Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 05, 2012
What is a "game", anyway?

A reader wrote me a mail asking "Your recent post on malicious players made me think about the structure and purpose of games today. Is EVE a game, or a platform for abuse? And what about the "gamification" of real life with location services or 3D games that use the environs around you as input into the game world. What is a "game" these days, anyway?". I would answer that a game is a risk-free environment in which you can try out various actions for fun or for learning without fear of the consequences, because the consequences aren't real.

As a consequence of that, it stops being a game when there are real-world consequences. For example "gambling" isn't a "game" in spite of some resemblances. A MMORPG stops being a game when it spills over into real life and results in real world threats to people and their families. Or when it is "played" to earn real money. And "gamification" isn't a game at all, it only uses game-like incentives and reward structures for real world purposes.

As you can see there is a growing trend of "games" turning into "ungames". There are many reasons for that, one of which is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Once you climb up that pyramid high enough, you are leaving the real world needs behind. If somebody's needs are for status and achievement, he can fulfill that need in a virtual environment, and these virtual environments are usually designed to offer a lot of that status and virtual achievements for less effort than it would take to achieve something in the real world. There are now a sufficient number of people who are sufficiently well-off that they can spend real money on virtual status symbols or game achievements. That is bound to be used by those who are still lower on the pyramid and are just trying to make a buck. The danger is that people become confused about where the border between real and virtual is, which leads to stories like the Chinese guy who murdered a friend who borrowed and then sold his virtual sword.

I think ""played" to earn real money" is a bit restrictive.

In real life, if I had a $5 bill, a glass I paid $20 for but with no resale value, and a manuscript I spent 1000 hours creating, then I would be increasingly unhappy with the item being destroyed.

I would regret far more the lost of an item I spent hundreds of hours acquiring than a D3 sword I can sell for $5

Slightly off-topic, this made me realize a disconnect I couldn't understand before. When new expansions come out, a lot of people complain about new green gear suddenly making all their epics invalid or pointless, and they pressure Blizzard to decrease the ilvl jump, some even being ecstatic that their epics would last up through the new level cap if good enough.

The disconnect was that I had also spent hundreds of hours trying to get my epics, but I am of the opposite opinion. I LOVED brand new gear coming out and throwing it on replacing what I had. It is one thing I loved with TBC and was disappointed with in WotLK for example.

Now, using Hagu's example, I would of course be absolutely DEVASTATED to lose a manuscript I spent a thousand hours creating. And it's easy to see the analogy. But it doesn't carry over to my experiences in WoW. Thinking about it, I guess I always viewed my time in WoW like time spent watching movies if I was a movie buff. There is nothing you can do to take away the thousand hours I may have spent watching all these movies. You release new movies and I enjoy them. And the old movies aren't devalued, I can enjoy the memories of them perfectly fine.

But I suppose some people view their characters in any MMO more like that thousand hour manuscript rather than a thousand hour movie hobby. I guess that is why they get so antsy.
What about sports like American Football or Rugby, games that carry a high risk of injury with them?
Shrug, I'd say a game is any interactive activity pursued with the intent of enjoyment or pleasure. Basically, entertainment can be divided into non-interactive experiences (like tv) and interactive games.

But I certainly don't think that my definition or your definition should take primacy as The Definition. If someone wanted to call watching tv a game, I certainly wouldn't shout 'You're wrong!' I just wouldn't call it a game myself.

What's the point of defining game?
Can multi-player games exist at all?

They all have a real world consequence: real people consider you "awesome" or "retard". So players optimize, read, use gearscore, cheat, buy microtransaction-cheat, but they never try out new things in fear of being observed for real as retards.
Does it mean that when (not if!) a legal/social framework that brings real-world consequences to EVE in-game bullying and harassment is introduced EVE will no longer be a game?
@Sine Nomine: It is the "rails" versus "sandbox" genres. While they have other problems, I prefer the sandbox games where you are working for something. ( e.g., if you work in EVE to buy and fly a freighter and come back in a year, it will be approximately the same.) To Tobold's point, you have spent dozens of hours getting to that point; losing that capability would be a loss, even if it does not show up on a price sheet anywhere.

The frustration with rails is they send mixed messages: you need to grind lots of stuff (Dailies for rep gear, enchant, patterns) to be on level. Except that in a few months it is irrelevant. Doing Molten Front Dailies for a month sure seemed to me at the end much more like an investment (a/k/a grinding away in my Skinner Box) than an activity that was excessively fun.
I have to disagree with your definition. A game is not an environment. It is an activity. And it's the imposed "rules" of the activity that make it a game.

Calling WoW or EVE "games" is shorthand. They are environments in which to play many different games, because to some extent they allow players to create their own rules. WoW less so, and EVE certainly more so.

