Continuing my online learning quest, I’m moving on to week 2 of “Understanding Video Games”, a University of Alberta Course offered by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas through Coursera. The readings for the week are by Bo Kampmann Walther, “Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications.” (Game Studies 3.1: http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/walther, 2003).
I started with the reading, rather than the video lecture, and I liked the article. Like the videos, it is basically predicated on the assumption that if you want to discuss “video games”, you should first define “game” in general, and equally, what is “not game” i.e. “play”. So Walther separates “what is play” (generally open-ended, few rules, malleable by make-believe and the ability to build your own world, if you desire) vs. “what is game” (generally close-ended, with rules and tactics to succeed). Of course, it doesn’t take long to hit the paradox — if play and game are different, how can you “play a game” and is “playing” and “gaming” therefore different? Can you game while playing or play while gaming? There’s a consideration in one of the referenced pieces that reality is kind of the “first order of complexity” and play is the second order; by extension, gaming becomes a third order. Not sure that helps the discussion any though, as I think it is more about the type of complexity (play being more self-imposed rules or few rules, while gaming tends to require submitting oneself to another’s pre-determined set of rules).
When I moved on to the videos, I kind of already knew what to expect from the article. And so, this first week is really about taxonomy i.e. what separates the game from play and play from the game. The video starts with a review of the type of video games that straddle “playing” and “gaming” i.e. simulator games like SimCity, The Sims, and Flight Simulator. SimCity and The Sims were interesting in part because the “game” was to build the world, not to “play” the game once created. I find it most interesting in terms of the history and linguistic elements — some languages like French and Latin use relatively the same word for both games and play. I liked their list of possible elements common to many definitions of a game:
- Formal system or rules
- Desirable goals
- Consequences for cheating
- An ending or conclusion
- Quantifiable outcome
- Balance between risk and reward
- Effort on behalf of the players
- Fun or whimsical elements.
The video suggests you need rules+goals+outcome+effort to make a game, but I’m not entirely sure about the outcome and effort. Some games are incredibly passive, and would still hold, and others where the game could go on relatively indefinitely without an outcome that “ends” the game. I think #s 3-8 are more about elements that determine if the game is “enjoyable” or repeatable, almost “playable” without the taxonomy in the way, more so than if it was only #1 and 2, it might just be a game to pass the time.
I do like their example from past theorists about breaking games into four types, each of which would have their own play/game spectrum within them:
- Agon – competitive types, like sports;
- Alea – chance play, like gambling;
- Mimicry – roleplaying and simulation;
- Illinx – thrill or adrenaline based, like a roller coaster.
Professor Brian Moriarty definition as a series of decision tree nodes is interesting (play is a superfluous action; toy is something that elicits play; game is a toy with rules and a goal; puzzle is a game with a solution), but without the full tree, it’s hard to tell if that gets you any further than the four categories above.
Overall, it was an interesting week’s materials, and while the spectrum idea (game vs. play) is interesting, I suspect it’s more multi-dimensional than that — that axis will let you define something as a basic game, but most games, and video games in particular with their interactive yet solo play, would pull you off that axis pretty quick. I had some quibbles about some of the quizzes. One place, in particular, talked about Moriarty’s theorem and referred to something has having a “purpose”, which was deemed incorrect, but that depends on whether you see purpose and goal as the same thing.
But, on to week 3…