What do we mean by ‘computer game’?

When we talk about computer games we are picking out a set of things in the world. Typically we will think of PC games, console games, flash games – that sort of thing. However I think that there is vagueness when we think about boundary conditions and, more interestingly, that these boundary cases tell us something about how we conceptualize games.

As this is a long post  it's worth putting the answer I get to, then running through how I get there, so this is my proposed definition:

    A computer game is a game where at least some of the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology.


This is my thought process - at a brief glance it looks to me that there are two areas in which we might find necessary conditions for something to be a computer game. These are: display of action and decision-making.

[Three posts in a row, I’m sure I just heard a gong from the side of the stage]

Display of Action
An obvious definition of a computer game seems to be that that a necessary part of the game is that actions are displayed by technology. A broader argument would be that the game is mediated by technology.

The latter of these definitions seem weak. We might play a game of chess by email but here the mediation seems ancillary to the game and thus not something that would determine its categorisation.

The notion of display also seems too limited. We need to work out what we mean by technology and display here – something may be displayed on a TV and most TV’s these days are effectively computers, they certainly are technology. So mere display of action especially when that display is just a picture of the acts seems insufficient for our needs.

What I think people are getting at when they talk about display is representation. When we interact with a computer game our acts are displayed on technology and generally through some form of representation. We act on an interface device and the act is represented by a block or a ship or a wolf or something acting in either direct or indirect response to us.

But again I don’t think that representation is sufficient. The reason is that acts can be represented but the representation can be in direct relationship to the act i.e. we simply replace video display noted above with some kind of rendered display – motion capture would seem to fall under this definition. Also there are Eye Toy games where there is simply the image of us as a player.

It looks like the key point in the notion of display or representation that has been lurking back there is the fact of the necessity of interface, but again I think that all the counter examples above include the fact of an interface.

But I do think that interfaces have something to tell us.

What I think underlies these ideas is not display, representation or interface but rather boundedness. That is, it seems to me that the defining quality behind these notions that video games are those things where the affordances provided by the technology (interface, representation, code) are a necessary and essential boundary to game acts.

Decision Making
An alternative approach to the definition of a computer game is by looking at the role of technology in decision making, or more properly, in determining game outcomes.

We might argue that if decisions in a game are determined wholly by technology then that game is a computer game. We may then as whether partial decision-making also counts.

Here the argument would go that if decision making in a game is determined by technology then that is a computer game. One motivation behind this as a definition is that we picking out those practices where technology is essential to the outcomes practice. We might also argue further that such practices have a distinct character (at least within the general set of games) because of the character of the outcomes or their mode of determination.

This character is derives from the fact of technology making a decision as we can say that a characteristic of technology based decision making is that there is a strict relationship between input data and outcome. Thus for any set of conditions C there will be decision D, and that for every instance of the conditions C the decision will always be D.

This one might argue is different from games were humans make the decisions because while in the ideal case we might think that conditions C would lead to D, in practice humans have a much higher bandwidth so, in practice, there may never be absolutely identical conditions and / or there will be interpretation of those conditions leading potentially to different outcomes.

Thus there seems to be a difference in the contingency and the expectations about contingency between the cases where humans are making decisions and computers are.

A challenge to this comes in the potentially hypothetical case of functional equivalence, and here we reach into all kinds of philosophical arguments about what matters behind what we can see and know – so I’m thinking about Turning tests, Searle’s Chinese room, Chalmer’s Zombies etc.

The argument would go like this: suppose that decision making is done by computer but that that computer system uses techniques such as AI to replicate human decision making to such a degree that under observation the nominal referee would pass the Turing test i.e. we would not be able to determine from function whether a human or machine were making the decisions.

In this case does it still mean anything to say that one instance is a computer game and one is not – if so, what it is that is important that we are picking out; or do we simply have games and the technological component is neither hear nor there.

Bounds and decisions
Here I want to re-introduce the idea of the computer as a necessary boundary of the game. We might say that one way in which a computer can provide a boundary is by it being outcome determining. In this way we are giving primacy not to the functional aspects of the boundary but to its technical nature.

But I wonder if this works, even in the case where there is not functional equivalence (assuming here that where we see computers as being distinct in the way that they make decisions then something certainly appears to be a computer game to a degree that the functionally equivalent machine would not). Let’s take racing as an example – and here I’m being generic about the genre of game, it can be athletics, horse racing, F1, rally – what ever. Suppose that the outcome of the race is determined by a sensor picking up that at least one participant has gotten over the finish line, the sensor triggers an image being taken or the use of some other sensing device, the input from this is processed and the processor determines which of the participants was in fact the first over the line. So it’s a photo finish where image detection is determining what ‘won by a head’.

A specific example of this is the use of ‘Hawkeye’ technology in tennis to help determine whether a serve was out or not. Thought at present it is used only as an aid not as the decision maker – but we can imagine a rule shift to it primacy - as evidence seems to suggest that it is more accurate than line judges (also even in this case the technology is determining only part of the outcome of the match – though it may be crucial)

Here technology is outcome determining. What’s more we can see cases where the technology would certainly not be functionally equivalent to a human – a human may react in very different ways to effetely the same circumstance they may also participate in negotiation over the outcome. 

My sense is that determination of outcomes is not essential to the notion of computer game, because even in the examples given above where there might be a computer determined non-negotiable outcome, the acts involved in the game e.g. tennis, are not bounded by technology – thus it feels that the game is actually not a computer game despite this use of computers.

A refinement might be how replaceable the technology is. So in the examples given above we are in situations where the technology could be replaced by a human (as the examples posited are hypothetical where we have gone the other way). But there might be games where all the acts are completely non-mediated but the game is constructed on the notion that the outcomes that those acts lead to are and only are determined by computer.

Here I think we get harmony with the definition that started to emerge above because here we have a boundary that is not merely based on technology but is essentially based on technology the fact that the boundary happens to be related to outcomes seems not to the important point.

Negotiation
Lastly I want to touch on negotiation. I think that it seems inherent in the idea of the essential nature of the computer that the acts or the meaning of the acts is in the act of play non-negotiable.

However we must take into to account cases which are common in MMOs where players argue with GMs or argue on forums about the meaning of acts and whether they fit within the rules of the game or not, they also argue about aspects of the game itself.

I think we would agree that MMOs are computer games. But there is also negotiation – very like arguing over line calls in tennis.

What I think that this shows is that something can be a computer game under this definition and outcomes can be negotiable, that is I don’t think the that point has anything like the force that it seems to have when it’s examined in the context of practice.

Proposed Definition
I thus arrive at this very simple notion of what a computer game is:


Comments on What do we mean by ‘computer game’?:

jeremy snyder says:

hi ren, interesting post. by your definition, a game that is 100% h2h (human-to-human) but computer-mediated is not a computer game. i think i agree with that. - jeremy

Posted Nov 10, 2007 2:29:23 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

/second that, Jeremy.

Ren, it seems that you're saying that it makes sense to denote by computer games those games which absolutely require a computer either to govern (constrain) or to provide agency (e.g., stochastic outputs). It's frequently both, of course. Makes sense to me.

Posted Nov 10, 2007 4:48:47 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Thomas
yes, exactly

Posted Nov 10, 2007 5:25:51 PM | link

Alec Coquin says:

Sorry if I missed the mark here, but is Chess played over computer vs a human opponent a computer game? It seems that by this definition it is not ( I might be wrong). Even if it is, what do you make of the loss of subtle hints, such as hesitance in moving a piece, that are lost when human action is translated into IO's?
Following this, should we not simplify and say that a computer game is anything that reduces information provided by the richness of human interaction through the use of information technology?

Posted Nov 10, 2007 6:25:46 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Alec Coquin
"but is Chess played over computer vs a human opponent a computer game? It seems that by this definition it is not"

Correct. I think that there are games played on computer and there are Computer Games (the latter being a set that overlaps with the former).

Here I'm being descriptive and not normative in any sense. I think that there are a lot of important things to study about games played on computer including those things that you point out - I just think that it is useful to be distinctive about what I'm terming Computer Games as these have particular characteristics - as well as shared ones with other forms of game and computer mediated activity.

Posted Nov 10, 2007 6:34:32 PM | link

blackrazor says:

Dungeons and Dragons is essentially a pen-and-paper tabletop game.

What if i write a program that gives players the following options. (They get to choose only a single option in force, at a time.):

1) Internet connectivity is enabled, so each player can be at their own computer, while still able to interact with each other using chat. A digital tabletop, so to speak.

2) Take #1 and add that the computer handles die rolls, and official AD&D Manual lookups (for the die roll's official meaning according to the pen-and-paper rules). Character's graphics and positions, as well as the graphics and positions of NPCs are also displayed on the screen.

3) Take #2 and add that the computer generates on the fly random dungeons, towns, basic npc quests, and random monster encounters.

4) Take #3 and add the capability to handle larger groups of players. Individual players can log in and out, but the basic scenario being generated is preserved.

By #4, this is starting to look like your typical hack-'n-slash MOG, a computer game. But at what point did it diverge from the original pen and paper model in order to become a computer game?

Posted Nov 10, 2007 8:08:03 PM | link

Greg says:

I'll note that in industry parlance "computer game" means "a game played on a computer" by contrast with "console game," which means "a game played on a game-specific device." In other words, in industry parlance, "computer game" is a subset of "video game". You're using "computer game" as a superset of "video game," which I don't object to (and a locution I've heard other game studies academics use), but just, so, you know, you realize this isn't a universal usage.

Posted Nov 10, 2007 8:51:27 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Greg
Thanks for that. Yes I should have put the beard warning up - I am thinking of a formal definition that is of use mainly for the academic / games studies community. I'm sure a study of the industry and press (both trade and popular) use of the term has a lot of value to it.

Posted Nov 10, 2007 9:24:42 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@blackrazor: By my reading Ren would place the (not hard and fast, but pragmatically worthwhile) dividing line between your #1 and #2.

Posted Nov 11, 2007 12:47:09 AM | link

Gordon Calleja says:

Interesting post Ren! I don't know how useful I find the definition without first establishing a definition of a game. What essentially is a game-act? What separates a game-act from a non-game act in a virtual environment?

