Question Time: What is a Game? Part 2

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This is the second part of Minister of Games Robert Bell’s blog series defining games. Read Part 1 here!

In my estimation, every game that I can think of contains four basic elements:

Abilities: The player is permitted and expected to do something. The game explicitly defines what each player can do and at what point in the experience he or she can do it. These are the players’ abilities. Players are almost always given multiple abilities to exercise, which allows them to make critical choices throughout the experience.

Constraints: At the same time, the game also defines what players cannot do within the game experience. This is essential – defined constraints are part of what differentiates a game from other types of play. On its own, play can be completely open, but a game structures play, at least in part, by denying specific abilities to the players.

Rewards: All games incentivize players for making certain choices. It may be the case that the only reward of a game is to achieve an explicitly defined win state. However, players are usually rewarded by achieving multiple goals throughout play as well, at least some of which can lead to a win (if the game indeed has a defined win state). These goals can include a basic score increase, the defeat of one or more adversaries, the acquisition of new abilities, the opportunity to continue play after successfully completing a challenge, access to a new part of the game environment – the list goes on and on.

Risks: Players also face negative consequences for making certain choices in a game, meaning that players must assume some risk. Risk implies uncertainty, and this is important – well-designed games have a built-in level of uncertainty that makes play risky, which is where the game’s sense of challenge and fun comes from. Players are uncertain whether their choices will lead to a win state or a fail state. They are uncertain whether they will acquire or lose what they need to continue. The game forces them to risk negative consequences – sometimes including a premature end to play itself – in order to earn the game’s rewards.

Taken together, I believe that abilities, constraints, rewards, and risks are the unified elements found in all game experiences. I might extend this description further by saying that abilities and constraints together form the core foundation of a game’s rule system, while rewards and risks are essential to the game’s value system – the system of feedback that informs players’ choices and, more broadly, helps to establish games as truly useful learning experiences.

But, in some ways, these four elements could apply to a number of real-world activities that have nothing to do with games. What’s missing? There is one more important component that we must understand before we can apply our description to a broader discussion of games. You’ll recall that in my initial definition I said that the unified elements in a game are designed in a consistent way. In other words, there is an underlying logic in the way that a game ties its abilities, constraints, rewards, and risks together, a logic that is consistent and clear to all players. The game’s logic is what, in fact, unifies all of its essential elements. It’s what gives shape to the game’s rules and play, and it’s what sets games apart from all sorts of everyday activities — games are systems based on consistent, logical models that players choose to opt in to, or not.

How do all these elements work together in practice? In the next post, I’ll provide an example.

Robert Bell is Minister of Games at Enspire Studios.