I would say the strict definition of the word "game" is an activity that follows a set of rules agreed upon by all players. Deviating from the rules (cheating) ideally disqualifies you from the game.

Ah but humans are too complex to be content to follow simple rules much past the age of five.

EVE is "riskier" because it allows me to play my own game with my own set of rules within your game and it's rules. And all those rules are deliciously unpredictable and flexible. Thus cheating itself becomes a game.

Humans also love to cheat.
I think that any subculture - and as mainstream as it is now, MMO gaming is still a subculture - attracts people who don't want to live on the surface of a society. As a result, you get people with varying degrees of social, mental, or physical disorders in any subculture. Some of these people are looking for a non-judgmental, safe haven in which to be who they want without the scorn that a superficial and judgmental society normally throws their way. These people make excellent additions to the subculture and are usually (and should be) welcomed.

But you also get the batshit crazy anti-social lunatics, too. And since their antics are so newsworthy, the whole subculture gets tainted as a result. Hence reefer fear in the 60s, D&D fear in the 70s, anarchist fear in the 80s, Internet fear in the 90s, and so forth.

Now we have stories of people who starve to death playing a game, kill another over a virtual item, or even just "feed on the tears" of others' frustration. I don't think they're anywhere near the majority, even in a game like EVE, which I admit to never having played precisely because of its reputation. Still, I'm sure there's more good, law-abiding folks playing EVE for the fun that the opportunity to do digital illegal activities (corporate scamming and so forth) than of the other type.

Subcultures bring out the weirdos. Some of us are pretty "normal" weirdos, some of us are a bit more fringe, and some are really almost inhuman. Still, it's important to remember that while the stories from the fringe abound, they're stories precisely because they're out of the norm, not representative of it.
And all those rules are deliciously unpredictable and flexible.

If you define a game by the existence of rules, an environment like EVE where rules are "unpredictable and flexible", aka non-existing, is not a game. Just like life is not a game, because life's rules are unpredictable and flexible.
I define a game as any activity undertaken for entertainment of which the consequences are deemed unimportant by the "player".

If there is financial risk and reward, then it is gambling. If it is organized according to agreed upon rules for the entertainment of spectators, it is a sport.

If the consequences of the activity are considered important, it is "sirius bznis!".

If it is undertaken for reasons other than entertainment, it is work (or volunteering if not paid.)

Life is a game. Or not. It depends on how important the consequences are to you.
Going to a casino and losing money on blackjack is still considered playing a game of chance. Poker, chess or almost any card game can be played for fun or real money.

Games include physical types, mental types, skill based or just pure random luck. There are board games and games like hide n seek.

Bottom line is you can't put a simple one or two sentence definition as to what a game is or isn't.
I can define anything I want in as many sentences as I want. The only thing I can't do (nor can anyone else) is give any definition for anything to which everybody agrees. That doesn't matter at all to me. Getting everybody to agree isn't the purpose of my posts. I just want to provoke an intelligent discussion on game-related subjects.
not sure your definition of a game is accurate. lack of real world consequences doesn't work in my view.

basketball is a game. boxing is a game. foursquare is a game. let me tell you, there are consequences involved with playing these games.

in online video games, you risk your online reputation and your time invested and the money you pay for playing time.
Yes you have the right to do so. But that doesn't make you correct. If we play poker for chips but never convert those chips into real money that would be a game according to your post. But when those chips are converted to real money it is no longer a game.

How can the converting process define if poker is a game or not?
The motivation is different whether you just play for peanuts or for real dollars. If there are no monetary consequences, you can play crazy stuff for fun. If you know that real value is at stakes, you minmax to boredom.
Regarding the intersection of games and RL, did you notice the latest news from Entropia which got some press in 2009 when they were issued a license from the same Swedish banking regulators that regulate banks. Now someone reportedly spent $2.5million on virtual land in the game.


Quatum question: Can something be a game and a non-game at the same time? Say person1 logs onto a free trial account on the 24th just to watch Jita. No investment of time or interest or goals: it is essentially entertainment. Person2 is unemployed and mining hard to get the Plex to skill keep playing the MMO. Person3 is trying to drive customers away from the game - wither to bankrupt the publisher or just for "fun." So does it really mean much to say "EVE is a game" or is the question "is EVE a game for that specific person?"


And aren't well-run MMOs trying very hard to make them not be games. Football games have rules and tiebreakers so you can determine who won. Good MMOs want you to provide something you enjoy - PvP, PvE, raiding, leveling, crafting, achievements, pets, or GoldShire Cybering even if it is of no interest to others or you are not good at it.


Cynics and trolls might suggest that MMO banks may be better run, regulated and financed than many European and most Icelandic banks.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
My comment was deleted. Since I was certainly on topic, I guess I wasn't being polite enough? Okay. I'll try again.

