I don’t take quite as strong a stance on this as Laroquod, but I do think that ‘game’ as used by people talking about the theory of games is often a term that means something very unlike what everybody else understands by it. (If you don’t think that two children pretending to be astronauts are playing a game, you’ve divorced yourself from the normal usage of the term and are now using a specialist term that should never be exported to broader contexts without a great big warning label.)

My own definition is more-or-less this:the essence of gameplay is meaningful, recreational choice in scenario context.

So, “meaningful choice” can be tactical (how does our party of sixth-level delvers get across this chasm infested with devil-bats? how can I take out that bishop to get control of this part of the board?) or creative (how best to portray my sixth-level delver’s alcoholism for a combination of pathos, sympathy and light comedy?) or in-character or out-of-character, provided the choices are (A) made recreationally (B) are contained in an identifiable scenario of some sort and © have meaningful consequences within that scenario (aren’t false choices or only-really-one-choice choices). Sometimes the scenario provides the challenge, explicitly, and sometimes the scenario simply provides the stage on which challenges are created and met by the players in real-time.


The meaningful choice definition of game play may work nicely enough for our purposes, but it certainly excludes a large number of games: Ring Around the Rosie, Patty-Cake, and so forth.

–I personally feel you’re right in fixing on strategic patterns of thought as having something essential to do with gameplay… I doubt it’s an accident that we also apply the word to animals that we hunt.


ps - Can we have games without interaction?

Yeah, that’s interesting. I haven’t seen “narrative” given a definition in terms of the audience’s subjective experience before (although this may in fact be the correct strategy).

Modern writers, in writing workshops, generally accept the definition of “story” as “characters who do things for reasons.” The classic example is – Fitzgerald’s? –

Your focus on goals in the audience’s mind interests me in that it’s the contrapositive of that.

(There are classic counter-examples knocking down that definition, too, such as Hemingway’s shortest story possible. But even those counterexamples arguably have the elements of action and reason for it – certainly Hemingway’s does, although it’s backgrounded.)


The choice definition also excludes Chutes & Ladders and Candyland, not to mention catch. Which makes me think that interaction is important – Chutes & Ladders would be procedurally the same if one person rolled for everyone, but it wouldn’t have the interaction of rolling the dice. And everyone wants to roll their own d20s – it wouldn’t feel like a critical hit if you hadn’t rolled the d20 yourself, would it?

I also question whether a scenario is really necessary for games (catch, again).

But when we define games we’re defining what we find important in games, and choice within a scenario is as good a definition as any in that respect.

Matt w already talked about Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts, so now I’ll talk about Prototype theory.

When we’re talking about what is IF or what is a game or what is fiction we’re talking about categorisation. Prototype theory says there is very strong evidence that we humans usually don’t categorise things according to definitions with a list of essentials, but instead by comparing them to prototypical members of that category. There are marginal members in every category, but they do not constitute what the prototype is.

I’d like to propose the following Natural Semantic Metalanguage explication for game:

[code]X is a game:

  1. Sometimes people do an activity:
    2. This activity is not an essential part of their lives
    3. The outcome of this activity is not known ahead of time to these people
    4. These people influence the outcome of this activity
    5. These people feel something good while they are doing this
  2. X is like this activity[/code]

The like in the last line is where all the prototypical magic happens: it means that game X can be favourably compared to the prototypical game, while still allowing differences. However the more differences there are, the more marginal the member is in the category.

Now I only spent a couple of minutes thinking about what a prototypical game is and my explication could do with some work.

I feel like it’s important to differentiate between play and games. It’s possible to play around in Photoshop or MS Excel, for instance, but these are productivity tools, clearly not games. Pattycake and catch seem more like something I would call “activities” or “exercise” rather than games, per se.

Thanks for explaining that, and sorry if I misplaced the central locus of where the discussion is going. But I’d have to point out there is no such thing as a good toy that doesn’t place a goal in the player’s mind, either. LEGO is one of the best toys ever, because the size of the possibility space raises a great sense of expectation in the player’s mind. We’ve all felt this sense of expectation. Why do we ignore it in our definitions? Without this sense of expectation, no one would play with LEGO. It’s not like most people just play with it for no reason and then accidentally discover that you can build cool things with it. What you can do with it is the goal. Without it, there’s no ‘there’ there. Without the capability to understand that this toy is holding out a promise to you that you can work to fulfill, there is no appeal to LEGO at all. Same goes for any toy, really. You look at it and you already know the sorts of things you’re going to try with it. They occur to you on sight. That motivation was not actually supplied by you but was designed into the toy by the toy designers – if they’re any good.


