Am I Playing?

Eddie Cameron 11:43 pm on April 10, 2011 Counting comments...

What makes a game a game? It’s usually pretty clear, if you’re playing it, it’s a game, right? But there is a grey area between toys and games, and sometimes even the distinction between movies and games can be unclear. For those of us that make games, this border is an important one, especially because exploring this grey area can bear interesting fruit.

As players and developers, we probably worked out our own definition of a game, most likely subconsciously. When we interact with something, we just know if it’s a game or not. But a more formal definition can shed some light. Jesse Schell explores this in The Art of Game Design (a popular game design book for good reason). One possible definition of a game from Greg Costikyan, “an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle towards a goal”. In terms we already know, games are interactive, they have endogenous meaning (things only have value within the game) and players must overcome challenge to proceed. All well and good, although rather sterile. By no small stretch this definition can cover pretty much any activity within a structure, slavery for example. And I don’t really agree that games can only have endogenous meaning, gambling with real money is still a game, albeit a different game. I prefer Schell’s own definition, “A game is a problem solving activity, approached with a playful attitude”, simple and easy to grasp. But ‘problem solving activity’ is a pretty open requirement. How minimal is too minimal when it comes to problem solving?

And that’s where agency becomes so important. Agency, you could say, is how much your interactions in a game matter. The ability for a player to take ‘meaningful actions’ and see the effect of them, be that in story, gameplay verbs, difficulty, or even social interactions. Clint Hocking, who has been shouting about agency for