The most mis-leading term in the whole discussion for me is in fact, "game". Is it academically precise to call table-top chess or checkers games in the same way as Half-Life 2 or Wow are games? I sense that a tag that was initially useful in describing these things we call digital games (computer, console, video games) is in fact misleading. We start stretching the scope of the term to fit something that has outgrown the usage of the term simply because general parlance accepts it. Are the various battle-grounds in WoW different forms of games by the general idea of what games are? Is wow then also a game?

It seems to me as though it might be more useful to talk of virtual environments and virtual worlds with game aspects implemented in them, if we want to hold on to a definition of game that is applicable across the board.

So, with this in mind I wonder how useful is a definition that starts "A computer game is a game..." when the term "game" is in itself rather unstable.

Posted Nov 11, 2007 5:27:54 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Gordon Calleja
I now tend to rest on Thomas Malaby's definition which goes as follows:

"A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes."

Now, Thomas tells me that in the context of the fields that he works in the phrase 'socially legitimate' entails ideas of intentionality. I'm sure that is so, but for those of us not steeped in that language and don't get the nuances of what it denotes I think that it's useful to be a bit more explicit about it and say:

"A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes."

As to me we need to give some primacy to the intentional state in which we enter into a game as this seems vital to understanding the process of interpretation and thus the meaning and values we give both to acts and the outcome of the acts.

I talk about entering into in part because of what Thomas notes about 'flow' and also what you have said about immersion, so I think that the awareness of being in a game changes as the game progresses but in some way, initially conscious and then at times sub-conscious, it acts as a back drop to the meaning of acts.

To put this another way, I don't think you can rightly be said to be playing a game if you are not aware that that is what you are doing. Whereas I'm sure that there are practices that you can rightly be said to be doing where you do not need to be aware of the nature of the practice.

Then as Thomas has noted above I think the two definitions dove tail.

Posted Nov 11, 2007 6:22:30 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Thank you for the shout-out, Ren. :) To be precise, I would say that "socially legitimate" entails a claim about *expectations*, which is very close to ideas about intentionality, but not quite. My worry with "intentionality" is that intentions could go quite beyond what's minimally required for something to be a game. That is, two people may approach an activity with the expectation that it is a legitimate site for the generation of indeterminate and interpretable outcomes (and therefore sensible for the analyst to treat as a game), but have very different intentions; that is, plans for their own actions and expected results. One may aim to disrupt the activity, the other may aim to master it.

Beyond that, I very much agree with Gordon's point that we will be best served by moving away from a "litmus-test" approach to what definitions are for, and toward the recognition of *gameness* as a characteristic. To what extent, we may ask, does a given, semi-bounded domain in a particular place and time exhibit these qualities of legitimate indeterminacy? To what extent does parsing out the modes of control and the sources of contingency in this activity help us to understand everything from the play of representation to the competition over meaning and other resources therein? How does it help us to understand the relationship between this activity and other domains of action there?

This approach would prompt us to be historically particular and empirical, and will make our inquiries less vulnerable to the dangers of formalism. Sure, a model (such as one that lays out a set of modes of control along with sources of contingency :) ) is a useful means through which to make sense of always-messy reality, so there's some aplication of form, but it should be only the application of a model to the extent that it gets us further along in answering the questions that interest us.

By the way, I'm not saying that *you're* arguing for a "litmus-test" approach, Ren -- it's useful to try to work out definitions that strike us as robust and promising. :)

Posted Nov 11, 2007 11:33:51 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Thomas Malaby
“I would say that "socially legitimate" entails a claim about *expectations*, which is very close to ideas about intentionality, but not quite. My worry with "intentionality" is that intentions could go quite beyond what's minimally required for something to be a game. [..] but have very different intentions”

I think we agree totally. Where I hope the confusion lies is that I’m not using ‘intention’ in the everyday sense of things like what goals I might set out to do, but rather in the technical philosophical sense of having a mental state or a propositional attitude toward something.

I guess the minimum state of affairs (and if my memory of logic serves me) I’m going for is that for any activity ‘a’ and where ‘G’ is ‘believes it to be a game’ then for a someone to enter into the activity and for it to be a game for them, then (in Predicate), one would say that the proposition ‘Ga’ is True.

I’m being needlessly technical (and someone who’s fresher with formal logic is welcome to give us the full definition in predicate as I’m sure it can be done with the odd quantifier) just to make the point that I’m being minimal here.

This though leaves me with two problems. First is that I’m saying a game is something that is in part defined by people believing it to be a game and Second that I’m expanded your technical vocabulary that I did not quite get with one that you did not quite get.

First issue is easy as it’s simple semantics, we simply take the characteristics that you have set out and say that ‘Ga’ simply means holding the belief that they pertain.

As to the second issue, while I explain things in term of Intention and Propositional Attitude I think that my proposed definition does not need one to do this I think that additional of ‘enter into knowingly’ meets both our interpretive needs.

Hence I come back to:

"A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes."

Posted Nov 12, 2007 4:17:13 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Thomas Malaby & @Gordon Calleja
Thomas said:
“Beyond that, I very much agree with Gordon's point that we will be best served by moving away from a "litmus-test" approach to what definitions are for, and toward the recognition of *gameness* as a characteristic.”

I’m fence sitting here. I like having a formal definition because I tend to do a lot of theory and as noted in Plato’s Game, in certain circumstances I embrace the use of notions of Ideals as for my purposes, which are often some what technical, such things are useful to have.

However like I touched on there, I think that understanding something formally and then applying that to actual states of affairs is a different matter. I think there are many cases where one can have a sound formal definition but for very good reasons one cannot be precise about whether something does or does not fall under that. This simple comes down to the nature of things and, again to employ a technical usage, what philosophers would call vagueness. A classic example on the edge of this being when a group of grains of sand become a pile – yes I know we are taking about a different type of definition here.

But I’m fence sitting as I think that the definition we are using is fine in the sense of “*gameness* as a characteristic” if one wants to reject the more formal use of it as a litmus type of definition.

Posted Nov 12, 2007 4:52:18 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Ren/Thomas>A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes.

Is every semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes a game?

What do you have to drop from that definition to get the difference between "game" and "play"?

If only one person believes they are playing a game, is it a game?

How, under this definition of a game, do you stop playing? It talks about entering, but not exiting.

Richard

Posted Nov 12, 2007 7:03:15 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Ren: That's all very helpful to understand the details of the different places from which we're coming.

@Richard:

>Is every semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes a game?

In my view, if the above is true it's also true that it may not be a "game" (or local equivalent word) to the participants, but I'm saying that it would be *useful* to treat that domain as a game analytically. (This is not an IS or IS NOT issue in the transcendent sense.) This distinction is important for two reasons. First, it helps us to handle things cross-culturally -- we want to be able to take local understandings into account without being hamstrung by utter reliance on one label or another. Second, it opens the door to possibly surprising and productive applications -- someone could argue that something we don't ordinarily think of as a game is useful to think of as such.

>What do you have to drop from that definition to get the difference between "game" and "play"?

In my view, a game is an activity, a human artifact, and play is a mode of experience, so they're quite different. Play is a way of approaching experience in any domain, although games may more likely prompt that mode than any other domain.

>If only one person believes they are playing a game, is it a game?

If it is an established, socially recognized activity (like Solitaire) then of course it would still make sense to call it a game. The slightly trickier issue is something that that person invents entirely on his or her own and plays alone. But, even then, they are inventing it not entirely in a vacuum -- it is related to their social experience. So in one sense, yes, it may make sense to refer to what that person is doing as a game.

BUT, if that person is doing a *shared* activity, that others do not see in the way above, then an idiosyncratic reading of it as a game by one person does not get to "trump" those other social understandings and gain some legitimacy thereby. Of course, it still may be helpful, if one is trying to understand this person's point of view, to apply the definition we are talking about and see where it leads, but nonetheless the "socially legitimate" test would fail if there is no shared social expectation.

Posted Nov 12, 2007 9:14:44 AM | link

Grendel says:

Pardon my ignorance, but if we ignore the compulsive cladistic nature of academia for a moment, what are we trying to achieve by describing something as specifically a "computer game"?

"However I think that there is vagueness when we think about boundary conditions and, more interestingly, that these boundary cases tell us something about how we conceptualize games."

Is it not possible that the vagueness surrounding the definition is in part due to the artificiality of the distinction? Perhaps what this tells us is that defining what kind of amber we use to make the pieces is irrelevant to our study of gaming.

I guess what I'm asking is, cultural perception notwithstanding, in what intrinsic way is a gaming mechanism made out of silicon and electrons different to one made out of glue and card?

Posted Nov 12, 2007 9:34:47 AM | link

greglas says:

Ren --

Have you read Bernard Suits' The Grasshopper? He makes a pretty good argument (around p 145) that participation in a game cannot be determined objectively -- that you need to know the players subjective intent.

Fwiw, I'm actually not a great fan of trying to draw bright lines between computer games (or video games) and offline games. Offline games are often dependent on particular technologies that serve to regulate human conduct (see the hysplex) and while computer games offer much more nuanced algorithmic forms of machine regulation, I think their ability to offer complex simulations and rich symbolic fields (tying them to past visual media) is perhaps more important than the way they work to automate game rules.

Posted Nov 12, 2007 11:13:41 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@greglas

“Have you read Bernard Suits' The Grasshopper? He makes a pretty good argument (around p 145) that participation in a game cannot be determined objectively -- that you need to know the players subjective intent.”

That seems to fit with my mod to Thomas’s game definition.


“Offline games are often dependent on particular technologies that serve to regulate human conduct”

We commonly talk about ball games so talking about Computer Games both informally and formally seems worth having a go at.

“I think their ability to offer complex simulations and rich symbolic fields (tying them to past visual media) is perhaps more important than the way they work to automate game rules.”

Well if the bounds and I’m not just talking about decisions or rule simulation become functionally equivalent to other things in all cases then the category would seem to dissolve, but I’m not sure that that will occur if only because the particular way that computers set bounds makes for interesting games that, say, sticks and balls don’t. I don’t think that rules in the sense of decisions are primary here as I noted above in the functionally equivalent / replaceable arguments and parallels with some stuff in the philosophy of mind / AI debates.