Scenario is problematic there. Either everything is a ‘scenario’ (including the lines in tac-tac-toe) or else nothing is. There is no context in which human choice can be situated without a ‘scenario’ wrapped around it. It isn’t adding any meaning to your definition. Recreational also has to go, or else professional pool players are no longer playing a game, which doesn’t seem right. They’re playing a game: they’re just doing for money. Getting paid for it cannot fundamentally change the definition of what a human activity is; it seems obviously extrinsic. Choice is probably the best ground to try to lay a definition on, but even that is going to cause you trouble, as pointed out upthread. Plus, Russian roulette is a game with no choices. So is that thing where you try to slap somebody’s hands before they can pull it away: you can choose when to try, but that isn’t the meaningful choice – the meaning of the game is finding out who has the faster reflexes.

Why would it have any other kind of definition? It doesn’t make sense to understand an act of communication as anything but an attempt to change the state of another being’s mind – initially in a way that will make them keep receiving the communication. I went to U for Philosophy/Literature, but this is not something they taught me in school. I just sat down after and realised that no one in my entire degree program had actually even tried to teach me how to write narrative – as in how does it actually work or not work – all they really did is point out metaphors and whatnot. Totally disorganised view of what is going on. Plus, every single work we studied was a ‘brilliant work’. That’s a bad sign. How can you study what works or doesn’t work if you don’t study things that don’t work? A degree in literature is fairly useless to anyone wanting to know how to write narratively. It’s very useful for knowing what others have written and what the literary establishment thinks of those things: full-stop. If you want to learn to actually write you have to figure it out on your own: thus it has always been, I feel.

I’ve been told in the years since I was in school (nearing on two decades now) that the philosophy of writing I now espouse bears some resemblance to ‘reader response theory’ which was out of vogue when I was in academia. I have little confidence in literary criticism as a useful field for a practical writer to study, so I doubt a literary theory actually bears much resemblance to my after-all simple and purely pragmatic conclusions. But I never actually formally studied reader response theory or any of their texts, so I wouldn’t know. I’ve often thought I should look into it, but I’ve got all of this game criticism to get through. 87

With respect to Fitzgerald, both of those are stories; neither of them are good stories. An actually good version of that story might go something like this…

And an even better version (because it makes you want to keep reading after the first line) might go something like…

Those are much better told stories for no other reason but the sequence. Imagery, metaphor, symbolism, allegory – these are all great tools, but good writing doesn’t need a single one of them. It doesn’t even need a vocabulary of more than a thousand words. Good writing needs only a good sequence. Everything else is optional. (And if it doesn’t have a good sequence, nothing else will save it.) This is the way in which designing for story is very similar to designing for player choice. In both cases, the best writer is the writer with the most predictive ‘theory of mind’ about how to lead the player to turn the page (which is a choice) or to get interested in making some other desired type of choice.

You have a point. It wasn’t really meant as a definition but as a counter-definition. The point of my way of looking at it is not to exclude anything from any category but to perceive that there is an art of sequence at the heart of all communication, that is more important and unifying than anything that separates these various disciplines.


A prototype is not something that you ever come across in real life… but some things you come across are closer to the prototype than others. ‘Ostrich’ and ‘penguin’ are both ‘birds,’ but neither is central to the prototype. ‘Sparrow’ is closest to the prototype (as reflected by response times in categorization drills).

Can we identify a particular game that’s central to our intuitive prototype of an IF and of a CYOA?

Following up on this notion that we shouldn’t just study good literature, I suppose we shouldn’t just study good games. Rather, we want two instances that are most unmistakably an IF and a CYOA.

–I noticed a while back that The PK Girl was remarkable among IF Comp games because it had a very low standard of deviation, and was scored at 5. So voters overwhelmingly agreed that this was a game that was of solid, average quality – which is perhaps, for our purposes, remarkable.

