This one is going to be a bit technical, so I will try to keep it from getting too heady, but I think it is worth consideration. I have read a number of books and articles and forum posts and have heard a number of versions of what a ‘Game’ is and how it factors to the genre in general. The definition of a game is basically “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck”. Now, there is a lot more that you can say on this issue and I will touch on some of the viewpoints. I may cover some of the same material that people have done on this before, but I will try to make it an interesting read nonetheless.
I will start with the first one that I have seen this topic is I Have No Words & I Must Design, and it starts us off by talking about what makes a game requires a number of things. Interactivity, Goals, Struggle, Structure, Endogenous Meaning. They then go on to discuss the reasons people find games appealing, which is a good read but I think secondary to this question of exactly what makes a game a game. After all, while I may approach a game for different reasons than you, I think we won’t be able to say that it isn’t a game as long as it meets our defining criteria.
One of the main things we look at when deciding to play a game is ‘Is This Fun’? We’ve decided that games are things that are fun. It is a subjective measure, because I may find something fun that you hate and vice versa. Look at the hundreds of hopefuls trying to get into a major league sports team or the olympics, spending all their time training and practicing. I don’t know if I find that fun, because I feel that the act of playing should be enjoyable in itself, not a matter of giving up everything for it because of what could happen. For example, with roleplaying games, I figure back in the 80’s and 90’s. most people were not expecting their home campaign worlds to be made into huge settings books and be played by all sorts of people, so they were designed for fun with the group they were playing with and only lately did it get to the point that more people can experience your would and so some people are trying to use it to cash in on by designing the next greatest thing.
Raph Koster in his book A Theory of Fun, argues that “Fun arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that make games fun. With games, learning is the drug.” So, in that idea, part of the reason a game is played is to become better at something, a way to improve. Perhaps, of course, it can be said that there are not always mastery that makes it fun but the fun is the getting to the mastery. Roguelikes for example have the idea of the challenge being the fun part. Once you master it, it kinda spoils the challenge, and thus the fun, to be the master. I assume that if you were a grand master at chess, it isn’t all that much fun to play rookies beyond more than letting them see how good you are and thus how good they could be.
This challenge and mastery system can usually be accomplished by anything that will have the player having to use some skill in playing the game, since if you have it relying on pure chance then there is no mastery beyond just ‘Can you roll dice and count’ like in Snakes and Ladders. Card Games like Munchkin have it in playing the opponents as much as it is playing your own hands, such as having a card to allow you to kill a monster and take its treasure held in your hand in case the other players throw a ton of stuff on you. In RPGs, it is combat tactics, equipment statistics, and other resource management that you have to factor in to how well you can play the game.
It may not seem like much of a reason for this post, when you think about the idea is giving tips for being better, but I think we need to decide on exactly what the goals we are trying to accomplish are. After all, we can’t really play a roleplaying game without knowing exactly what the game we’re playing is. Roleplaying Games in a tabletop style can be so many different things, a lot like the way video gaming has ‘JRPGs’ which some define less ‘playing a role’ as an ‘interactive story with battle sequences’, ‘WRPG’ which is usually a ‘solo hero or small group and are usually more action oriented,’Games with RPG Elements’ like FPS skill trees. In Tabletop form, this can be anything from a dungeon crawl type to a rich political adventure to a tactical wargame and so forth. The key is what your game is and what you want it to do.
There is a short story The Fall of a City by Alden Nowlan that I read in English class in school, talking about a young boy who staying at his uncle and aunt’s place would hang out up in the attic. He would play out epic storylines like those the gamers tell at tables, like during dinner he was deciding exactly what would happen during the siege that was taking place. This sounds like a lot of the gamers and gamemasters I know, who spend a lot of their time working the plot around in their heads as they go through daily routine. This shows a lot of the idea of finding the value of a game in the act of the game itself. We’re here to be a part of a story and to tell a story ourselves, so the characters are important but you can have the same game without the characters. Its the camaraderie that makes the game fun, at least to me. Otherwise, I’d just sit at home and spend my time writing stories or playing video game.