Posted Nov 12, 2007 11:33:47 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Thomas>if the above is true it's also true that it may not be a "game" (or local equivalent word) to the participants

So are you saying that some people may not think they're playing a game, but by this definition they would be? Or are you saying that you might think some people might not be playing a game, but by this definition they would be?

>it opens the door to possibly surprising and productive applications -- someone could argue that something we don't ordinarily think of as a game is useful to think of as such.

Narratologists believe that games can be studied using the same techniques that can be applied to (in their view) other forms of narrative. This would suggest that the opposite also applies: that other forms of narrative can be studied using the same techniques that can be applied to games. Ian Bogost has done this with his Unit Operations approach.

In other words, something that we don't ordinarily think of as a game, ie. narrative, can profitably be considered as such. Can you definition account for that, or only some of the different ways that apparent non-games can be considered as games?

>a game is an activity, a human artifact, and play is a mode of experience, so they're quite different.

I agree, but they're related. Is a game a game if you can't play it?

I have problems with this definition in part because you use terms which are loaded with meaning for anthropologists but not so loaded for others (I'm particularly bothered by "contingency", as we've discussed before).

What would an unbounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes look like?

What would a semibounded and socially illegitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes look like?

What would a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of uncontrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes look like?

What would a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates uninterpretable outcomes look like?

It's hard figuring out what you mean when I don't know what the individual terms imply, and why those implications are important for separating games from non-games.

>The slightly trickier issue is something that that person invents entirely on his or her own and plays alone. But, even then, they are inventing it not entirely in a vacuum -- it is related to their social experience.

But the term "game" is itself related to social experience. You could use this get-out as a way to describe pretty well anything as a game.

>BUT, if that person is doing a *shared* activity, that others do not see in the way above, then an idiosyncratic reading of it as a game by one person does not get to "trump" those other social understandings and gain some legitimacy thereby.

OK, well I have to disagree with you there. If I think I'm playing a game and I think that the other participants are also playing (even if in their minds they're not) then from my point of view I'm playing a game. It has to be that way, otherwise games are some kind of abstraction that exist separate from reality, into which players are mysteriously drawn.

It may be that from a social science perspective it's useful to think of games like that, but from a game design perspective you need to know what individuals think and build on that, otherwise you can't design for them.

>the "socially legitimate" test would fail if there is no shared social expectation.

But there doesn't have to be shared social expectation, just the belief that there is shared social expectation on behalf of one or more of the participants (assuming a multi-player game). If this belief is well-founded, OK, you have an extant magic circle instead of an imagined one, but from the point of view of the individual players they're indistinguishable.

Richard

Posted Nov 12, 2007 11:41:15 AM | link

greglas says:

Ren, I think "video game" or "computer game" is probably a more productive/useful set than "ball game" -- what I suppose I wanted to say is that the particular form of technological mediation that is generally common to computer/video games should lead us to see relations to media (and new media) as much as it leads us to set off these as particular sorts of games.

Re game-intent, I think the point (per Suits) is that the lusory attitude of the gamer requires a certain respect for a separate and unconventional set of game rules that diverge from those that structure conventional behaviors. It is possible for a person/player to act in accordance with the rules of a game without having that respect. To the observer, this person would appear to be playing the game, although, if conditions were changed, the person would be revealed to lack any commitment to the game's rules.

Suits uses the example of a person who is running away from something and happens to cross the starting line of a race at the right moment to run with the competitors. That person may comply with the rules and "win" the race, but the person was not playing a game.

Posted Nov 12, 2007 11:55:23 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Richard: Rich responses as always.

NB: About contingency -- that *doesn't* come from anthropology (as I am regularly reminded in my own field!). It comes from philosophy, where it is opposed to necessity. Contingency is the quality of something being *not necessary* or determined. Indeterminacy probably works just as well, but I was following the usage of the pragmatist philosophers in picking it.

[I'm avoiding lots of cut and pasting, so I hope you'll see the order of my responses as following yours. I should also note, though, that I don't want to turn Ren's thread into a discussion only of my definition. Ren -- tell us to shut it if you like. :)]

By decoupling local terminology ("we're playing a game!") from the analytical category, I'm giving the analyst the authority to identify and make the case for the applicability of the term game to activities that participants may not recognize *as such*. It's not that anything goes, however. The case being made depends upon a demonstration that participants hold the activity to be a legitimate and contrived arena for generating indeterminate and meaningful outcomes. There has to be a back and forth between the model and the situation on the ground, or neither will be sensible.

I agree about how broad this could get in terms of applicability, and I'm not troubled by it. One could argue quite easily for certain arts like theater and a musical performance that there is a legitimacy to the indeterminacies that make every performance different from the next. For visual arts (where the act of creation through time is not part of the artwork) it's a little less useful, if only because the indeterminacies would seem to be only semiotic (the open-endedness of the multiple interpretations that the audience arrives at). This is why I'm a bit more interested in adding to our social theory a meaningful adjective -- "game-like" -- over wrangling about where the games stop and something else begins.

The domain cannot be unbounded if there is no contrivance of indeterminate outcomes. The outcomes cannot be uncontrived (your later case). In either case we'd be talking more about life in general than the particular piece of it that is imperfectly set off as a game. Contrived is an important piece here -- it signals that controls are put in place by human beings (games are artifacts) to shape and allow for the various sources of indeterminacy that the game has. But those sources (dice rolls, player performance, information discountinuities) are not limited to those that are enabled by human artifice. Some are ungovernable, and this is important. These sources of indeterminacy creep in no matter how tightly a game is controlled, and this means everything from the weather at the racing track to the latency in WoW to the fraught meanings at the 1968 (and 1936, and other) Olympic Games.

As for "illegitimate" games, let's make sure that we distinguish the legitimacy of the game from other kinds of legitimacy. If someone forces you to play poker at gunpoint, you may not consider the outcomes legitimate, but you may consider it a game. Illegitimate games, however, are an interesting question. A good example is the information markets for terrorism that were proposed a few years ago. Outcry in the United States made them illegitimate games through which to generate guesses about terrorist attacks. Were they still games? Maybe as a thought experiment, but they didn't get played, and this is only sensible to the degree to which they were not legitimate sites for generating indeterminate outcomes. An even better example is here. The transformation of a sport like hunting, with its performative challenge, into a virtually challengeless exercise, would seem to be an example of an illegitimate game (and thus, for many, no longer a game at all) -- although certain status claims that one might imagine Cheney making ("I go hunting regularly") may depend on the denial of this.

The US immigration lottery, by contrast, is such a legitimate domain. The point is that if we're interested in games that are social facts; that are played and not just imagined, then we must confront the issue of the shared expectations of them as part of whether we think it makes sense to regard them as games. At times, this will put us on the scene of a moving target, with different constituencies having different and swiftly-changing expectations.

I'm not disagreeing that someone may consider him or herself to be playing a game when others do not. I'm only saying that, from an analytical view, this perspective of that one participant does not force us to treat it as a game as analysts. As Ren noted, this is meant to be a definition that is useful for researchers -- it doesn't make a claim to be useful for designers.

The magic circle: We've had this discussion before. To me, what people tend to call the "magic circle" (not without a certain esoteric pride of their own) exists as a socially constructed and imperfect boundary that is sustained only to the degree that the human effort of boundary maintenance by participants (broadly defined) makes it so. This is a familiar aspect of how human beings cordon off certain domains of their experience from others. There is (a) no transcendent "realness" to the magic circle; i.e., it itself doesn't "automatically" apply and bring about this separability, just by virtue of something being a game, and (b) there is no reason for social analysts to prefer it over other terms for the same phenomenon (boundary maintenance) that social theory has -- to do so ghetto-izes games research unnecessarily, and also (more importantly) tends to replicate the misunderstanding noted in (a).

Posted Nov 12, 2007 12:33:46 PM | link

greglas says:

Thomas -- so..

1) Is the US immigration lottery is a game? (seems yes)
2) Is a piano recital is a game? (seems yes)
3) Is Punxsutawney Phil is a game? (seems yes)
4) Is fixing a car a game? (seems no)
5) Is Sudoku a game? (seems no, if fixing a car is no)

Posted Nov 12, 2007 1:32:19 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Lol. Yes, in my opinion it is useful to think of 1, 2, and 3 as games for certain questions we may ask of them. The recital is one where it is most obvious that there would be shortcomings to looking at it as *only* a game. Note also that by saying that it makes sense to call Punxsatawney Phil a game, that we're not just talking about the rodent, but the set of practices and meanings surrounding him.

And yes, though I haven't thought much about it, I don't think it would be that useful to look at Sudoku as a game. It, like fixing a car, is probably more sensible as what I would call a puzzle, because of the lack of contingency beyond the performative challenge itself. Interestingly, I might give a different answer about a crossword puzzle, because it brings social contingency into it in a way that Sudoku does not. But these are cases that I would more than anything else simply be interested in hearing argued about one way or the other -- I work very hard at not making up my mind about individual cases ahead of time. :)

Posted Nov 12, 2007 1:44:02 PM | link

Luc Sorel says:

Hello Ren,

Being new in the virtual world web-community, but very interested by the topic, I found your article quite interesting and the last steps of your definition-making highlights an important component of video games (or computer games) that is often forgotten: video games are games, and as such they should also be understood as sociological tool to make at least one human player interact with another one, being human or AI.

I recently wrote an article about virtual worlds in which I realized that the connectivity between players is probably one of the most important feature of video games.

In a way, this kind of remark would apply to any definition-study about a tool made by or for humans: by taking the risk to study this tool without considering its expected and unpredictable interactions with human (here, the player/s), you take the risk that the definition looses all of its meaning. Like studying T-shirts as pieces of cotton instead of clothes required by our culture (not to be naked) and cold weather for example :)

That's why I like your final definitions, because they kind of loop the loop, saying that a computer game is a computer device which connects a human player to a human/AI player(s).

