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The Nature of Games

The Nature of Games

The Nature of Games

The Nature of Games

What is a game? What makes a game? Games have been part of human history for many years.  But do we even know what we are playing? What makes them fun, interesting, unique, and engaging?

What’s in a game? (a name)

A game is a participatory activity where people play for pleasure and without a specific purpose.  But can you really say that? Do people really play games without a specific outcome?

I know that I play games to have fun, but does that mean that they aren’t serious? Does that mean that my hobby isn’t something as worthwhile as someone else’s?

Games have a history of starting on floors and on tables with bits of stone, wood, and eventually cardboard.  Since their humble beginnings they have grown to become something much more.

With the revolution of video gaming in the 70’s we have now have a wide library of digital and interactive amusements. But what do you call streaming TV and social media? Do they count as games?

Yes, and no.  While streaming services can be entertaining and social media engaging, they don’t have the characteristics that are part of other games. Namely they don’t include components and rules. They both lack the structure that creates games: that is an organization for how one is supposed to interact with the medium.

This has been demonstrated in consumer video games where there are multiple characteristics at play: rules for engagement, structure for participation, and a desire to continue playing.

The Rules for Play

You can say that a game is system of rules that help players make “ambiguous decisions.”  That means that players can’t really tell what they are supposed to do in a given circumstance without knowing what else is available to them.

You can also say that a game is a selection of “inefficient means.”  Take Monopoly for instance. The goal is to accumulate the most money and eliminate the other players. If you’d like the most efficient way of getting there, then you can just grab up all of the money in the box and refuse to let anyone else play with you. But would that be a game? Would that even be fun?

Some argue that crosswords, jig saw puzzles, and mazes are games. But the trouble with this is that all of those examples have the same solution with only one winning outcome. Whereas, games offer multiple paths to victory though the use of player decisions and strategies.

This may not be evident to players at the very beginning, but designing a game where the players can learn intuitively and act according to their own strategies is critical. This aspect of scaffolding helps players determine how they interact within the game in order to accomplish their own goals.

This is really evident in how games become procedural: how players are introduced and follow the rules. Table top games and card games include this through teaching other players or through the rule book. Video games do the same through tutorials. Some classics like Super Mario Bros demonstrate the rules to you experientially. You move left to right, you fall down a pit and die, and if you jump on top of an enemy you can destroy it.

But table top and video games alone don’t completely demonstrate games as a whole. You can consider financial markets a game with many players. Each with their own goal of accumulating the most amount of wealth through a series of trading actions. However, players’ actions are determined not from their own strategy alone, but in concert with what everyone else is doing.

Despite this, games aren’t merely structures where players compete against each other. Rather, it’s a place where they can connect with each other in a socialized environment. This allows players to fulfill a sense of relatedness. A sense of belonging which provides opportunities to experience something more than just the game itself.

“Magic Circle”

This experience is what is called the “Magic Circle.” The place where everything within the game happens. The real world has its own rules. The Magic Circle is the game’s own rules. What happens within the game stays within the game and helps players create and maintain a sense of their own personalized and constructed reality.

Of course there are going to be points where the rules of the real world intersect with that of the game world. Think about baseball: the ball still has to follow the rules of gravity. But other games that involve role-playing like Dungeons and Dragons allow players to bend the rules of what is acceptable to do in the game versus real life (like cast some fireballs).

This Magic Circle in modern games allows players to feel and do different things than they would otherwise do in the real world. That means that they are enabled by game designers to grow and develop their own in-game personas, accomplish their own tasks, and achieve their own goals.

The Goal of the Game

One fundamental aspect of games that we can always turn to is that a game has a goal. It’s one of the core conditions of games that has a set victory requirement. Sometimes that goal is very straightforward with games like Tic-Tac-Toe which is to get three in a row. But what about games like Minecraft? Where is the goal there? Is it to build something realistically? To survive? What is the goal of that game?

Goals are certainly characteristics of games. However, the way that they are defined makes specific games unique. Think about Galaga where you play as a pilot shooting aliens in order to prevent them from taking over the screen. That goal is provided via the structure of the game.  That structure was created by its designer. But the strategy necessary to accomplish that (and the smaller goals along the way) is created by the player.

Games for entertainment are often created with balance in mind: the designer has developed an experience for players that provides challenging and engaging play. However, other applications of games, such as through stock trading can be completely different. Sometimes even completely imbalanced. Here you can make all of the right moves based on history, insight, and probability and still lose. But does that make the activity any less appealing? Does that affect the balance of the overall game? If so, whose duty is it to rectify it?

