Am I Playing?
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 some time, believes "...that agency is the very stuff of games." And it's hard to argue, the games we remember tend to have plenty of agency. You decide to buy a lot in Monopoly. You build a hotel. A friend lands on it. He goes bankrupt. You promise to waive the rent if he gives you his Mayfair. Another friend lands there, and threatens to kill your family. Good times... At each point, it's clear that your decision to buy the property has profoundly affected how the game has played out. Fate of the World, while compelling, lacks agency, in that it's hard to see the effects of your actions. They either slightly affect the slope of a graph hidden somewhere in the complex interface, or cause a catastrophic sea rise 40 years on without telling you why. Agency is what makes a game, Fate of the World falls short of its intentions because it lacks agency. Without seeing and coping with the effects of different government actions, you miss out on a huge opportunity to learn about them.
So, a game should have problem solving, and clear agency. Fair enough. What happens if you explore this definition's limit? Perhaps on either side you get Don't Take it Personally Babe, it just Ain't Your Story, and Digital: A Love Story by Christine Love.Don't Take it Personally sits just outside the border of 'game-ness.' While it is interactive, with the player able to check Facebook style status updates alongside the 'main' story, and at times pick from a choice of options, it has no problem solving, and very little agency. The fact that you can read the updates at any time bears no impact on the story itself, and if the main plot demands it, it will force you to read them. Also, it is sometimes hard to tell what effect, if any, your few choices have. Some may say this is more life-like, but games aren't reality! To be fair, Love has promoted this as a visual novel, rather than a game, however it has picked up (most?)attention from the gaming world. Digital: A Love Story, on the other hand, has definite 'game bits' and, I believe it is stronger for them. It has clear problems that must be solved to continue, and has agency in that the player is personally advancing the story. I find it interesting that although Digital doesn't have a branching narrative like Don't Take It..., it still manages to make the player feel more personally involved with the story.
Knowing this difference is how we can learn lessons from other media. Games share many traits of books, music, and most obviously movies, however not all of them can be ported to the interactive realm. Played any games with overly long cutscenes? Remember FMV? Heard the same song/score 100 times over the course of a playthrough? Examples of stealing the wrong ideas from other media. What do they have in common? They can't help with problem solving and they take away player agency. Let's look at what can be successfully, ahem, re-appropriated. Aspects of cinematography, lighting, mood creation that cinema has had a century to delve into. Narrative constructs from literature. Indirect storytelling from music. These don't affect agency, and can be layered and merged with the game mechanics that we already know how to do best.
Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves we're making games. We can't ignore the wealth of human knowledge of storytelling and art, but neither can we blindly pick and choose techniques that have worked in other media. While most traditional games are safe in their game-ness, by carefully controlling agency we can explore the narrative areas they may have ignored.
NOTE: This is cross-posted at my personal blog, grapefruitgames.com