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Friday, 27 March 2015

A matter of millimetres

I don’t like the term game designer, and I’ll tell you why. But first some definitions.

Here’s one from a book on game theory: “A game is a system governed by rules, in which two or more players are able to adjust a limited set of interacting variables so as to reach an end state in which they can be ranked against a pre-established set of victory conditions.”

What can we say, apart from yikes? Well, driving through London in rush hour qualifies as a game. Solitaire doesn’t – it’s just a problem to be solved. Pinball too. Golf is a competition, but barely counts as a game unless you play it the way Goldfinger did. And the National Lottery isn’t a game unless you believe in God, in which case it is a game but it’s not a fair one.

Gameplay follows from that definition as “the set of strategies that players use to optimize their route through the game system.” Whole books have been written defining gameplay. My shelves are groaning under quite a few of them. (They’re rarely under 500 pages.) Still, I haven’t heard better than Sid Meier’s description of gameplay being “a series of interesting decisions.”

Anyway, what I said before was the theorist’s definition. Here’s mine: “A game is anything that is marketed as ‘a game’.” Game theory is a precisely defined area of analysis in mathematics and economics, but it’s not even close to being the whole thing. Just as plot is only part (and an optional one at that) of what makes a work of fiction, gameplay is just one of the elements that can be used to make a game enjoyable.

And that’s why I don’t like the term game designer. Game designer sounds like some kind of technician. And I have nothing against technicians, let me rush to tell you, but it is not an adequate way to describe something that fundamentally is an art, not a science.

It would be fatuous after all to describe a screenwriter as a “plot designer”. Technical skills are needed in the development of a game concept, and of course many more technical skills are then involved in turning the concept into a product. But the concept itself comes out of artistic inspiration and vision, not design.


  1. In the German language, we don't even two separate words for game and play. Game is play.

    1. In English there are all kinds of play activities that aren't games. The word "play" can be used for pretty much anything that's a fun leisure pasttime - of which games are a subset.

    2. Btw few would dispute that German boardgames are the best in the world. I'm thinking of classics like Adel Verpflichtet, Intrige, Suppenkasper, Agricola, etc, etc. I'd be interested in your thoughts on why that is, Yora.

  2. What would you say instead? If, say, I were somebody who invented board games for a living, what would my job title be?

    Game maker? Game conceptor?


    1. Board games, on the whole, are much more about pure rules mechanics, so designer does fit the bill. On a videogame, perhaps the term ought to be showrunner. Gamerunner? Blade runner? Ah, words words words. (I'm just being deliberately contentious here, of course - I don't actually object to the term designer, it's just rhetoric to get people thinking.)

  3. "a game is anything marketed as a game"?
    Open definitions are a cop-out. Your argument is that there is no definition, so anyone who wants to claim their thing is a game may do so. That defies logic.

    Let me offer a different definition:
    "a game is a set of interesting and meaningful choices made by a person in an attempt to satisfy a predetermined set of victory conditions"
    By this definition, activities of pure chance are not games, as they offer no meaningful choices. But we knew that anyway.

    1. Lol - I don't think anybody has ever accused me of defying logic before, Michael. Usually I'm getting told off by Jamie for being too logical. But see my reply to Paul - it's a rhetorical device, to get people to see that games have become a much broader category than they used to be. They don't always have victory conditions, for instance (30 Flights of Loving, say) and the choices are very often not interesting or meaningful (ever played King of Tokyo or Lords of Waterdeep?). They may not be "good" games, but you'll never convince Amazon to market them in a different category.

    2. I don't think you need to define victory conditions as narrowly within the ruleset. There aren't necessarily rule system-based win conditions in an RPG, a win condition could be as simple as "everyone gets wet and has fun" for a water balloon fight.
      I guess "interesting" is subjective, but "meaningful" can be defined as a choice that has a real non-random effect on your chances of winning.
      You could also add the idea of choices being artificially constrained.
      For example, the artificial constraint of a water balloon fight is that you can't pull out a hose, or a cudgel.

      Take two: a game is "a series of artificially constrained meaningful choices made by one or more people, in an attempt to satisfy a predetermined set of conditions whose achievement can be attained by multiple paths, for the purposes of pleasure."
      30 Flights of Loving is not a game, it is a puzzle. The key distinction is that in a game, multiple feasible ways to meet your goals exist, and these choices can be distinguished from each other in their effects. In a puzzle, there is typically only one way to meet your goal, and if there is more than one way, the choices are typically indistinguishable in their effect. Example: In a puzzle you could combine A and B to get Z, or C and D to get Z. Whether you create Z one way or the other is not a meaningful choice, as there is no further use for A,B,C or D. In a game, at the point you need Z you might be able to generate Z from A and B, but C and D would give you Z', which has some further use. The choice of which to use is meaningful.

      (well that was longer than I intended)

    3. An awful lot of things are going to get talked about as games that aren't going to fit any of the definitions. Peek-a-boo, for one. Wise or Otherwise is another - we call it a game, my wife likes it more than she likes the German-style boardgames that I favour, and yet I don't think the players are trying to satisfy a predetermined set of conditions. The fact is, like "play" or "show", the meaning of "game" is getting less precise. I sympathize; it drives me mad when people use "electrocute" to mean a non-fatal shock, or "obtuse" when they mean "obscure" - but the dictionary tells me that enough people make these mistakes that they have become acceptable usage.

    4. Peekaboo is a game for the baby, but it is mostly internal. The reason babies enjoy peekaboo is because they can make predictions about when you reappear. The choice is whether to make or not make the prediction. The victory condition is being right. The confusion comes from the fact that the parent is the GM for the game They know what is going to happen, but the information asymmetry allows for meaningful choice (at the time).
      Wise and Otherwise is a game, much like Apples to Apples. The victory condition is to sufficiently amuse the Reader to win points from them in competition with other players. There are meaningful choices, and an artificial set of constraints - i.e. you win points by amusing through writing proverb endings, not through telling jokes.

      These definitely seem to fit my definition.