Posted Nov 12, 2007 6:24:56 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Thomas>It comes from philosophy, where it is opposed to necessity.

So you could use "unnecessary"?

>Indeterminacy probably works just as well, but I was following the usage of the pragmatist philosophers in picking it.

That's convenient for pragmatist philosophers, but not so convenient for the rest of us for whom "contingency" means something that's possible but would be undesirable were it to occur.

>I'm giving the analyst the authority to identify and make the case for the applicability of the term game to activities that participants may not recognize *as such*.

You don't need a definition to do that, the analyst can do it anyway.

>The domain cannot be unbounded if there is no contrivance of indeterminate outcomes.

OK, so you can drop the word "semibounded" from your definition.

>The outcomes cannot be uncontrived

OK, so you can drop the word "contrived" from your definition.

>Contrived is an important piece here -- it signals that controls are put in place by human beings

Don't you get that from "socially legitimate"? Without social legitimacy, sure, the weather could count as a domain of contingency; with social legitimacy, the fact that the contingency is contrived is implied.

>Outcry in the United States made them illegitimate games through which to generate guesses about terrorist attacks. Were they still games?

They were illegitimate games, but they were still games. That's to society as a whole: obviously to the smaller section of society that proposed them, they were legitimate, otherwise they wouldn't have proposed them.

The social legitimacy in question is limited to the participants, not to society as a whole (which may not even be aware that the game is being played). Russian Roulette is socially illegitimate, but people still play it (and, what's more, at gunpoint, heh heh).

>The transformation of a sport like hunting, with its performative challenge, into a virtually challengeless exercise, would seem to be an example of an illegitimate game

You might argue persuasively that it's not a game because it doesn't have enough of a critical mass of chance, but arguing that it's not a game because other people don't like you playing it is another thing entirely. You can't rule something out as a game on that basis any more than you can rule something out as a religion because the majority of the population disapproves of it.

>The point is that if we're interested in games that are social facts; that are played and not just imagined

What if we are interested in games irrespective of whether they're played or imagined? Although some games emerge from interactions, most are the products of human design: they are imagined well before they are played, and are played in the imagination well before they are played any other way. These don't count as games? Yet if they're played once, they do?

Children invent games the whole time. They may be the only people ever to play those games. If a game is played by only 4 people ever, does that still count as a game? If it's played by only one person ever, does it count as one?

The biggest problem I have with your definition is that it takes a societal view of what makes a game, yet games are an individualistic thing. Now this is fine if you want to take a societal view of games (so it could be perfect for anthropology), but it rules out too many things that are games when you get to individual perceptions.

In other words, if that's the definition of what a game is, we need a further definition for what the people who play and design them mean by the term. You don't necessarily want that as an analyst of multiple games across multiple cultures, but you do want it if you're trying to find someone to play a game with you.

>I'm not disagreeing that someone may consider him or herself to be playing a game when others do not. I'm only saying that, from an analytical view, this perspective of that one participant does not force us to treat it as a game as analysts.

It depends what you're analysing. If you want to create better games for everyone, then looking at how that one individual is playing a game could be the key you need to unlock wonders.

>As Ren noted, this is meant to be a definition that is useful for researchers -- it doesn't make a claim to be useful for designers.

It's useful to some researchers, clearly, as it's being used. It's not useful to all of them, though; it depends what you're researching.

>To me, what people tend to call the "magic circle" ... exists as a socially constructed and imperfect boundary that is sustained only to the degree that the human effort of boundary maintenance by participants (broadly defined) makes it so.

Yes, I agree with you there, although it's also important to consider what's bounded (behaviour) and how it's bounded (by the knowing and willing co-operation of the players).

Richard

Posted Nov 13, 2007 5:37:32 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Richard: I think many of your comments about the wording of the definition now are simply niggling -- definitions often have strictly redundant words precisely because they are meant to keep people from falling into making the same mistakes over and over again. I'm not interested in such semantic wrangling.

And as for contingency...Isn't it interesting that many academic fields are *not* expected to dumb down their language to accord with the most common of usage (economics, physics come to mind). Instead, new terms or rather idiosyncratic uses of familiar terms (like "exchange" or "market") are expected and respected. But here we have a different attitude. People complain that other social sciences and humanities are not precise enough, and then object when we wish to use a term precisely! It's just silly. Consider it rather an opportunity to expand your vocabulary.

"Although some games emerge from interactions, most are the products of human design: they are imagined well before they are played, and are played in the imagination well before they are played any other way."

I strongly disagree with this, if we're talking about the scope of human history -- game designers are on the whole a recent phenomenon! But, in any case, the difference in interest is clear. I'm broadly interested in games that are played (even by 4 people once, or 1 person once); i.e., games that are social facts (although I will choose to focus on only some, by necessity). You are interested in them from the point of view of a designer. You said it yourself -- it's not built for your purposes, and it wasn't meant to.

And *of course* it's not useful to *all* researchers, and of course it depends on what you're researching. This, in fact, has been *my* point all along in our many discussions. It should stand or fall on its usefulness for researchers.

Posted Nov 13, 2007 9:19:58 AM | link

SVgr says:

The original intent of the thread was to define "computer game" in an accademic context. I immediately noted when reading the article that the term "game" isn't explicitely defined.

I like the definition of "game" stated previously: "A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes".

It's a simple definition, and the above attempts to read into it are not productive to the discussion of "computer game".

The term "socially legitimate domain" simply means that there's rules in the game and the involved parties agree (or would ideally agree) what those rules are. By legimate, it implies that those rules are documented or known in common usage, for example the practice of taking turns when you play tic-tac-toe. It's socially legitimate (syn: generally agreed upon) that people each take one turn until the game is over. There need not be only one set of socially legitimate contrived contingencies. (in english: there can be alternate rules, like house rules in monopoly) The rules used or the fact that people argue about them doesn't change the fact that rules exist. The point of the definition is to describe what is needed in order to have a "game". So, we have rules. Next we have "interpertable outcomes" meaning that we might have a winner, or award points for example.

You can easilly take that definition of "game" and apply it to real world situations like the economy or population demographics as is commonly done when applying game theory to those subjects. However what we're really talking about here is a much more constrained meaning of the word "game", connoting play or entertainment with rules and outcomes.

The use of the term "computer" can be seen as strictly a choice of medium for the aforementioned game. Of course solitair is a card game right? But what if you play it on a computer? Is it then no longer a card game, but now a computer game? NO! and Yes. The concepts of card game and computer game need not be mutually exclusive or inclusive. In fact, what if i suggest that playing solitair on a computer is neither a card game nor a computer game? I'm going to do so now. I claim that solitair on a computer is in fact only a simulation of a card game, rendered on a computer. Of course I'm being silly there. The point I'm making is that classification and definition are entirely context dependent and always open to subjective scrutiny. For example the long standing debate over whether light is a wave or a particle. Light can be either one, but the real world doesn't always fit into our classifications so maybe it's neither wave or particle, rather something we don't have a name for yet.

Further muddying the waters in regard to "defining" a computer game, what does it change when you start talking about "computer gamers" and "computer gaming"?

As mentioned above, you may not call chess a computer game when both players are using a real chess board and communicating moves by e-mail. However you may want to include these players in a study on social dynamics of computer gamers or the health effects of long-term computer gaming.

When dealing with accademic analysis, it's important to define relevant terms in the context of the study. Attempting to define the term is rhetorical and can only be done in broad or general terms without knowing why you're defining it.

Posted Nov 13, 2007 2:34:29 PM | link

dmyers says:

Hmm. If it's Tuesday, this must be belchin'.

My gut reaction is that the hermeneutico-interpetivo thing pretty much heave-hoed all those more-inclined-toward-naturalism formal approaches to the study of literature from the 1950s onward, leading to the current subsumption of EVERYTHING within the bottomless bag of culture and omg lets not let that happen to videogames which represent our single clearest and most obvious substantiation of the formal aesthetic properties of play. But that's just a gut reaction, so let's see...

I think you're down to games are rules with a winner, so that's okay. Games are not play, though, so we need to get way over using those as subjects of the same sentences.

VIDEOgames (audiogames count too, I guess, so maybe senseogames) are ultimately closer to aesthetic experiences than to games because of the engagement of the haptic senses and the cognitive mechanisms governing the assimilation of sensory data.

So, I agree you have to define games (and play) in context, but I don't agree that that context is necessarily a cultural context any more than you need to define locomotion or digestion or cognition in a necessarily cultural context. If you want to go all sapir-whorf on things, then I'd really rather listen to rap, cause rap has an attitude.

O, and can vw's liberate you? Well, if you mean in the Snickers bar sense of liberation, then okay. Anything else, I vote no.

Posted Nov 13, 2007 4:29:07 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@dmyers: I'm not sure why you're turning certain arguments here into caricatures, but defining games with reference to their context does not in any way mean reducing them to culture. After all, a lot of context (primary experience, for example) is not reducible to culture, even if it is extremely difficult to talk about primary experience in a culture-free way. That said, every context for human action is necessarily *also* a cultural context, and that is a feature with which we must always contend.

Posted Nov 13, 2007 8:10:21 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

"A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes."


I’m pretty happy with “semibounded ,,, domain of ,,, contingency” which seem to be some of the elements coming under examination here. Certainly contingent seems to be the right work – I tend to think in terms derived from modal logic where we can contrast necessity with possibility; while not meant in the same strict sense I think one might cash ‘continent’ out as a ‘possible states of affairs’ if one wants to avoid some negative denotations that the less philosophically minded might have. Though I thought that contingent was in more general usage in the academy with the pragmatist root that Thomas suggests.

Where I get a little more confused is ‘contrived’.

I was thinking this morning about meetings. I go to a lot. These seem to have semi-bounded domains of contingency in that that they are temporally bounded, we tend to sit round tables, they often have rules such as voting rights, the necessity of a chair, agenda that needs to be produced a certain time and they have outcomes such as decisions and actions. Also weird stuff happens that the bounds need to expand to control, people wander in and out, fire alarms go off etc., so it’s tick tick tick on the abridged bit of definition.

