Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes

A new definition for games

Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes
Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes

Note: There’s now an interactive version of this paper that was used during a poster session at Meaningful Play 2014! It’s better since it has more references in it, talks a bit about procedural rhetoric and it’s issues, etc. 

Gameplay and Learning

There’s a perennial problem in games for learning: the mechanics of a game are often disassociated from the desired learning. I think part of this stems from educational game designers placing too much emphasis on specific subject matter content exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the object of their creation.

Too many educational games aren’t really that engaging as games. They focus on content and sometimes use only the superficial reward layer of games to motivate players to engage in the activity. (This is often called “gamification.”) These types of “games” keep getting made and will continue to be made so long as our educational policy/system continues to emphasize discrete disciplinary content assessed with brute force testing methods. In our effort to meet decontextualized standards, we’ve lost student engagement and somehow think that by making our stupidly meaningless activities give out badges and points that everything will be fine.

Sometimes engaging gameplay does exist, but the learning content is just inserted as interstitial segments between layers or levels of the actual game. An example could be a game that features pop-up screens with trivia between levels of, say, a first-person exploration game.[1] Again this is because the designers are placing too much value onto these subject matter chunks of facts. They may understand what makes a game engaging but not how to incorporate these fact chunks into the activity. (Good examples of games that focus on the educational content in their game design include the work from CGS and Ululab.)

It should be obvious that I don’t think we should be dividing our education into disciplinary silos. Additionally, if you know me, you know that I’m much more interested in the processes of learning that players engage in during gaming than the actual content of their learning. I think these processes are the true power of gaming and that they can transfer to many other non-game situations.

To understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand my definition of games. Recently, however, I’ve rethought and changed my definition, so I’ll explain that transformation here, too.

Definitions (Old)

My old definition of games was basically some form of this:

Games are systems of rules/constraints that present players with goals that can best be accomplished by exploring and pushing at the limits of these rules/constraints.

This definition focuses on games as systems and the action that players take to understand those systems. This works towards a definition of gaming expertise as a practice rather than as knowledge (and my affinity for this emphasis is probably due to my previous studies on expertise in a WoW player group). Potentially, the main benefit of games is the fact that players learn these systems through exploring and pushing; they learn these systems through the practice of playing, which looks strikingly similar to STEM practice (as recognized by the National Research Council). Through this exploration, players gain a lot of personal agency as they take actions to affect change within games based on their continually constructed understanding of game systems. I think it’s this potential of gaming that can change the world, as players start seeing how to transfer gaming practice–strategic actions that navigate systems–to the systems of their everyday lives. The job I see for educators, then, is to help players see these connections and make that transfer. This is something I think many players just won’t do on their own; there’s too much baggage and existing negative framing around games as valueless or frivolous activities.

But there’s a bunch of unspoken things in the above definition… Things like engagement and the performative nature of play. An alternative definition is one that the students in one of my games studies courses and I came up with last Fall:

A game is an unpredictable (as in the outcome is unpredictable), engaging activity played within a defined set of rules/constraints with some sort of goal.

The nice thing about this definition is that it emphasizes the contingent nature of gaming. It’s this contingency (uncertain outcomes where certain actions are riskier than others) that makes participating in gaming a cultural act… something that can legitimately accrue cultural capital (for more on this, see Malaby, 2009). Another thing this definition does is state that games are engaging. This was the allowance made when the class realized that games aren’t necessarily “fun”–a label often used uncritically by students new to game studies. (More on fun later.)

Given these definitions, a question educational game designers could ask themselves is:

  • If games are about exploration and pushing at a system, what kinds of things should educational games be focused on?

My answers about a week ago would’ve included deep systems, consistent behavior, good feedback, and layers of exploration.

Recently, however, a thread on the DiGRA listserv made me rethink things. A listserv member (Bob Kessler) asked for thoughts on the “core” of games to better prepare a pitch to his university for a games department (though the EAE games program at Utah is pretty freaking amazing already). Another member (Mike Sellers), who has been in the industry for a good while (Meridian 59!), mentioned that games provide players with meaningful interaction. He wrote:

Games are fundamentally about meaningful interaction. That is… deeper interaction that involves building up a dynamic mental model in the player’s mind. This mental model includes the state of the “game world”… The purpose of building this mental model is to enable the player to make decisions in the pursuit of achieving some goal.

This struck me as notable since it departs a bit from normal definitions of games I usually hear/read (cf. Salen & Zimmerman, 2003; Juul, 2003)–normal definitions that my class and I based our definition on last Fall. Now maybe this is a difference between what’s “core” about the act of gaming and what’s a definition of the object known as “game.” As in, maybe the difference is in an activity versus an artifact, but it really got me thinking. Maybe it’s impossible to define a game without acknowledging that it must be enacted, since it’s inherently about interaction.

