail at communication and achieve nothing.

EnDian Neo
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I like how you cut straight to the heart of the matter. Games are a medium. Sometimes they can be the message, but most of the time the message lies within the content itself, whether it is a way to occupy the time or a social commentary on how telepresence isolates UAV operators from the horror of war.

Interesting you should bring up painting as an example. Must a painting be a drawing painted with oil or water? Will a drawing done in chalk on the ground constitute a painting, like those pseudo-3D floor/wall drawings? What about photographs, or digital art in soft copy?

The artists I am acquainted with care more about the message than the medium used to portray it. We should too.

Guerric Hache
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Not to mention that Wittgenstein made a pretty compelling argument many years ago that precise definitions are not necessary for terms to be useful, and many have since come to agree (or reached similar conclusions in different ways).

The suggestion that words must be given crisp and precise normative definitions may not be wrong, but it is certainly not so obvious as to be simply thrown out there as though it were an established fact.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Interesting you should bring up painting as an example. Must a painting be a drawing painted with oil or water? Will a drawing done in chalk on the ground constitute a painting, like those pseudo-3D floor/wall drawings? What about photographs, or digital art in soft copy?"

You are using different words specifically designed to distinguish between a painting and everything else in your example.
In your example you use words drawing, photographs and digital paintings.
So no, a drawing is not a painting, and a photography of a painting is not a painting.
A poster is not a painting and a collage is also not a painting.
Oftentimes a definition does not need to be manufactured from something that -is- but rather inferred from what isn't.

I cant tell you what precise, measurable characteristics a painting needs to contain to be considered a painting, but i can tell you that a car is not a painting.

Definitions are there to give objects and concepts boundaries, and games are no different.
Similarly the medium of games isn't boundless.

"The artists I am acquainted with care more about the message than the medium used to portray it. We should too."

While noble and a good philosophical stance I am going to play the cynic here.
Games aren't only art, they are an industry.
An industry involving sometimes hundreds of people, and most importantly the consumers.

While everything is clear in your head, it might not be for the other people you are working with and you cant present ideas and thoughts about something to me if I dont know what it is.

Its like inviting me for ice-cream, just to present me with a corn-dog.

EnDian Neo
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Warning: It's kinda ironic I am embroiled in a semantic argument when the aim of my post was to cut down on such arguments, nevertheless...

"You are using different words specifically designed to distinguish between a painting and everything else in your example."

Your statement implies that the meaning of each word is mutually exclusive with another - A rock is not a car, a painting is not a rock etc.

We both know that is patently not true (e.g. I am a man AND a human being).

"I cant tell you what precise, measurable characteristics a painting needs to contain to be considered a painting, but i can tell you that a car is not a painting."

On that note, what is not a game?

"While noble and a good philosophical stance I am going to play the cynic here. Games aren't only art, they are an industry."

I think you misunderstood my point there. "Game" as a descriptor is meaningless by itself, yet a lot of "academics" want to "define" it. The people in the industry don't really care and don't really want to hear about all this. They do care about what your game is going to achieve - your "message"- because it defines what assets they need to create.

By that token, I think the great fuss over Heavy Rain is whether a game was the best medium for the designer's "message".

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Your statement implies that the meaning of each word is mutually exclusive with another - A rock is not a car, a painting is not a rock etc.

We both know that is patently not true (e.g. I am a man AND a human being)."

Man being a descriptor of sex
Human being a descriptor of species (shorthand).

With painting, drawing, etc we are talking about the same attribute and descriptor, so your counter-argument is really not relevant here.

Unless you think otherwise, but then you need to argument why "game" and "movie" don't apply as a a descriptor for the same attribute (medium)

"On that note, what is not a game?"

Well everything that is not a game. A movie for example is not a game, a car isn't either.
I can't write all the things that they are not, it would be pointless.

"I think you misunderstood my point there. "Game" as a descriptor is meaningless by itself, yet a lot of "academics" want to "define" it. The people in the industry don't really care and don't really want to hear about all this. They do care about what your game is going to achieve - your "message"- because it defines what assets they need to create."

Well, the problem is that "game" is a word and needs to have meaning if you want to use it.
If you want to advocate the removal of "game" from the language, i might even agree, even if i find it not feasible at this point.
But the word is widely in use, and it has a vague descriptor that varies from person to person.

The descriptor as it stands now is meaningless, yet -heavily- utilized (marketing, journalism, design, etc.), -THAT- is the problem.

Right now, anything that calls itself a "game" is a game.
We can't have that.

What is "The Art and Business of Making Games" (the motto of this Gamasutra)
if i don't know what "game" is?!
How can i (you) have -any- discussion about it?

90% of all flamewars on the internet surrounding -any- topic centered around games happens because terms are WOEFULLY undefined (i am planning on an article about it).

For example on a site like mmorpg.com with one million subscribers, nobody can actually say what a MMORPG actually is. For gods sake, DayZ (a mod for ArmA 2) and Diablo 3 is listed as an MMORPG.

This industry has a -very- serious communication problem.

It can't get its genres straight, it can't get its terminology straight and it can't get its taxonomy straight either.

Having a discussion about a piece is a chore, because i first need to carefully probe out what the other person means by using words like "RPG" (could be Mass Effect, or Baldurs Gate, or Diablo, etc.) or "sandbox mechanics" (could be Skyrim, could be Minecraft, could be GTA or SimCity) etc.

What I'm saying is that i understand that you don't care, but you SHOULD.


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