Implying that EVE is not a game but a "platform for abuse" is the same thing as saying TV is not entertainment but a "platform for advertising." It completely ignores and marginalizes the interests of a group of people who happen to share many of your very same interests. I can't even begin to fathom the purpose of being so cynical. (I could guess at the purpose, but it would probably just get my comment deleted again.)

Tobold, your definition of what a game is further denigrates the very audience which your blog ostensibly caters to. All your definition says is that, to you, games aren't A) serious B) important and C) consequential. In any way. Because if they were, they would have real consequences. Is that really what you're trying to say? Really and truly?
Yes, Adam.
So that would mean that any game to which you have a real emotional connection is no longer a game. What is it, then?
I think the flaw in your theory is in it's latter, while most are arguing the former. Consequences are very personal and unique. I would consider a game more as an activity with a goal that the person does not believe is work. Yes, that's not the wikipedia definition, but it's the real world definition. If I believe an MMO is a game, then it is a game to me. The truth here is that perception is reality, that harsh lesson has recently been shown with the whole EVE issue. Take the eve issue. If the person was indeed suicidal, then yes, it's a very real consequence. If they weren't and decided to try and garner sympathy (which in the end it did and he won). Let's alter the view by 180.

You are a high-sec miner with multiple plex accounts. Twenty two ships, some mining, some hauler, some industrial command, all working to mine more ore. You are in a tech 2 ship which means you are not allowed to have insurance, and along comes a player and ganks you. Here, you make a choice. You weave a tail of woe and suicidal thoughts, hoping to guilt the other person into paying you back for it, but it fails sadly. Using your vast fortune, you buy a new hulk, swap areas, and get back to what you were doing while your other 21 accounts were still going strong. For you, it's still a game. You attempted your ploy on the other persons emotions, but there never was any real consequence for you because you have dozens of such ships, and plenty of money to replace them. Because emotions were simply a tool for you to use and you didn't care about using them, that strips you of any personal consequence, and there are no rules against saying such things when they are not true.

There is a reason we call it the Meta-Game. It is still part of the game. The Meta Game comes about when the game-player has no self-imposed law regarding the game. You find this often in D&D, when a player knows stats so well that he makes choices his character wouldn't. Problem is, this guy learns. The 'true' meta gamer will make characters that his meta game knowledge wouldn't be an issue with. A Wizard with such high spell lore that he might really know every spells' abilities. A warrior with such a high blacksmithing that he does indeed known the HP of a sword, it's hardness, and how to break it. They are still playing the game, but where you see the game becoming an ungame, they see the non-game world becoming a tool for the game.

This does make an interesting debate topic, but so does any perception-based argument. Abortion, cyber-bullying, polotics, and religion are great examples of this, and while debates on these topics are great, it ends in the same way. One side saying the other is wrong.

All that said, I think a better frame of this would be the duel of meta game vs non meta game. There's even meta-games in sports, such as the intimidating of other players. I think your recent travels into the pnp world has made you begin to think more like a designer and less like a player, and those two halves are starting to disagree.
To point your question back at you in an interesting way... Do you believe it right for a DM to hide rolls in order to allow the DM to shape the fight in the way he wants it to go, perhaps saving a key NPC or party member, or should he put all rolls out in plain view? The latter sounds morally right, but doing so could quickly ruin entire hours of design and planning, as well as destroy fun for the players. But, the only alternative is lying, a morally repugnant thing. Allowing the player/npc to die could end the game early, a real life consequence. Lying about the roll and allowing the player to live has a somewhat real life consequence if you believe this is morally wrong.

I think in that situation, you might be in a pickle, where I would simply choose to lie.
I think that if your definition of 'game' excludes poker, then your definition is flawed.

Or consider Magic: the Gathering. The original rules of Magic had an 'ante' rule, where each player had to risk losing a card. Under your definition, the original Magic was not a game, but as soon as the ante rule was removed, it became a game.

Honestly, Tobold, I think you are simply not talking about the same entity that everyone else is. It might be a worthwhile distinction, this idea of no-consequence activities versus activities with consequence. But trying to apply the label 'game' to just one side just doesn't match everyone else's perception of the concept.
As a consequence of that, it stops being a game when there are real-world consequences.

Yeah, in dodgeball, as soon as the ball hits you, it's not a game anymore.

And gambling is a game. It's only for people who have lost touch with any sense of enjoying risk, that it ceases to be a game.

Seriously, all of this just seems a cover for 'play the game the way I want it to be played'. Your 'real-world consequences' will conveniently cover all the things you don't like, but surprisingly overlook all the real-world consequences you do like. Which would be fine if you were the actual game designer.
So you prefer people sending rape threats to the wife of The Mittani being able to claim "it was just a game!"?
A thought-provoking post not sure where I stand on this. I Personally always have to remind myself to not get emotional over any sort of "game", but sometimes games can get bring out real emotions.
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