Games as Poetry

In which we discuss
placing limits on our play
so we have more fun.

I was visiting Jesper Juul at the MIT Gambit lab today and we got into that trusty old “what is the definition of a game?” debate. While I know that greater minds than I have attempted to address this question, I have often found the answers dissatifying and too heavily focused on the idea of “winning” and goal seeking behaviour in general.

It came to me in today’s discussion that I regard a game in much the same way as a poet might regard a particular meter or rhyme scheme: as a set of deliberate self-imposed constraints to encourage creativity.

The form of a poem affects its meaning in a variety of ways. It structures the sound of the piece which may create certain aesthetic connotations in the mind of the reader or hearer. It implies a certain traditional social attitude to the work (such as the expectation that limericks are humorous) which can be followed or deliberately violated for effect. However most importantly the structure acts as a constraint. It limits the poet’s choices in terms of the words she can use and thus inspires the creative process. This can result in a work that is much more interesting and carefully crafted than might have been produced otherwise.

Playing a game is likewise agreeing to abide by a set of constraints in order to let them shape your play. Freeform play is fun, but freedom is often self-limiting. If everything is allowed then nothing is particularly interesting. But if we agree to confine ourselves to certain ‘legal’ activities and attach particular meaning to objects and events then our play can gain a structure that it makes much more meaningful and entertaining. To me, this is the essence of playing a game.

Goals, in my opinion, are ony one kind of rule: an agreement to attach significance to a particular situation (checkmate, a high score, world domination, etc) and pursue it either individually or together. We do this because we know that following this rule will create certain kinds of play which we enjoy (and here MDA enters the picture again). However goals are not, in my opinion, a necessary feature of a game and challenge isn’t the only, or even the primary, kind of fun that games can provide. Writing games, roleplaying games, improv games, party games are all structured activities that are not necessarily goal oriented.

I’m even tempted to say that the focus on challenging goal-oriented activities is part of the oft-critiqued ‘guy culture’ of games, although I think applying gender labels to different kinds of fun is counterproductive and unneccessarily alienating to those who don’t fit the (narrow) stereotype.

This definition could be critiqued for being too broad. For example, doesn’t this mean that dancing is a game? A waltz is a set of rules constraining the activity of a set of players (dancers) in order to produce an entertaining result. To tell you the truth, I am quite happy to allow this to be the case, with one additional provision: a game is an artform in which the audience of the work are also the performers. In other words, a game exists (primarily) for the entertainment of its players. Unlike a stage performance, in which the dancers follow a coreographed routine for the entertainment of a separate group of spectators.

Under this definition, a waltz on stage is not a game but a waltz at a community dance hall is. Likewise a professional football match is less of a game than a friendly backyard affair, since the former is played primarily for the audience while the latter is only for the fun of the players. This may not square with the traditional meaning of the word, but from a desginer’s point of view I think it is a more useful one. Creating an exciting spectacle like a professional football match is quite different to designing an entertaining interactive experience.

The advantage of this definition is that it frees up designers to make a much wider range of activities which still have in common many of the same dynamics of interaction. Dancing and sport have many things in common that are independent of the presence or absense of a challenging goal. By removing this somewhat arbitrary distinction, more valuable insights can be carried from one to the other.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 9:58 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s quite close to my working definition:

    Game is a set of rules and/or conditions established by a community and intended as a bounded space for play.

    And I find broad definitions of the underlying concepts to be more appropriate than all the cultural baggage that people tend to attach to their working definitions.

  2. Corvus and I had an interesting discussion last year trying to define “video games”. I came at it from the Scott McCloud angle, and Corvus responded by building on his game lexicon. As noted above, your definition of “game” fits nicely into the latter.

  3. Chris Swain pointed me to an interesting counter-observation from Robert Frost:

    “For my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” — quoted from his notebooks in the Robert Frost Reader, p462.


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