Not a game

I was having a discussion today in which the question came up of “what makes something a game” — as opposed, say, to a toy or a simulation.

For me there is a fairly simple approximate answer (although of course there are subtleties here): A game is an interactive experience that encourages its participant(s) to aim toward defined goals, and offers some sort of reward for a player who succeeds in reaching those goals. The reward can be minimal (eg: a message that says “Congratulations, you did it!”), but it needs to be present.

This conversation got me thinking about the interactive java applets on my NYU home page. Most of these applets are clearly not games, even though it would have been very easy for me to structure them as games.

And it occurred to me, for the first time really, why I don’t make them as games: Because the last thing I would wish visitors to do is focus on reaching some predefined goal.

Rather, I want visitors to my site to explore with no agenda. My hope is that my ragtag little band of demos will encourage people to follow their own free-wheeling thoughts, to form their own creative associations, and to discover worlds of their own.

6 Responses to “Not a game”

  1. It would be interesting to see something with the overt form of a boardgame without a predefined goal. Maybe it would be more like a conversation or a box of blocks than a game. There are some sandbox or open world games games like Simcity or Skyrim that are more fun to play once you let go of the externally imposed goals and choose your own goals.

  2. Alec says:

    Maybe then your whole website is a game where the goal for the participant(s) “to form their own creative associations, and to discover worlds of their own”. I guess that would make your demos the levels, or more probably they’re different locations in this game’s universe.

  3. admin says:

    I would argue that if anything my website is a toy, not a game. It fits the description of a toy — an interactive object of play, whose users are free to define their own goals.

  4. admin says:

    Doug: In support of your thought, Will Wright has consistently maintained that The Sims is really a toy rather than a game, for pretty much the same reasons.

  5. jtnimoy says:

    I like to say “infinite game” [ ] rather than the finite kind that has the rules, goal, and reward. I disagree with that wikipedia article when it says “the only known example [of an infinite game] is Life [as in living organisms, not Conway’s game].” I believe there are infinite games found in research and art; explorations where we are just inviting any and all participation with little expectation, and just observe what happens next. As a child, I seldom enjoyed chess or checkers “the finite way,” but rather, did playful things with the game pieces that my brother and I found more interesting. Perhaps that is “infinite chess”. Some online gaming communities will tell you that’s called Freestyle Mode. What about Infinite Pong, or Infinite Pac-Man? Can we smuggle the elements of those finite games out into an infinite mode?

  6. sharon says:

    Tetris always felt like an infinite game (and one you could never win). I stopped playing when I realized that I was always going to get to a point where my wrists or my patience or my stamina wore out without getting any real satisfaction out of it.

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