REDUX: A Game is a Game is a Game

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Our great pastime is nothing new. What many people don't realize is that video games are just the latest innovation in a tradition as old as mankind. Video games are, at their core, games. Every game adheres to a simple criteria. Half-Real by Jesper Juul, defines a game as " a rule based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable."

That's a lot to take in at once, so let's break it down further. First, the rule based system. Every game has rules. Anyone who's ever played a game even as simple as checkers understands that there are specific rules that dictate how the game is played. Today, most video games' rules are based on the physics engine. For example; when playing Half Life, you cannot fly. If you were to fly, you would be using a cheat. To cheat is to break a set rule. You see what I'm saying?

Now let's move on. The variable and quantifiable outcome. It may sound complicated but again, it's quite simple. The outcome is what happens as a result of the player's actions within the rules of the game. The outcome can be looked at in a number of ways. Again, let's take something as simple as Checkers. Each move has an outcome. You may capture your opponent's piece, block an advance, king a piece, etc. There's your variable outcome. Now, about that quantifiable outcome. Have you ever won a game of checkers? How many pieces did you capture?

Games like Halo are no less bound by these rules. Play any online game and you understand how different each match can be. The variable and quantifiable outcome is simply a representation of how each game went. Did you win, how many kills did you earn, did you get sniped when you went out that door, and so on.

Now we can see the next part more clearly. Different outcomes are assigned different values. In chess, the speed with which you gain checkmate is far more valuable than the number of pieces you capture. In Rock Band, the number of fans your band has is more valuable than the amount of money it has made.

Needless to say, we all know about effort. If you've ever played a game late into the night or slogged through it's highest difficulty setting, you've exerted plenty of effort. if you played or play sports, you've exerted effort to influence the game. You hustled when the coach told you to, you ran around the field like a maniac. Why? Because you want to achieve a specific outcome. Largely, you want to win, most humans do. That is effort and it doesn't matter if you experienced it on the field or on the couch. It's the same damn thing.

All that effort has to come from somewhere. There has to be a reason for it. There has to be a reason you logged all those hours leveling your paladin, or read through the Art of War. You were emotionally invested in the outcome of that game. You have been emotionally invested in everything from Pictionary to Pikmin, Baseball to Bioshock. It's the very nature of games that we feel attached to the outcome. We want Gordon Freeman to defeat the combine because we've been there through it all, not just with him but as him. You want to beat your Dad at Chess because you know it'd make him proud.

Now finally, let's talk about consequences. The definition says that the consequences are optional and negotiable. What does that mean for us? Well, most simply a game's consequences are optional because the game itself is optional. You never have to play any game you don't want to. If you do decide to play you can often negotiate the terms of the game. No game is ever set in stone, they've always had variants and it's up to you, the player to decide largely what those terms are. Most video games these days allow for several different endings depending on how you played the game. A perfect example of a negotiable consequence. If you've played poker you've constantly renegotiated the consequences of the game by placing a bet.

Games are games no matter how they're packaged or where they're played. They've been a part of every culture back to Mesopotamia and they've always been changing. Today's major games may be played on a screen but that doesn't change what they are at their core. Games like HaloPuzzle QuestRock Band, even Raving Rabbids have more in common with the old favorites than most will admit. It's just more proof that the games we play today are every bit as worthy and valuable as the ones our parent's played when they were young.