Question Time: What is a Game? Part 3

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This is the third part of Minister of Games Robert Bell’s blog series defining games. Get caught up on the earlier posts here!

In the previous post, I discussed how every game contains abilities, constraints, rewards, and risks, all combined together within a consistent, logically designed experience that players may choose to participate in. How does this work in practice?

Take a very simple game as an example – rock/paper/scissors. It starts with two players. Both have the ability to reveal one of three hand signs. They are constrained by the fact that they can’t choose a hand sign other than one of the three agreed-upon signs, they have to reveal their signs at the exact same, they cannot change their respective signs once they have revealed them, etc. These abilities and constraints are, of course, essential to game play in rock/paper/scissors, but they are insufficient to establish game play on their own. After all, they don’t explain how players will be differentially rewarded for their choices and what risks will be involved in choosing to reveal one sign over another.

Here is where a core piece of the game’s logic comes in: rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, paper beats rock. This consistent logic defines the rewards and risks in a game in which the state of play is dynamic, depending on the players’ choices. With this logic in place, it’s clear that the reward of the game is a simple win state – one player’s sign beats the other player’s sign, in which case he or she wins the game. The risk arises because it is impossible to know the other player’s sign with total certainty before it is revealed, meaning that a player can throw a losing sign and thus lose the game.

Of course, there’s not much to rock/paper/scissors – it’s a very finite game experience. (You can replay it, of course – as many people do – and stake a win on multiple plays, but what we have described is truly the complete game). Still, I believe that the working definition of games that we have just come up with allows us to deconstruct, analyze, and discuss even the most complex games in existence. It can also help us understand what games are not.

What do you think about this definition of games?

Robert Bell is Minister of Games at Enspire Studios.