Now much of the characteristics of meetings and the contingency that these entail seem contrived. Some places have internal rules that state how long meetings should occur for, how people should conduct them selves, other places and at other times things are a lot more loose.

So what I’m missing is exactly what contrive picks out. I think that contrivance is possibly being contrasted with creation.

To use one of Thomas’s examples – the drawing of lots to determine who inherits a farm, I wonder in what way this is contrived as a solution to a problem in the way that a practice such as a meeting is not.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 4:33:13 AM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

That's rather vague for a definition. A definition should be able to discriminate between what belongs to the set and what does not.

I assume you don't accept a simulated card-deck as a computer game, even though how the simulation is done affects game-play. I assume you accept Solitaire as a computer game, and if you don't I'd like to know why.

The problem with your thinking is that it is a computer game if the player doesn't know the rules, but it is a computer game if the player does not? Or what? Quite unfortunately that would suggest that you don't know what you have unless you have an actual real player.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 4:55:24 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Ola Fosheim Grøstad

>>I assume you don't accept a simulated card-deck as a computer game, even though how the simulation is done affects game-play.

The definition I Propose is: A computer game is a game where at least some of the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology.

If the simulation impact game-play then it’s a necessary bound controlled by IT, so it’s a computer game.

>>I assume you accept Solitaire as a computer game, and if you don't I'd like to know why.

Of course it is following from the above.

>>The problem with your thinking is that it is a computer game if the player doesn't know the rules, but it is a computer game if the player does not?

How does player knowledge come into the definition I proposed – I talk about essential control not knowledge of this, indeed I talk about situations of functional equivalence where the player conceivably could not know about the role of technology.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 5:55:28 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Thomas>I think many of your comments about the wording of the definition now are simply niggling

But in pressing them, I've learnt a lot more about what you consider to be a game and why. The main takeaway is that you're not actually interested in games themselves, or even in individual players. You are, however, very concerned with the wider picture regarding certain types of cultural artefact that you characterise as games.

>Consider it rather an opportunity to expand your vocabulary.

It was already in my vocabulary, believe it or not. What I was complaining about was that there are other perfectly serviceable words that are less ambiguous that you could have used instead. Mathematicians and computer scientists would talk about indeterminacy and it means pretty well what a non-mathematician would understand by it. Statisticians talk about chance and probability, which also mean what people think they mean. When they hear the word "contingency", though, they think of "contingency planning", which is planning in case bad things happen.

>I strongly disagree with this, if we're talking about the scope of human history -- game designers are on the whole a recent phenomenon!

Professional ones are, yes, but children (for example) have been inventing games forever. "How about if I throw it to you and you throw it to him and he throws it to her?". It happens all the time.

>I'm broadly interested in games that are played (even by 4 people once, or 1 person once); i.e., games that are social facts (although I will choose to focus on only some, by necessity).

But your definition determines what is and isn't a game, therefore you determine those social facts yourself. You may watch 4 people playing a game and accept it as a fact, but if you'd asked them then it could turn out to be rehearsal for some theatrical production and they weren't playing at all.

There's a programme on BBC Radio 4 which has a game called Mornington Crescent. The rules are never stated, but what basically happens is that the four players take it in turns to say the names of London Underground stations and the first to say Mornington Crescent wins. Thousands of people every week tune in to listen to this game. Is it a game by your definition? It ticks all the boxes, except that to the players it's a comedy performance. Then again, you and I could play it ourselves, and then it would be a game.

>*of course* it's not useful to *all* researchers, and of course it depends on what you're researching. This, in fact, has been *my* point all along in our many discussions. It should stand or fall on its usefulness for researchers.

That's fine until you talk to a journalist who, not having studied philosophy, has the same point of view as a player or designer as to what is and isn't a game. Then, you may find yourself reported as having an opinion that you don't actually have.

Richard

Posted Nov 14, 2007 6:29:43 AM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

If the simulation impact game-play then it’s a necessary bound controlled by IT, so it’s a computer game.

But it doesn't. It's just a simulation of a deck of cards. Just like email is a simulation of a letter. So it would not be a computer game by your definition as I read it. If you insist that it does then anything mediated through a computer should be a computer game. Anything mediated as symbols could be accepted as a "necessary bound controlled by IT". What do you mean by "necessary"? Your definition doesn't include it.

How does player knowledge come into the definition I proposed

Because it only matters to the player who doesn't know the rules. If you know the rules you won't know if you use a regular deck or a deck with constraints as you never try to break the rules. To an experienced player the computer will be transparent, thus no essential qualities of the computer is left (which should be the criterion for a useful definition of "computer game", why would you otherwise try to discriminate between them and those who are not, in an academic setting???).

Besides, for some (possible) games you would have to be able to read the source-code in order to determine whether it is essentially a computer game or not. I don't like that.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 7:14:17 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

Thomas >> I strongly disagree with this, if we're talking about the scope of human history -- game designers are on the whole a recent phenomenon!

Richard >Professional ones are, yes, but children (for example) have been inventing games forever. "How about if I throw it to you and you throw it to him and he throws it to her?". It happens all the time.

My interpretation, and this may or my not be Thomas’s, is that indeed children can invent things on the fly and those things can be games under the defintion.


Thomas>> I'm broadly interested in games that are played (even by 4 people once, or 1 person once); i.e., games that are social facts (although I will choose to focus on only some, by necessity).

Richard > But your definition determines what is and isn't a game, therefore you determine those social facts yourself.

Again, I don’t see Thomas’s definition working this way, to me the definition is descriptive of activities but it key to me is what the individuals think. This is why I added my clarity to make clear that Intentionality is important. That is, it’s the player perspective that is important rather than the external observer – though the player’s believes will be informed by the wider idea of what is socially legitimate, yes this does mix things but I think that’s fine, someone can think that they are playing a game and can be mistaken.


Richard > There's a programme on BBC Radio 4 which has a game called Mornington Crescent. The rules are never stated,

Actually extracts of rules are stated e.g. the ‘no straddling rule’, however there is never enough information given to know what this means.

> but what basically happens is that the four players take it in turns to say the names of London Underground stations and the first to say Mornington Crescent wins. Thousands of people every week tune in to listen to this game. Is it a game by your definition? It ticks all the boxes, except that to the players it's a comedy performance. Then again, you and I could play it ourselves, and then it would be a game.

I think you need to ask the performers. The point of Mornington Crescent is that it looks like a game but everyone knows that people are acting as if there are formal rules whereas there in fact are non - in the sense that is being implied.

However there obviously are rules of performance, for instance: an implied formal rules is never fully stated, rules that are stated are only done so highly ambiguously etc. Also there may even be a game going on, the game might be who can say Mornington Crescent when it’s funniest, performers might be doing all kinds of other things, like mentioning as many stations as they can on a given line – we just don’t know.

However, our lack of information about this case does not mean that given sufficient information the practice could be seen to be a game or not.


Thomas > >*of course* it's not useful to *all* researchers, and of course it depends on what you're researching. This, in fact, has been *my* point all along in our many discussions. It should stand or fall on its usefulness for researchers.

Richard > That's fine until you talk to a journalist who, not having studied philosophy, has the same point of view as a player or designer as to what is and isn't a game. Then, you may find yourself reported as having an opinion that you don't actually have.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 8:52:59 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Richard: You're reading my responses (or, at least, quoting them) selectively -- in my opinion I've answered all of your comments already. For example, you chose not to quote the part where I noted that some fields apparently enjoy the ability to develop their own precise terminology, while others do not. I'd really rather not say it all again a different way. I will however make a few points.

You (in similar fashion to the above) blithely turned children into game designers, when in fact *your* earlier phrasing for the alternative was "emerge from interactions." By that I took you to mean the collaborative and practical (as much as cognitive/imaginative) means by which most games in human history have been created, as (relatively!) distinguishable from the artist model of individually-led and more reflective work that generates a "finished" artistic product.

"But your definition determines what is and isn't a game, therefore you determine those social facts yourself."

A ridiculous oversimplification that should be obvious, given that I've carefully made the point several times. In the application of such a pragmatic model for research, the analyst has a lot of authority, yes, but it's not as if anything goes. To do otherwise is to become either completely beholden to local representations (the postmodern dead-end) or completely decoupled from them in favor of an imperial formalism (the objectivist's dead end).

Also, I ask that you refrain from telling me that I'm "not interested in games." I also could drum up grounds for a similar charge against you, but that would likewise be unfair.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 8:57:18 AM | link

SVgr says:

I'm noticing a trend in the arguments and counter-arguments. Every attempt to narrow the concept of what a computer game is is met with someone who says that you can't narrow it that much because of case A, B or C. Perhaps this is because "computer game" is in fact a general or vague concept in common usage. Is there a reason to exclude certain things, although they are thought of as computer games by some people or under certain circumstances?

Perhaps it would be more meaningfull to discuss "what makes computer games different from other types of games?". It seems obvious that computer games are wildly more popular than other types of games and growing in popularity quickly, however when you go to the book store you don't see any collectors' books with glossy photos of historical games, matches, players, and the like. Is that changing? Would it be in the best interest of computer game players if the public started taking interest in computer games as they do sports?

Until recently, computer games were short-lived things. Rarely does a game stay on the store shelves longer than a year or two, unless it's in a collection of classic games. The technology changes too fast for any one game to maintain relevance for much longer than that amount of time. With MMO's we now have games that persist beyond the platforms they were originally written for. Professional sports started to gain wide appeal only when they began to be played by generations of people. They became traditions that bonded people accross cultural and generational boundaries. Will computer games ever reach that status now that we are seeing MMO's that are played consistently for many years?

Perhaps the current generation of MMO's will come and go, but are advances in game design and proliferation of computer technology approaching a critical mass? With sports it took years before marketing money and corporate sponsorship made the games into what they are today. Is there a future in computer games where there are public servers for everyone to play on (like local athletics), but also privately funded professional game leagues with paid champion players and teams? (Unfortunately I think that's inevitable.) If that is the future of "computer games", then does that still meet our current definition of what a "computer game" is? I think so, which lends credibility to the current definition because it would seem to stand the test of time.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 10:41:45 AM | link

greglas says:

You know, SVgr's comment about pro-gamers (see Korea, btw) makes a good point about the particularity of most computer games and therefore computer gaming in general. And it interesting because it could be tied to some of Mia's work on cheating.

