Sunday Thoughts: What’s a Game?

Today I have had terrible writers block. Even a nice walk and tasty lunch couldn’t save me, but once again Twitter managed to help me out. See, DaywalkerLiam made an innocent enough Tweet about how he loves Minecraft, and thinks it’s one of the best games ever created. That sparked off a thought about whether or not I’d really consider Minecraft a game in its current state. From what I understand it will be full of game modes once it’s finished, but right now it seems more like a tool or a toy than a game.

It does certainly have some gameplay mechanics, such as enemies you have to escape, but in all honesty those don’t seem to be the reason people are playing with it. It’s the creation aspect that has everyone hooked into the game it seems, building huge castles or gigantic stone pyramids. That’s completely understandable, the stuff people are managing to create in a world that’s just stacked blocks is pretty incredible. Whilst I haven’t played Minecraft yet, the freedom it gives you does sound very liberating compared to most games. It’s what drew people into Sim City and The Sims, just taken almost to as far as you can take it.

If it’s the creating that’s drawing you in though, is it still a game? I wouldn’t say Lego’s a game, although it doesn’t make it any less fun to play with. See I don’t think it really matters whether or not Minecraft is a game, it just matters that it’s fun. The only reason I’m wondering about it it purely that it just seemed interesting, is there some set of criteria you need to fulfil in order to be thought of as a game.

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Obviously you need some kind of ‘play’ mechanic. That’s pretty broad and covers a huge range of things. For example I’d never class Microsoft Flight Sim as a game, but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time playing with it in the past. Lego’s the same, you can certainly play with it but it’s not a game by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously any type of game fits neatly inside this criteria as well, whether it be Halo, Risk or Hide and Seek.

Perhaps some kind of win/loss mechanic is needed. For example, you can’t lose when you’re playing with Lego. Sure, whatever you’ve built can fall over but that’s not really losing. This is where titles like Flower can cause debate about whether or not it’s really a game. There’s no explicit concept of failure in Flower, although if you watch me play you might think there is. This is why Flower is often described as a ‘visual poem’, and I think most people can get on board with that as a concept. The debate about games as art may continue forever, but to me Flower has already crossed into art effortlessly even if there is disagreement about what should join it.

To an extent I’m tempted to say you need a a concept of being able to complete a game, but it raises the question of MMOs. Can you ever really complete an MMO? You could go through and complete every quest, beat every raid boss and become incredibly rich but would you really have completed it? There’s still more loot to collect or other players to battle. If every other player in the game agrees that you’re the best there is would that be the end?

No, the goal posts are too variable for a game to require the ability to complete it. A lot of games easily fall inside this category, but there are just too many edge cases where things don’t quite fit in. It’s easy enough to just consider it as an extension of win/loss mechanics anyway, where completing a game is just the concluding win.

Beyond that it becomes hard to try and define what you need for a game to be a game. I’m not sure you actually need more than the ability to play and win or lose whilst playing. I’d be interested to hear what you had to say about this, if there’s anything else that you think is required if something is to be considered a game.

Anyway, to bring it back around to Minecraft doe it hit those criteria? Well it certainly have a play mechanic. I mean I’ve mentioned Lego several times, and the block building mechanics of Minecraft could be considered as what happens if you hyper-evolved Lego with a nice dose of radiation; just like Godzilla. The existence of a win/loss mechanic is perhaps harder to judge, but I think that it could be judged in the same context as an MMO. You never explicitly lose the game, but there is the possibility of dying at the hands of one of the various mobs. Even if my perception is that people spend more time with the creation side of things, it does seem to employ these basic mechanics.

Not that it really matters though, as long as people are enjoying themselves.

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12 Comments

  1. Just unlocked my tweets for you. Oh the thing’s i’ve done for you :P
    But yeah, i see games and mediums that you can play and have fun. Lovely stuff

  2. that’s an interesting question, and one i can’t recall ever seeing asked before.

    does the player being able to affect the outcome make a game a game?
    because there are plenty of games where the player doesn’t affect the outcome other than in simple success or failure to complete the given tasks, if you’re successful you go on to the next part of the game, if not either the game ends or you try again, in that sense there’s one outcome and a failure to reach that outcome.

    and just being interactive doesn’t always mean a title is a game,like you said, lego is interactive, you can make your own creations, is it a game, well it’s several games now ^_^ , no, it’s not really a game.
    and a spread sheet is interactive, and nobody would call it a game, except the banker maybe.

    and is it something somebody carefully crafted to provide entertainment to somebody else?
    not necessarily, you could pick up a stone and play keepy uppy with it, see how long you can keep it up, that’s a game, but you couldn’t call it carefully crafted, unless you were a company looking to market the new fad christmas toy of stone keepy uppy x, because the letter x makes everything sound cooler apparently. :)

    but in the end, if you can play it and it’s fun, then it might be a game, and also if you can play it but it’s not fun, it still might be a game, just one you don’t want to play, and there are plenty of those.

  3. You bastard.
    I’m going to be thinking about this for ages now when I should be studying.
    Damn you! :P

  4. All games have an objective, be it to make lines or go on quests. They also all require rules, be that a rule book in monopoly or how combat occurs in halo.

  5. Great article, do you know what stops it being brilliant, that spelling mistake. Shame really. I kid of course. :P

  6. I’d count minecraft a game just as much as I’d count littlebigplanet a game – they both have deep creation elements that complement the game part. Minecraft is often described as a survival horror game – and I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description

  7. Minecraft is definitely a game.

    You focus on the creation aspect, but you have to bear in mind that, to build, for example, my dark room tower, I had to use somewhere in the vicinity of 6000/7000 cobblestone. Where do you think that came from? I mined it, and I collected it whilst going through caves, and I fought monsters and almost fell into lava and wet myself and creepers appearing. That’s a game, right there. It’s a survival game, where everything you do is born from the first thing you do – collect some wood, make a pick axe, make a shelter. It’s all survival, every last bit of it. Unless you’re on peaceful.

    In other news, anything that you play is a game. Scrabble, LittleBigPlanet, Homefront, Darksiders, Zelda, Boggle. And before you mention Lego, you don’t PLAY Lego, you play WITH Lego.

    • If someone were to play a guitar would that be a game?

      • Not really the same thing, that, is it? Different kinds of playing. I can play with a toy and play the guitar, but they’re different things, so playing a game is different too.

    • I agree. Minecraft is a game. The only difference to your standard game is that you set your own objectives and play however you want to play it.
      You also have a PM, Gamoc.

  8. Anyone interested in this subject (or the subject of game design) should check ‘The Art Of Game Design’ by Jesse Schell (http://artofgamedesign.com/book/).

    It’s an excellent (and very easy) read and shares a lot of insights into the psychology behind a game.

    It’s certainly helped us look at games in a different way.

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