Thursday, July 31, 2008

Games and Game-likeness

This is the first of a series of cross-posts from, from June 13:

Reading Craig Perko’s
month-old post – or rant, if you prefer – about “message games” reminded me of one of the topics that I find really interesting: what is it that sets games apart as a medium? The kind of games Perko is talking about are simple games that involve clicking through a scene, or performing a single action, and may include moralistic points. The problem is that one click does not make a game – it makes an animation that you have to click on to see.

In reality, there is no universally agreed upon definition of a “game.” We can describe them in general terms, however. Games are interactive; games offer player choices; games either have built-in goals or a means for players to develop goals as they play. There are a variety of features that are common in games, or important in certain genres, but I think these are the most fundamental features that make an experience a gaming experience.

Here’s a different approach. Marc LeBlanc has compiled a list of 8 aspects of games that make them fun
: Sensation, Fantasy, Fellowship, Discovery, Narrative, Expression, Challenge, and Submission. If we consider, however, not just what makes games fun, but what makes them uniquely fun, we see that other media can fulfill some of these kinds of fun just as well, if not better, than games. Movies offer plenty of sensation, novels contain compelling narratives, and any kind of social networking site can offer fellowship.

So the real question is how can games offer these kinds of experiences in a unique way? By approaching them in a game-like manner. For example, if a story isn’t linear, or preset, but branches or can be traversed in a non-linear way, then it is not just presenting a narrative, but a game narrative. This makes the narrative more than just a story – it’s a way of exploring the possibilities of gaming. A compelling game narrative doesn’t just present the player with a story – it lets the player see the story being created as the game progresses. Similarly, every kind of fun on the list above can be approached in a game-like way.

Why should we care if a certain experience is game-like or not? Some of us like to call ourselves gamers, or say that we love gaming, but if we don’t know what goes into a gaming experience, what do we mean when we say that? Games may very well be the medium of the 21st century in the same way that film was the medium of the 20th century, but if so, then games need to have a clear sense of what it is they have to offer. If we ever want to see the full potential of games, we need to find and explore the parts of an experience that make it into a good gaming experience.

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