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Notes on Game Models

Dated: september 8th, 2005

Defining games and play:

Here follows a mail sent to the Games Network mailing list, giving a brief explanation of one of my ideas on what is a game, and how models about games can be done. I guess I'll be adding other texts to this section soon.

But don't be afraid, this one is probably the wildest of these ideas.

From: H. Hernan Moraldo
To: Games Research Network (gamesnetwork@uta.fi)
Subject: Re: [GAMESNETWORK] End winning condition? :-)
Date: Thu, 8 Sep 2005 16:43:36 -0300
Hi all,
Working in this question, of "what is a game", I think I've got a possible definition I haven't seen before, anywhere else. I'd be glad to know your opinions about it. (And sorry for my terrible English, that's not my natural language)
We are all trying to define games as objects, so that we can later say what playing is: "playing is using these objects we call games". We can do it to the inverse, and maybe it's easier that way: "games are those objects we can play with" or "we do play with". Then we have to define what playing is. This way of finding the definition, I think makes a lot of sense, as Quake isn't a game while it's static on its cd, but it has the potential of being a game if we use it to that purpose. The same way, an Excel sheet can be a game, if we find interesting rules that make it possible, to play with it.
What is playing then? What do we recognize as the thing we do when playing?
And I think it's a matter of models, of learning, and challenge. It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, whether there are discrete rules (as in chess) or non-describable rules (as in real-life hide & seek, that happens in a physical world we couldn't yet fully describe and understand).
What Tetris, Sims, Doom and any other thing we would call a game, is that they require the player to do an iterative process that has the following two steps:
  1. The player constructs a model of how the game works, and how he has to do, to beat it (to win it, to have a great score, or as in Tetris, merely to survive)
  2. The player tests the model, and measures the results; then back to 1
So 'playing' is living that process, in an iterative way: one time, and then again and again and again. Playing stops when the process stops or is struck at one of the two steps.
The player model of the game hasn't to be a conscious one: games as sports, or action games, depend on players finding ways to improve their skills, that might not be related to describable and conscious theories of behavior.
The delicate equilibrium in challenge for game designers, is making games that require the player to create models for the game, that can yet be enhanced once and once again... because if no adequate model can be found by the player, the learning process will stop at 1, and if a best model is found, the the player will be struck at 2. And when the process stops, and no more learning is to be done, the game stops being a game, and it starts seeming a boring one to the player.
I think this game definition (different of any other I know) can be applied to all things we'd call games, despite their obvious differences: racing games, fps's, Sims, Tetris, etc.
But most interestingly, it cannot be applied to things that seem to be a game, but can't be played with. Suppose an "old-definition game", with rules consisting in: you have three buttons, when you press A, you win; when you press B, you lose; when you press C, you keep "playing". This is a game for all popular definitions of game, but you can't play with it according to my 'play' definition, so it's not a game from this point of view. And I think it's _very_ reasonable not to consider that a game.
Also, it can be applied to home-made challenges as: "let's see who can cook the best cake here". If you compete that way during enough time, you will have the feeling that you are playing a cooking game. And in this game definition, that's precisely what you are doing.
Well, I don't want to send a huge mail here. I hadn't written about these ideas before, and while I think they are original and interesting, I'd really like to know your opinions about them. If I see other game researchers find them interesting and useful, I could write some article on the matter.
Best regards,
H. Hernán Moraldo

In categories: All English GameStudies Philosophy 2005

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