Because something like WoW or Katamari are particular games situated in a particular technological moment, and because they are designed to enable the general player to unlock areas and "end" the game without demanding the learning of extremely complex skill sets, I wonder to what extent they can ever reach the cultural status of sports?

Sure, in Korea you can think of professional excellence in Starcraft as a kind of cultural arete -- for the moment -- but to what extent does the competent gamer master a transferable set of skills, and what skills would those be?

Not trying to hijack the thread, but it seems to question the question of what a computer game (player) is -- can one person be better than another at "computer games" as a general matter? If not, what does that tell us about computer games?

Posted Nov 14, 2007 11:36:56 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@SVgr

>>I'm noticing a trend in the arguments and counter-arguments. Every attempt to narrow the concept of what a computer game is is met with someone who says that you can't narrow it that much because of case A, B or C.

Yes, but I think that the definition I provided above resists these. I look forward to more challenges so I can make it better, but for now I think it does a very good job of picking things out in a way that is, at the very least, of use to me in some of the academic work I do – and I venture to suggest useful for other academic fields too. It may not be of any use outside of that but I don’t think that this invalidates it and, such that it has any importance, it was not my goal to create a definition of use for designers, players, journalists or anyone else.

> Perhaps this is because "computer game" is in fact a general or vague concept in common usage.

Oh the common usage no doubt is, but I’m not concerned here with common usage – though I’m sure that many people are as it’s a fascinating area, just not mine.

> Is there a reason to exclude certain things, although they are thought of as computer games by some people or under certain circumstances?

Yes, there are many reasons lot so of which apply to any academic definition of an area or object of study that may only partially overlap with common usage.


> Perhaps it would be more meaningfull to discuss "what makes computer games different from other types of games?"

That’s what my definition does, “bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology” that’s what makes them different.

What then their functional or culturally difference are is a different matter and again I think a fascinating area of study.


> It seems obvious that computer games are wildly more popular than other types of games and growing in popularity quickly,

Well more popular than some types of games, other types I think would be more popular than computer games.

> however when you go to the book store you don't see any collectors' books with glossy photos of historical games, matches, players, and the like. Is that changing?

Yes - there are glossy books, there are books on great game design groups (I’ve just got Masters of Doom), there are pictre books of players, there might even one on Fatil1ty.

> Would it be in the best interest of computer game players if the public started taking interest in computer games as they do sports?

As greg has noted – in some places they do.

> Is there a future in computer games where there are public servers for everyone to play on (like local athletics), but also privately funded professional game leagues with paid champion players and teams? (Unfortunately I think that's inevitable.)

Paging TL.
There is a whole culture of pro-gaming, and indeed they are taking many of the tropes of sport and applying them to games – you need to see WoW PvP matches being commentated upon.

If that is the future of "computer games", then does that still meet our current definition of what a "computer game" is?

In respect of picking out the games that people are playing in everything that you have mentioned above rather than issues such as how the practices are culturally cited, then I think my definition fits just fine.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 1:50:44 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@greglas
>professional excellence in Starcraft as a kind of cultural arête

Just fyi I argue in my paper “MMO’s as Practices” that we can see the use of MMO’s in terms of excellence and indeed arête.


>>but to what extent does the competent gamer master a transferable set of skills, and what skills would those be?

I’m not sure what you mean by a game master here, do you mean as in a D&D GM or just someone excellent at games. Again looking at MMOs there seems growing interest in this as an area of training, there is a book on this recently out Gamer Generation I think.


> Not trying to hijack the thread
As I started it, if I say you can are you really hijacking it?

>but it seems to question the question of what a computer game (player) is -- can one person be better than another at "computer games" as a general matter? If not, what does that tell us about computer games?

That while we can define them as a set there is a heterogeneous set of practices associated with them.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 2:28:57 PM | link

greglas says:

Ren --

I meant "master" as a verb, not a noun.

I guess what I'm driving at is this -- an essential part of any game is the player. Without the player you have no game. In offline sports, we tend to think of certain classes of games and classes of players who have mastered (verb) certain sets of skills that are required by the game. In physical sports, there is often a fair amount of overlap in the skills that players develop -- hand/eye coordination, muscle strength, balance, etc. So it was not surprising to have figures like Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan who were athletes across sports genres -- and while sports do change over time, there is a strong continuity in chess, soccer, basketball that can enable a community.

I mentioned this above, but I see computer games as much more textual -- even semiotic if you will (bows to Dave). Why is this important? Because to the extent computer games are textual, then we have readers (or fans -- nod to Henry Jenkins) rather than players. And readers and fans are not generally understood as playing games.

Or, to put this more in Mia's terms, "gamer capital" is a different affair than "athletic capital." The gamer and the reader can establish their standing, like the sports spectator, from patient reading and a mastery of knowledge of a *particular game/text*. And MMOG gamer capital might flow from the ability to organize and work within social groups.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 3:26:30 PM | link

SVgr says:

I'm really enjoying this exploration into "what do we mean by computer game". There are lots of gray areas that aren't really covered by existing terms; many more than I first realized. After just a brief online search, I came up with this catagorization and naming dispute at wikipedia. They aren't directly talking about the same thing as this thread, but the parallels between the two discussions are interresting in thier own right.

I also noticed that this wikipedia listing for game shares common ground with this discussion in terms of how difficult it is to define games in general, and computer games in particular.

P.S. I also don't mean to hijack the thread.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 5:11:01 PM | link

greglas says:

Very good catch, SVgr. I have to remember to look at Wikipedia disputes over terms -- that's great stuff.

Posted Nov 14, 2007 8:06:19 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Thomas>You're reading my responses (or, at least, quoting them) selectively -- in my opinion I've answered all of your comments already.

Well if you like I can quote every single line of your messages just so you can't accuse me of this, but it'll lead to huge replies. Still, we don't have that limit on the lengths of posts that was proposed, so it's allowed.

>For example, you chose not to quote the part where I noted that some fields apparently enjoy the ability to develop their own precise terminology, while others do not.

Having been accused at the beginning of that post of "niggling", I thought perhaps I ought to cut to the chase. I hadn't realised that you actually wanted me to niggle by responding to every single line you posted.

All fields enjoy their own precise terminology. For some, those terms have to be specially nuanced because they cover very particular concepts that are not in general currency. If I talk to a non-programmer about "floating point arithmetic" they're not necessarily going to know what I mean, for example. That would be an example of a piece of jargon that serves a purpose. If I talk about a "variable", OK, well I have connotations for that term that a non-programmer might not, but at least they'd get the impression that it was something that changed.

Your definition of "game" is so packed with terms loaded with meaning to the social sciences that it's hard to make any sense of it outside those fields. This should be a problem for you, not a source of pride in your field's ability to be "precise"!

>I'd really rather not say it all again a different way.

Then don't expect that definition to gain much currency outside your own field. OK, so you may not wish it to, which is fair enough. However, it does mean that whenever you post on TN about "games" in future we have to bear in mind that what you mean by the term is not what players and designers mean by it.

>You (in similar fashion to the above) blithely turned children into game designers, when in fact *your* earlier phrasing for the alternative was "emerge from interactions."

Hey, you were the one who talked about "designers". I talked about design.

>By that I took you to mean the collaborative and practical (as much as cognitive/imaginative) means by which most games in human history have been created, as (relatively!) distinguishable from the artist model of individually-led and more reflective work that generates a "finished" artistic product.

What I meant was that people envisaged what they wanted to play before they played it. This is a process of design. The design may well be collaborative or experimental. I meant this as opposed to the accidental discovery that something was fun and making a game from that. For example, the game of tag probably wasn't designed, it just emerged from what people were doing (you hit me, I hit you back, hey, we can play a game where we do that).

>A ridiculous oversimplification that should be obvious, given that I've carefully made the point several times.

To me, the fact your definition is recursive is ridiculous. What do you study? Games. What are games? What you study.

>In the application of such a pragmatic model for research, the analyst has a lot of authority, yes, but it's not as if anything goes. To do otherwise is to become either completely beholden to local representations (the postmodern dead-end) or completely decoupled from them in favor of an imperial formalism (the objectivist's dead end).

I can see how you might want to see-saw between definition and practice to find a useful balance in between. However, that's only going to work if the definition actually covers the practice. My concern with your definition is that it is itself the artefact of a practice (social science) and it misses the target. Some things that are games it doesn't call games; some things that aren't games it calls games. Your line of defence is that you get to define what is and isn't a game. OK, feel free to do that, but expect to be picked up on it every time you talk about something that the players feel is a game but you don't. You're not studying an abstract conception of a group of individuals from some far-away land who don't get to see your conclusions: there are players who read TN, and if you mischaracterise them then in their eyes it undermines what you're saying.

>Also, I ask that you refrain from telling me that I'm "not interested in games." I also could drum up grounds for a similar charge against you, but that would likewise be unfair.

I didn't say you weren't interested in games. I said you weren't interested in games themselves. There's a difference in being interested in games for games' sake and being interested in them for the sake of some other field. I study games because I want better games; you study games because you want a better knowledge of human society. They're related, in that I believe that better games could lead to better society, and you (I assume) believe that better human society will lead to better games. They're not the same, though.

Richard

Posted Nov 15, 2007 3:52:24 AM | link

Sequoia Hax says:

Wow, lots of juicy stuff here - both in the post and the comments. Thank you Ren, for challenging us to clearly delineate computer games. When I approach this kind of boundary work, I always ask myself: what am I trying to *do* with this, as you put it, "set of things in the world"? How do I plan to this category of things called 'computer games'? Some folks may consider it irrelevant; but would the delineation be different if you were doing marketing for a game playing chess over email vs. academic research on virtual worlds? Even if you contend that the delineation would be the same regardless of its intended purpose - what function does a delineation of computer games satisfy?