Meaningful Interaction

On various social media, I played around with reforming my definition of games and tentatively ended up with this:

[Games are] personally meaningful interactions/decisions with(in) designed systems/ecologies of constraints.

I like it. The word “meaningful” covers so much. Engagement is implied because players must have some sort of investment in order to make personally meaningful choices. Likewise, goals are also implied because players must have some sort of intended imagined outcome for their actions to have meaning. The “interaction” part of the definition emphasizes that games must be enacted, they must be realized and co-constructed by players and the game-as-object or game-as-designed-system. And since I’m currently researching the crazy esoteric practices of game modders, I’m tending to prefer “with” instead of “within” designed ecologies. In fact, perhaps the only thing that isn’t encapsulated enough is the contingent nature of the intended actions… Well, maybe I’ll revise this definition later.

Anyway, with this new definition, the learning that happens in games comes from interaction with the designed systems and building clearer and clearer understandings of the choices available.

One criticism I got for this definition is that it lacks “fun,” and further discussion reminded me (quite rightly so) that there’s a lot of theorizing on what “fun” actually means and that there’s typologies of fun that might allow for non-fun games (like, say, Depression Quest). Also, the definition doesn’t sufficiently provide something that works to categorize a designed artifact as a game. In other words, it doesn’t differentiate an enactment of Settlers of Catan from an enactment of an engaging math class. Well, yes, if we’re going to name products as games, this definition doesn’t work. But if we’re naming activities as games, this definition is great. It places the power in the hands of people in local settings, allowing them to instantiate a “game” whenever they personally treat the situated activity as such. And that’s precisely what I wanted this definition to do. If a student treats a math class as a game, then, yes, it is a game for that student, and, no, it doesn’t mean that it’s a game for the rest of the students. Likewise, if a player is hating their experience with Settlers, maybe it oughtn’t be called a game.

“Games” become relative and subjective, and I really, really like that. It’s an acknowledgement that human activity is subjective. Different people place different meanings on their activity. We have the ability to imbue and ascribe all sorts of meanings into our lived experiences. It’s what makes us human.

In other words, with this new definition, the learning that happens in games comes from interaction with the designed systems and building clearer and clearer understandings of the choices available and deeper and deeper meanings with this lived experience.

Learning Games Designed for Meaningful Interactions

So, what does this.. er… mean? Let’s go back to my opening statement:

There’s a perennial problem in games for learning: the mechanics of a game (i.e., gameplay) are often disassociated from the desired learning. I think part of this stems from educational game designers placing too much emphasis on specific subject matter content exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the object of their creation.

The perennial problem with games for learning is that they often are activities that have nothing to do with the deep cultural meanings players have with games, that the attitude of the player and the nature of interaction with some sort of engaging system (i.e., the player practice) is what makes a game “a game.”

So then… What does this mean for educational game designers?

No idea, really.

Actually, seriously, I’d start by making sure designers are players, too, and that they sink a good 100+ hours into something like Civilization, World of Warcraft, Skyrim, or XCOM at least once before designing serious games. Then I’d suggest designers think carefully about allowing for multiple levels of meaning-making and constructed understandings of the systems in place and that these things match closely with the intended learning. That’s a lot of talk and not much advice, I realize…

Maybe this is easier to understand through an illustrative example, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

[1] This type of “game” was compared unfavorably to a powerpoint deck, leading Richard Mayer to conclude that games were inferior to other forms of media for learning gains at AERA a few years ago. I’ve heard he’s since recanted.

6 thoughts on “A new definition for games”

  1. I’m seeing this very late, but I enjoyed this, Mark. Well done! It does seem to me that when you discuss how games only exist as they are enacted that that point harkens back to what I said about the “processual” quality of games, as I put it (my favorite analogy is to a piece of music, like a symphony; it only exists in being played). And yes, meaning is central (interpretable outcomes).

    On the question of games as compelling (we both agree that “fun” is not the right road), I must ask: why would you want your definition of games to disallow “bad” ones? I don’t see the analytical value of that. To hitch an achieved inner state (whatever you wish to call it — playfulness, perhaps) to a cultural form (as a kind of litmus test) only ties your hands, I’d think. Don’t we want to be able to discuss failed games, just as we do failed rituals?

  2. Hmmm… Do games necessarily *have* to be compelling/engaging? I guess when we included “engaging,” we made an evolutionary step to get away from “fun” in the definition. Does the new definition allow for bad games? I guess it doesn’t really… but now we have this problem of games needing to be enacted to exist, yet games don’t get enacted unless there’s some base level of engagement with the interaction… which would mean engagement or interaction as a verb needs to be in there somewhere, right?

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