That is when Self-Determination Theory comes into play. All great games help fulfill this personal aspect of selection and accomplishment by engaging one’s aspect of motivation. Through careful design and an in-depth analysis of the player’s experience; one can create a game that honors players’ ability to shape their own outcomes. For goals are one of the ways that players stay engaged. But the decision-making faculty: the ability to make choices that affect the player’s outcomes is the heart of creating self-determination.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

One of the most famous quotations about games comes from acclaimed designer Sid Meier of the Civilization series about games being a series of interesting choices. However, is that what games are? Just a series of interesting choices? If so then games are really overthought for what they provide. In reality, games are more than that. They are a collection of experiences that also involve those interesting decisions. Most of all, they provide players with the ability to make informed decisions that helps to support their own level of self-determination.

How is a game different? It’s because players build a mental model for how they choose to play. They follow the rules and structure of the game and make decisions based on differing levels of information. Chess is a perfect information game: all of it is laid out for you. But poker is something completely different. Poker players don’t have all of the information. They have to make their best guess. Therein lies the interesting decisions.

Games really sing when players are able to make a decision about how they want to proceed without fully understanding or controlling everything involved in the decision making. Some degree of serendipity is important to maintain the magic circle of gaming. Those decisions can be made based on what you know.  But players ultimately won’t know for sure what will happen.

This is where people mainly get confused on what games are. Yes, games include making decisions. But they aren’t toys. Games have structure. They aren’t puzzles. Puzzles have a specific solution. Games are open ended where some or all players can win or lose.

Those open-ended results are what makes games interesting. Decisions help players shape exactly how they will get those results. But those decisions have to be meaningful. They have to give the player at least the sense of control in order to shape their own destiny.

However, just because decisions need to be interesting doesn’t mean that their results have to be chaotic. Once players determine a solid relationship between cause and effect, they can capitalize on it to form the basis of strategy. Such strategies have come to life in ancient games like Go or through modern implementations such as equities trading


While great games have excellent decision-making structures, there needs to also be a balance. That is where chance comes in. Chance and a little randomness keeps games interesting by not allowing players to completely know everything about the game state.  Since the game state can change at any given moment, the players may not always know what the right decisions are. But they can infer based on what they know.

There still needs to be a balance though. While chance does make things interesting, it does not represent everything found in game play. Chance, like other game characteristics, needs to be introduced and supported throughout the structure of the game. Sometimes that comes from game itself, sometimes that comes from peers and other players.

When this structure is evident in peers and other players, it represents a form of scaffolding. Scaffolding is the structure that allows players to form their own level of success and efficacy before attempting something more challenging.

Games used for education often rely on the teacher for that scaffolding.

Now think about other games you’ve played. Think about Portal or Super Mario Bros. How did you know the effects of walking through a portal or how to finish a stage?  You probably weren’t taught by someone else. Rather, the structure of the game and the design of its play, helped you understand just what you could and could not do.

The Social Aspect

Games were originally a social exercise. They brought people together around a table and over a board. They still do that today. However, with the advent of technology there exist new games on computers, mobile devices, and consoles. These games don’t necessarily need other people to play with. They can be played by a single person. Does that make them any less of a game?

Games like Skyrim or Fallout have massive open worlds where players can chose to avoid interacting with other players. Instead, they become involved with non-player characters (NPC) that represent the world and everything in it. At this point the player has made another interesting choice. Rather than engaging with others, they are instead choose to perform their role inside of this world devoid of other human contact.

But this often flies in the face of the growing popularity of multiplayer games; a medium where interaction is the main interesting decision to make. However, games are a flexible and dynamic medium. Sometimes they require player interaction. Sometimes they don’t. Really it is ultimately up to the players themselves to determine how they want to shape their experience. It is up to them how they want to play.

How to Play

Lastly, play is one of the most interesting dynamics of games. Games are designed to be played. They are meant to be played by the players. But toys are the same way. Toys are designed to be played with. But how are games and toys different?

Structure is the answer. A game has goals, it has rules, it has resources, and winners. Toys? Not so much. Toys instead offer an infinite outcome. There is no set way to end them. Games on the other hand hold much more possibility.

That structure in games is inherent in how they play. Autonomy is granted to the player when they are presented with this slew of interesting decisions. These decisions allow them to become the author; to become the hero; to become the player character. Through this involvement; through this play; the player becomes increasingly more successful at tackling challenges and tasks while growing in the process.

And that autonomy, that play, is what makes games so interesting. Players are given the choice of how to play. They can even make choices that seem to conflict with what they are attempting to accomplish in the game. But so long as they are presented with a reason why this is an interesting choice; they can decide to continue playing. They decide to continue engaging.

Dave Eng, EdD
Managing Partner


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