Posted Nov 15, 2007 10:33:55 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Richard: What I don't understand is how we can have the most marvelous breakfasts, where we reach a rapprochement on (virtually) all of our differences, and then on a thread like this I see responses that lack a certain, shall we say, mutual generosity. A few responses (though I no longer feel this is productive):

It's getting a bit, um, strange how you repeatedly level the criticism that the definition isn't in your opinion useful (or even, it seems, understandable -- I'd give people a bit more credit) for players or designers. As Ren and I have said many (many!) times, it doesn't claim to be a definition for them.

My definition is recursive? How, precisely? I've said how it isn't simply up to the analysts' whim (nor beholden to local understandings) several times -- this makes it quite the opposite of recursive, precisely because it demands convincing empirical research for the model to be applied in a convincing way. (I'm particularly troubled that you would feel willing to lodge such a charge without any support from your end.)

As regards this notion that you are interested in "games themselves", I'm struck by the often apt analogy of games to music. The notion of composition (for games, design) is a relatively recent phenomenon, associated with a particular kind of music production that became very prevalent under the rise of modernity. Those who composed music went about it via some peculiar means, if we think about it against other ways of making music through history and globally even now. They (mostly) went about it reflectively, with an awareness of themselves as artists (and this implies certain things about authority, vision, and artistic statements). They used systematic notation to plan these incredibly complex musical works, and had at their disposal the labor of any combination of musicians to follow their scripts (which demanded substantial capital).

But it would be a grave mistake to take how this process works and believe that it provides the bedrock terms by which to understand music-making everywhere. Research by ethnomusicologists on music around the world stumbled for a time on precisely these points (the nature of composition and the necessity of systematic notation for study, primarily), but then got through it by realizing that there is no reason to believe that how we understand music-making writ large should be based on the practice and terms of modern composition. This was important not just for an understanding of music in far-flung places and times, by the way. It turned out that it was vital for understanding all music -- the terms of the classical era revealed themselves as biased toward certain aspects of music and exclusionary of others.

So now, it wouldn't make sense for someone to claim that those who study music in the modern terms of composition, etc (or, I would add at the other end, the individual response to music), are the only ones interested in "music itself" and that those interested in the other things that are obviously a part of music writ large (its aspects of collaborative practice and creation without reference to a priori design, for one among many) were interested in music for the sake of some other field. I'm not just interested in the "score", or the individual experience of games -- I'm interested in the other stuff that has always been a part of what games are. To frame games in the striaghtjacket of similarly historically-specific terms ("design", for example) is to tie one's own hands unnecessarily. And I would suggest that this (if not the definition we've discussed) point is useful for anyone who wants to understand games.

Posted Nov 15, 2007 11:39:42 AM | link

SVgr says:

I'm new to TN, so maybe I'm not understanding the spirit of the discussions. So let me see if I'm reading this right.

Thomas has proposed a topic of conversation. In this case he included a definition of the term computer game. Now Thomas is fighting to keep from having to change what he sees as the perfect definition of a computer game for a social scientist, regardless of any of the comments suggesting that it be modified. Further down the page the discussion grows steadily nearer to a name-calling contest and further away from a discussion about what computer games are.

Does that about sum it up, and is this normal for TN?

I thought the reason for discussing an idea on a discussion board was so that people can discuss your idea and you discuss it with them in turn. (I couldn't resist a small recursion joke; "a game is a game", too funny)

Since feedback on this thread isn't welcome unless it's in agreement with the OP, I think I'll save my infinite wisdom for the next thread that catches my attention. However, I must say that TN is a really fascinating discussion board, and it's great to "meet" you all.

Posted Nov 15, 2007 1:34:04 PM | link

greglas says:

SVgr -- While I will withhold most of my thoughts on the substance of the debate (out of concern for being caught in the Richard-Thomas crossfire) -- I should say that both Richard and Thomas are both really splendidly pleasant fellows to hang out with in person, even if that doesn't shine forth from their spirited and pointed exchanges in this thread. And the verbal sparring here really doesn't bother me -- if we go back to Socrates, we can see the dialectic duel has a noble intellectual history. (Ren actually wrote the opening post, fwiw.)

More importantly, welcome to the TN blog, glad to have you as a contributing commenter.

Posted Nov 15, 2007 2:03:51 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Thomas Malaby>As Ren and I have said many (many!) times, it doesn't claim to be a definition for them.

OK, well rather than spoil our future breakfasts I'll desist from tearing into your posts further.

Instead, I'll just bear in mind that your answer to the question "what do we mean by 'computer game'" is, in part, "not the same as what the players mean" and leave it at that.

Richard

Posted Nov 15, 2007 4:45:09 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Player, here.

When I think of "computer game," I think of a game that wouldn't be possible without the computer.

I changed my mind while reading this post and thinking about my response. I initially thought that a game of chess played by two humans over a computer network would not be a computer game, because all the computer is doing is substituting for the board. I think, though, (after having reflected) that that is enough to change the nuances and social relationships enough to qualify as a different "thing" than chess played in real life, across a table from your opponent (Turing notwithstanding).

The reason I changed my mind, is because of one thing; the design of a a game space is, I think, important to the game. The UI of real-life chess, vs. on a computer.

Now, you could argue that a chess game played through the mail or email is also a different UI. I agree, and say that those would then be "mail games" and "email games."

So. My definition. If it's a game and it uses a computer in any way, it's a computer game. Even if a computer isn't involved in the control of a process, the interface affects the play.

To use Thomas' definition, the contingencies and outcomes in computer chess may be the same, but the domain and social issues are different.

Posted Nov 15, 2007 5:37:07 PM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Andy Havens

I see your point. But I think that, for my purposes at least, the difference between what I call 'computer games' and what i call 'games played on computers' is useful as the particular affordances of games that have that essential element that I try to pic out seem to form a useful category - tho as I say both are equally interesting in their own ways i just think that there are differences that we can pick out, I also think that there are differences between these two and games that don't fall in either.

Posted Nov 15, 2007 7:48:06 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Andy Havens>If it's a game and it uses a computer in any way, it's a computer game. Even if a computer isn't involved in the control of a process, the interface affects the play.

So if we take someone's Playstation Portable from their coat pocket and then use it in place of a tennis ball, is that a computer game? It's a game, it uses a computer...

Richard

Posted Nov 16, 2007 5:25:46 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

@Richard: If I kill a man with a cricket bat, it's not a game of cricket. If I play cricket using baseball bats, its not a game of baseball. If I play baseball underwater... it's underwater baseball.

If you use bits of computers instead of the bits on computers, it's not a computer; it's a chunk of plastic.

Posted Nov 16, 2007 10:02:38 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

@Andy Havens
But in Richard's example the whole computer was being used. It might not have been being used in the way it was intended but it does fit your definition of a game played with a computer. So maybe we need to return to notions of use of the processor and, indeed, essential use rather than just happening to be being used.

Posted Nov 16, 2007 3:10:57 PM | link

Amarilla says:

" What do we mean by ‘computer game’?
Ren Reynolds
..............
Proposed Definition
I thus arrive at this very simple notion of what a computer game is:

A computer game is a game where at least some of the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology. "

I agree only if you're talking about " player vs PC " , like when i buy the " Unreal Tournament " CD and i play it on my PC.

If you're talking about MMOs , VWs , CounterStrike, those are NOT computer games : because the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by the Operators, GMs and owners.

In UT's case, sure, there is a programmer/designer behind game's mechanics, rules,outcomes,bounds and all, too. But the guy had already made it's point , it is there on the CD, and i can chose to prove myself how smart i am that i can end his game- a contest to myself ;
or i can chose to prove to others that i'm smarter than them because i can end the game faster. A group-contest.

In UT's case, the Nature/God/Game Company have already made the world , in wich i can play alone or i can play with others. We are all playing the same game , by the same rules/mechanics ,upon wich we've agreed when we bought/joined that specific CD/Game . None of us, nor me nor my companions , could negotiate with the CD or with the PC .

MMOs and VWs are not games , so them cannot be " computer games ". Because in their case , the computer have no relevance : you can participate in that activity using interactive television ; but then you know that there is a guy " tuning the show " , rigging the casino, scripting the Wrestling . He pays you cash , if he wants you be part of his show, or you pay him cash if you wanna gamble online : in wich case the Casino is regulated.

A computer game is a game already implemented/programmed / inscripted . If i get bored , i might consider to buy the new version of the same game or even another game. I know what a game is when i see one. Make me a nice funny game and i'll buy it. Invite me in a MMO/VW, and i know : you have an unregulated/rigged Online Casino , a Porn Site , a Political Propaganda Agenda , a Nigerian Scam Site , or a Counter Strike/EVE where the GMs are RL friends/relatives with " few " players and the playfield is not fair/leveled. Not funny . Not funny to play games against a human " god ".

Posted Nov 16, 2007 10:04:53 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Ren/Richard: I think you're being... well... persnickety.

A thing that can't perform its essential functions may still be that thing in some sense, but it's not doing that which makes it it.

There is no functional difference between a computer when it's turned off and a lump of plastic and wire. In which case a "computer game" (in Richard's PSP-ball example) would be the same as a "toaster game," a "VCR game" or a "parking meter game." If you think that is the case, then all the activities that take place in computer games that can also happen elsewhere -- in game chat, the graphic arts, music, story -- aren't part of the "computer game," because these things can occur outside the medium, and computer games are reduced to the degree in which the computational power of the device is used to generate randomness or provide non-human feedback.

That a computer computes is what makes it a computer, not its inert, physical form.

There is something about the intermediating affect of the device that is important, I think, even when the computer only provides the medium and not any of the contingency. There is, for example, either trust or distrust of the medium, depending on the players and their views of the game, device, environment, etc. There is the difference in the play itself. There is the opportunity provided for more rapid (usually) resolution of the "physical" issues; ie, in online chess, when I take your piece, it just disappears. And there are either more, less or different cues regarding the play.

More importantly, I think, there are many elements of design and functionality, as provided by the programmer(s), designer(s) and artist(s) that make the game. Many computerized variations on one simple game can be (and have been) imagined. If the game medium is programmed on a computer, even if the "play" is all based on human "moves," how is it not a computer game?

