I sometimes find, when I’m driving on the freeway (which I do twice daily for about an hour) that I get a little annoyed with the driver in front of me if they are going slower than me. I don’t speed, but everyone’s speedo is a little different and so if I get stuck behind someone doing 5 under the speed limit, that starts to irritate me. So I’ll pull out and overtake them. But sometimes, they speed up a little and I find that I’m doing just a little over the speed limit in my efforts to overtake them.
The other day I decided that needs to stop. And I figured that to change that, I had to change how I look at these cars. Not as cars getting in my way, but to see them in a different light.
And then it occurred to me- I should see them as Drivin’ Buddies. Find someone who is driving at my speed, pull in behind them and hang out with them, so to speak, until they turn off and then I find another drivin’ buddy and hang behind them.
Turning the drive into a game changes my thinking and my head space and allows me to drive more safely, instead of speeding up to overtake I’m now happy to hang back and chill a little, hanging out with a drivin’ buddy.
And that got me thinking about games, wondering about the scope of them. One of the important parts of a game is a win condition, so you know when you’ve won. A game without a win condition has no end in sight, and becomes boring. But my drivin’ buddy game has no win condition. There is an endpoint, it’s when I get out of the car after the drive, but there’s no win or loose, I don’t have points or badges for the most buddies, or the least buddies, considering the point of the game is to keep me behind more cars rather than over take them. There’s not really any rules, except to stay behind people rather than over take them. But if they’re going particularly slowly, I can go find a different, faster drivin’ buddy.
So, not a lot of rules, no win condition and no point to it, apart from helping me drive more safely. Does this make it not actually a game? But if so, what is it?
I took my dilemma to twitter.
“Do games need a win condition to be a game? Can you have a game without a win condition? @paul_callaghan I’m looking at you…”
Paul Callaghan is a friend of mine who is a game designer, playful engagement enthusiast and co-artistic director of Free Play, an independent games festival.
Paul replied, saying “Game without a win condition is play… although the win condition can be pretty loose or could emerge through play #shortanswer”
So play doesn’t necessarily mean playing a game. Play can just be play. A game needs a win condition. Does that make Drivin’ Buddy just me playing?
I replied with “thank you! Made up a driving game but there’s no win condition, thus I think I’m just amusing myself while driving to work”
Paul answered “isn’t amusing yourself the win condition?”
OOO! Exciting development! I had considered, and then rejected, the idea of amusing myself as a win condition. It seemed very frivolous to me, for the win condition of the game was simple to amuse me. Don’t games need more of a win condition than that? Points? Badges? Money? Accumulation of assets? Writing this down, it seems silly, because monopoly money and houses aren’t real, badges in foursquare mean nothing and points on a video game are really just points of light on a screen. Looking at it that way, amusing myself is just as valid as any of those. But that not only is it a completely valid point to a game but that it can be the only point to a game was a really interesting idea I hadn’t thought of before.
So then, I wondered, in reference to the play vs game point mentioned before, what makes play just play and a game a game? I asked the oracle this question.
Paul replied “rules, states, goals is my definition for a game. Maybe replace win-condition here with long-term goals”
I understand goals and rules, but I was unsure about states. I was reading Pervasive Games by Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros and Annika Waern, and in it they talked about Gary Alan Fine’s study of table top roleplayers. Fine found that there are three distinctive and separate discourse frames. The top level, Primary Framework, the players discuss out-of-game topics, who is ordering the pizza, how work was today, that kind of thing. The Secondary Framework was where they discussed game mechanics, who was rolling what die and why. In the Tertiary Framework the players discussed the game itself, which character was taking what treasure, who was fighting which monster etc. So I wondered if Paul was talking about that with the word “states”.
P “states are how you encode the variables of the game. Think position of the pieces on the board in chess.”
There has to be a line somewhere, where play crosses into game. But at the same time, games can naturally form from play, without stating rules or win conditions at the start. This was amply demonstrated by an idea we tried out at the last Playday I was at. A Playday is a day organised by The Agency of Coney, (who works out of the UK but has a branch here in Melbourne too) where people can come together to play anything they like, to playtest ideas and to try things out. One of the attendees had an idea, he called this game Diplomacy.
His explanation was “You’re all at an embassy, at a party. You don’t know who the ambassadors are and who are the wait staff. Go.”
When we asked questions, about rules and expectations, he merely shrugged and said “I don’t know. There aren’t any. Go.”
The players stood around for a second. Then someone turned to someone else, stuck their hand out and said “I’m sorry about the war.” This was picked up by some other people, some changed what they were sorry about, some shook hands differently or not at all, and the game developed from there. By the end there was a giant chain of people all holding hands, who had encircled one person who had refused to shake hands and were all apologising for things. Then the game was called to a halt.
It was an interesting experiment, where there was a starting point but no rules or expectations and not even really a game. But it evolved rules as it went, some people making up rules just for themselves (there was one player who wouldn’t speak to women and only to men with beards. Another player decided with all the hand shaking going on that he wasn’t going to touch anyone. These can be seen as personal win conditions, if the players manage them for the entire game, but also clearly the players were making up rules as they went along. So I don’t think it started as a game, but the play evolved into a game as the play went on and rules were developed.
So all in all, an fascinating discussion and an evolution of my understanding of games and play. I’m really interested in more experiments and explorations of game, game design and game mechanics. All super interesting stuff. Stay tuned for more!