Or it could be. PK Girl was considered remarkably well-programmed… but aimed at a younger audience than most voters. Its standard of deviation makes it very interesting to me, but probably it’s not enough like what we think of when we think “IF” for it to be close to our prototype.

Anybody got a better candidate?


I did a talk the other month where - without totally being sure about this - I suggested that a game requires three things - unpredictability, progression, and a dependable ruleset to orchestrate events.

I like it as a model because it’s really about what a game needs to be experienced as a game, rather than what you have to include to make something a game. So it covers things like Patty Cake and Snakes and Ladders which are only games in certain contexts. (To most adults, I don’t think Snakes and Ladders feels like a game, but more like a chore or a ritual. To children, however, it feels quite vibrant and alive. The distinction is bound up in the ‘predictability’ of events - to adults, Snakes and Ladders just isn’t very unpredictable).


I’m not sure I understood your question. If you want two games, one characteristic IF, one characteristic CYOA, I think Zork is a prototype of IF, and Cave of Time (CYOA #1) is a prototype of CYOA. But that answer is almost too trivial to be enlightening.

If you want a game that is unmistakably both, I think the point is arguable, but I feel pretty confident calling Fighting Fantasy’s gamebook The Warlock of Firetop Mountain a good prototype CYOA IF. It has a world model (which the reader manages manually, using pencil and paper), it has a cave to explore at a leisurely pace, and it has a few simple puzzles.

Dan, those were exactly the examples I was going to use!

Important for what? OK, that’s a cheap shot; presumably “important for defining what games are.” But if we’re going on the ordinary definition of “game,” “a game of catch” is a very common phrase.

Now, catch and pattycake might not share in any of the qualities you’re interested in in games. Which is fine; then you won’t mind a definition that excludes them. But that’s just to say that when you talk about games, you want to talk about the things that interest you, not about everything that people talk about when they use the word “game.” Which brings us back to the original question: Important for what? For what you want to do when you talk about games, presumably.

Jon, in some ways isn’t that what a good game is? Tic-Tac-Toe is utterly predictable, but it’s still a game. And the dependability of rulesets is highly variable. But again, these are things that can be interesting in games.

Hmm… at the risk of turning this discussion into something from Dinosaur Comics, I’ve been reading up on games and play.

It looks to me like play is just an imaginary context permitting people to act weird in ways they find interesting. Like an ultra-low tech holodeck or an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

Little kids will initiate play by ‘creating a shared focus of attention through putting their hands on something an adult or another child is holding.’ Or, they’ll repeat the other person’s actions.

That second one is thought-provoking, in thinking about how we play with computers, because mimicking someone prompts them, of course, to wonder what they can make you do. It’s very similar to the curiosity-evokation that happens when we wonder what we can make a computer do – through what range we can operate it. And there is definitely that in play: a great deal of childhood games, in my experience, had to do with who could make who do what. Social learning.

In such an extended notion of ‘play’ as setting a permissible context for desired activity, we can find a lot of leisure activity, from Facebook to barhopping…


To be clear, I consider it a center-based not boundary-based question, so nothing is excluded, only variable distances from the center with corresponding degrees of applicability to what I’m doing. Those are certainly games by my definition, though they’re light on the essence of gameplay. To me, center-based things are measured like gravitation … even the tinest particle at the furthest distance is still included, just not necessarily in a way that’s of much use to my day-to-day work as a game designer.

Well, that opens an entirely diffferent kettle of worms and/or fish and multiplies it by the original one :slight_smile:

Catch is pretty much pure scenario, last I checked? :slight_smile:

Sure; blackbirds and crows. Play includes gameplay.

Two computers playing chess.

One of them wins. Only really, really boring people care. :slight_smile:

Actually, I feel that way about two people playing chess.

Also: wasn’t sure if that was a question, or you were just enjoying assembling the sentence.


Here we go yo
Here we go yo
So what’s so what’s so what’s the scenario?

That is to say, I’ve realized that we don’t mean the same thing by “scenario”; what is it that you mean?

UPDATE: Also, given your remarks about centers vs. boundaries we’re totally in agreement, but I’m still interested in what you mean by “scenario.” I have the feeling I ought to know it in this context, though I’m getting a lot of interference from the “scenarios” in Squad Leader.