I can imagine both very good and very bad design implementations of a "game played on a computer." The differences rely on the differences in the computers, and in those who programmed them.

Posted Nov 16, 2007 10:35:56 PM | link

Amarilla says:

"... even when the computer only provides the medium and not any of the contingency. "

You mean : we're playing Chess in different rooms because i have a flu and we use your PC + two webcams .

"There is the difference in the play itself. There is the opportunity provided for more rapid (usually) resolution of the "physical" issues; ie, in online chess, when I take your piece, it just disappears."

Yeah, if you remove your dead Queen after 10 secs or after 30 secs, that makes the Chess very different.

"If the game medium is programmed on a computer, even if the "play" is all based on human "moves," how is it not a computer game?"

Well...it is not a computer game when all the computer does is to transmitt/display my webcam to your screen ; or to translate my keystrokes into your on-screen Queen's movements.

We can play Chess sitting on two different far-away hills , shouting to eachother or using a telephone or a PC . That's Chess, not a hill-game or a computer-game. We could also use our kids to carry the messages between us , as long as they don't interfere drawing flying penises over C3-C7.


Posted Nov 17, 2007 12:11:15 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

@Amarilla: "You mean : we're playing Chess in different rooms because i have a flu and we use your PC + two webcams."

Yes. The very fact that you put in a reason why you'd use the computer makes my point for me: hey... I've got the flu and want to play chess w/ you, but don't feel like getting you sick. Let's set up a game on the computers in different rooms.

Yes, you could accomplish the same thing by yelling or over the phone. Yes, the game's rules are the same. But the medium of the computer changes the play. So would yelling or notes or the phone. But, as far as I know, nobody has provided programmatic design work towards various different versions of "phone chess" or "yelling chess."

Here's an analogy that might be helpful. Suppose you wanted to play chess with a deaf person who only spoke sign language, and who couldn't move pieces for himself, but could only ask, through sign, for you to do it for him. You would need to know at least enough sign language to interpret what moves he wants to make. While, again, the game is the same, and you are even in each other's presence, I would qualify that as "sign language chess." It has fundamental differences and requirements. You can't play "sign language chess" unless you know minimal sign language. You can't play computer chess (even against another human) without a computer.

Is there enough of a difference between poker played for fun (chips), penny/dime/nickel, high-stakes or strip poker that you'd expect that qualification to be meaningful when describing those different ways of play? Of course. If you invite me over to play poker for fun, and then suddenly tell me I'll be playing for hundreds of dollars or my pants... that's quite a different circumstance, even though the rules of play are identical.

I love to read on my pocket pc. And when people ask me what books I'm reading, if it's one I'm reading that way, I say so. Why? Because my friends (and family) and I are book-loaners. We trade and borrow from each other's libraries all the time. But not if I'm reading "Freakonomics" on my pocket pc, we're not. Same book, different medium, some differences worth noting.

Posted Nov 17, 2007 9:21:31 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

@Andy and Ren: I think you're agreeing on the point of defining something through its use, rather than through some appeal to a transcendent category (i.e., it's a "computer" even when it's a doorstop).

Posted Nov 17, 2007 11:00:29 AM | link

Amarilla says:

"But the medium of the computer changes the play."

It does only when...it does.

"But, as far as I know, nobody has provided programmatic design work towards various different versions of "phone chess" or "yelling chess." ".

I did it. So what . I don't claim to play something new , but the same ol' good nice Chess.

"You can't play computer chess (even against another human) without a computer."

First of all, you still have to prove your definition of a " computer chess ". Not only saying : "...even if you use the computer only as a support for your wood chessboard , that's still a computer chess because you cannot put your chessboard to that computer without putting it there..." Stop smoking.

"Is there enough of a difference between poker played for fun (chips), penny/dime/nickel, high-stakes or strip poker that you'd expect that qualification to be meaningful when describing those different ways of play? Of course. If you invite me over to play poker for fun, and then suddenly tell me I'll be playing for hundreds of dollars or my pants... that's quite a different circumstance, even though the rules of play are identical."

Nope, the rules are not identical : when i play chess alone , the only game's rules are those written by Chess' inventor. When i play against a PC, the programmer told me in advance if/what- if any - rules he modified towards the known regular Chess rules.

But when i play vs a human opponent , there are not only the game rules but also the play rules : you may not change the bet during the play , nor may you steal my Queen while i'm to bathroom.

Don't confuse/dissociate the rules of games & the rules of play. And really, quit smoking.


Posted Nov 17, 2007 2:49:25 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

@Amarilla: Not sure what you're arguing anymore, or what the smoking comments relate to. Your point about "the programmer told me..." proves my point.

Posted Nov 17, 2007 8:07:43 PM | link

Joe says:

Thank you for contributing to the Guardian blog yesterday Ren. It's great that you took time to do so. However the more I look at your explanation for the definition of "computer game" the more I think the definition is incomplete and fundamentally wrong. I have posted my reply there and here.


It is incomplete because within the definition you make no attempt to define the "game" part of "computer game". You throw this issue aside and simply put the word "game" into your definition. I think this is flawed. What you are effectively saying is that, in order to understand your definition of "computer game" it is either unnecessary to fully understand the concept of "game" or else you expect that everyone will understand it as: "a semi-bounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that participants enter into knowingly and that generates interpretable outcomes". I think a definition of game has to be included in your definition of computer game although not necessarily your own definition of "game" as I have issues with that too as follows:


Your definition of "game" is based on Thomas Malaby's but extends to having knowing participants. Malaby's original definition is not widely accepted according to the comments on the post on Terra Nova (linked to above) which might explain why you left it out of your overall definition of "computer game"? The most effective criticism of this definition of game in my view is that it allows a piano recital to be included within it yet excludes Sudoku. Furthermore, by adding that a game must only have knowing participants you imply firstly that all players are aware of the rules (I guess these are the bounds?) and secondly that the outcome can be interpreted by them.


One example you and Thomas might like to consider in line with your definition is a game called Garry's Mod where the outcomes are often not interpretable and participants often enter into them unknowingly, unwillingly and have no idea of the outcome. It is a mod of Half Life 2 where players can enter a sandbox mode which is basically an open ended game structure (a sandbox is a game, right?) and create things from tools and models available to them. Some of the models are explosive and new players (called "Mingebags" by default) or old players who enter their name as "Mingebag" (often with the intention of causing trouble) can use these explosives or generic weapons to kill other players. What follows is often frenetic revenge missions by other players to get the Mingebag, but not always. I have been run over by a jeep (another Minge strategy) many times in the game and consider this part of the game experience of Garry's Mod but it does seem to conflict with your definition. I suppose this is a game within a computer game but I would still argue with your definition of "game" as a result. Also, is one child using Play-Doh a game?

So to your definition of "computer game" itself: "a computer game is a game where at least some of the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology."

I dislike your use of the phrase "information technology" (IT) as it is a horribly vague term and one which is easily misunderstood compared to more recognised definitions of computers. My understanding is that "IT" incorporates both software and hardware so its use in your definition is too vague. Hardware doesn't "control" (essentially or otherwise) the action - it acts as an intermediary between player and software. Software may control (to the extent of carrying out the programming within it based on requests made of it by the player) but the word "control" is ambiguous in this context (where it is crucial that we understand it unambiguously).

I therefore think your reluctance to use the term "software" is damaging to your definition as software is really what we are talking about when it comes to games on or using computers. It means you can safely exclude purely mechanical devices. It also attaches a sense of "having been made for purpose" which ties in with the idea of a game necessarily having a structure (however loose) which distinguishes it from "play". Or is all play a game? I don't think so. I also think you need to distinguish between games which are played "as designed" and games which are played "as permitted" (such as hangman on Microsoft Word which the software allows but which it was not intended for). In my view the correct definition of computer game aligns to the former as the latter is not helpful in our understanding (it's a fluke). So we need to restrict the definition.


On the Guardian Blog yesterday I suggested the very simple definition "recreational interactive software" but I can see that because this definition allows the inclusion of writing software it is not nearly sufficient. However until we arrive at a definition of game (which was the problem I had earlier) we may be unable to define computer game accurately.

I have given it some thought and would suggest the following definition of game: "formalised play". After all, the instant that "play" is made formal it becomes a game does it not?

My definition of computer game is therefore "interactive software for formalised play". This makes clear the intention of the programmers behind the software does count and excludes passive forms of software (if this isn't already excluded by it being "play").

Thanks,

Joe

Posted Nov 24, 2007 6:58:00 AM | link

gabe says:

Thanks for the proposed definition. It's really interesting, but I'm not sure I understand any of the technical vocabulary used... what is a 'bound' or 'game-act'? Suppose the computer controlled advertising boards that border football pitches were moved in to mark the edge of the pitch; I'm assuming this wouldn't make it a computer game, but why not? Likewise, for 'essential'; some of the things we want to count as computer games are not necessarily computer games (as the mmrpg/dungeons and dragon example shows), so it seems odd to say that a game is a computer game iff the bounds of its game acts are essentially controlled by ...

Why not just define a computer game as a game played on a computer? Part of the problem in coming up with a definition was capturing the relevant way in which one needs to interact with a computer in playing a game for that game to count as a computer game; the pre-theoretical notion of 'playing on' seems (to me) to do this. It correctly rules the hawkeye and email chess examples as not a computer games.

Posted Dec 5, 2007 11:55:36 AM | link

pritesh says:

Nice post. Definition for a game is human to human but computer mediated is not a computer game. i agree with this.Game played on computer is computer game.


-------------------


pritesh

Put The Message Where It Matters! A New Way To Advertise On Social Networks! http://www.widecircles.com


Posted Jun 1, 2008 4:10:21 AM | link

IntradayMaster says:

Hello.....
FREE INTRA-DAY SHARE TIPS, STOCK TIPS & NIFTY BTST CALLS

Posted Jun 1, 2008 6:40:24 AM | link

Jason says:

Lineage 2 Darkland (free2play server) wiped today !! , join now and become the strongest. Rates 10x , Hellbound.

Visit www.l2darkland.com to register.

Posted Jul 1, 2008 5:37:47 PM | link