Tuesday, January 12, 2021

What is a Game?

 I made some bold assumptions in my last post. Namely that Fifth Edition might not be a game. That assertion certainly requires a further elucidation. So, if you'll allow me ... 

Generally game is defined as: "a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck."

In this sense, fifth edition might be considered a game even though the competitive element has been downplayed to a significant degree.

Game as a concept, however, is much more nuanced. Wittgenstein, the first to really philosophically take a crack at defining the idea, pointed out that the elements of most games, including play, competition and structure (or rules) are insufficient to capture the concept of "game", and indeed that the term cannot be so much defined as categorized by family resemblances. 

Wikipedia tell us that the philosopher Roger Callois took a crack at it nonetheless by defining the elements of a game as being,

    "fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character

    separate: it is circumscribed in time and place

    uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable

    non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful

    governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life

    fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality"

Upon which account 5e could be said to possibly satisfy most of these elements fairly strongly except for the uncertainty. The uncertainty is there, to be sure, simply because players do not know the outcome of the story. But don't they? They know they'll almost assuredly make it through to the end, and ideally they will be the heroes once again. This ties directly into the whole death conversation of earlier, but I do suppose one could take out death as a possibility and retain some uncertainty. 

Game designer Chris Crawford (again the almighty Wikipedia) went into a little more depth and highlighted the idea of playing "against" someone. While he admits that having someone you play against is a conflict (or whom can interfere with you as a competition) he underlines the problem in considering algorithmic artificial intelligences "someone". Is such an entity an active participant working against you? For if not, then it is a puzzle, not a game. And given the uncertainty with whether D&D played in the default style of 5e satisfies Callois' idea of uncertainty this interference could be considered algorithmic in quality. If a player is "playing right" and the DM is "playing by the rules" then D&D is just a puzzle you figure out so that the story can come to its conclusion. Crawford's final definition of a game is an "interactive, goal-oriented activity ... with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other." So, given that the only active agent for the players to play against is the DM then it is understood that D&D is players vs DM. At the least this brings into question the way many RPGs today are played being called games.

Clearly the topic is a deep one, as most things philosophers fret about are. And some contend that a clear definition still eludes us. This, later philosophers took issue with, and in fact have developed somewhat of a consensus around Bernard Suits' definition in Grasshopper, Games, Life and Utopia when he said games are, “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” I personally like that very much and tend to join in the consensus. I will not summarize the arguments here, but suffice it to say that Suits and those who commented upon his work have sufficiently analyzed this definition to adequately stand the philosophical test of durability. 

So, to answer the question of this blog post, "What is a Game?" 

A game is "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."

So, is 5e a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. Well, in true philosopher fashion. I suppose that all depends on how you define obstacle. No, I won't go there. But I will offer a few questions for consideration. Are the obstacles in your game really obstacles? Is their defeat or their solution to them a forgone conclusion? Is the entire game a farce? And if we are going to say that it really doesn't matter. An obstacle is an obstacle. It doesn't stop being an obstacle just because I defeat it easily. It is an obstruction placed in the way of the story being completed. The fact that I will inevitably overcome it doesn't not make it an obstacle. 

Very well. I will concede that. We could argue all day about whether an obstacle easily overcome is an obstacle at all, let's just say it is an obstacle. Does overcoming such an obstacle really satisfy? If the forgone conclusion is that it really doesn't challenge you, it just slows you down ... Well, friends all I can say to that is I have better things to do with my time. Better games to play. 


  1. Great post! Lots of food for thought and some interesting rabbit holes to follow up on ... There is a broader, more psychological approach to this that talks about how we learn by exercising abstract (or virtual, if you will) situations that need some sort of problem solving. We actually only learn that way, or rather, you could say that the very thing that distinguishes us from other animals is the ability to evaluate the dangers in our environment with our minds instead of our bodies. Exercising this can mean reading books or playing hide and seek or (the new kid on the block) playing role playing games. The thing is (and here I agree), it actually needs problems to be solved. There needs to be some sort of "danger" to actually learn something from it. I think Piaget wrote about this (learning, playing to learn).

    That said, I'd argue that if the semantic meaning of "game" shifts from "actively learning something meaningful" to "mindless entertainment to consume", it not only legitimizes 5e as a game, the definition itself also works better to describe reality right now. Big publishers want rpgs to be reduced to theme park entertainment ... So while I actually agree with you when you say there could be an argument made that 5e isn't even a gamel, it might be that "proper" rpgs aren't games instead and need to distinguish themselves somehow (my approach would be to look at how rpg is a new form of media and how that relates to, for instance, literature ... in that sense, the rules we use are an expansion on language when we tell stories). Anyway, my two cents. This was good reading. Thanks again!

  2. I love it Jens! Thanks for the insightful comment. The idea of RPGs as an entirely new media is very intriguing, maybe the subject of another blog post! Thank you for taking the time to stop by!

    1. Hey, not a problem. I enjoyed reading your post. Enough, actually, to write a post about it myself, following my train of thought a bit further :) Maybe you'd like to check out a longer version of my comment above:

      I write a lot about that idea that rpgs are a (new) form of medium ...