Dissecting a game

Here’s the big one I promised earlier.

I think one of the problems about trying to design a game is that there is no good vocabulary to describe a game or standard for what a game is.  This may just be a personal problem, as I tend to get bored halfway through reading interesting articles and start playing with the nearest shiny object.

Regardless of whether or not this is just me, I’ve started writing down my ideas on what a game is (or should be, or may possibly be in an alternate universe where everything I say is awesome and correct), mainly breaking down the idea of a “game” into its base parts.

So here goes:

Video Games tend to be separate themselves from other entertainment as being interactive, but I find that this does not fully describe what a game is to me.  Legos are interactive, but are not inherently a game.  (Lego Star Wars is a game that inherently sucks.  This is only here to mention my opinion of Lego Star Wars, and is not relevant to anything.)  But (almost) no one will deny that interactivity is part of what makes games unique among other forms of art/entertainment, so it must be important.

Others may say that choice is a key contributor to what makes a game a game.  This is also true.  If Mario just ran through a level with no player input and finished the game, then it would be a movie.  Even if we had to hold right to make him do it, with no opportunities to change the outcome, then we are still just watching a movie, albeit with a “play” button.

But neither of these fully describe a game.  In this spirit, I have distilled what I think are the three key elements that create a game.

Internal Interaction

This is how the game runs when nobody is playing.  This is also the way the game interprets player interaction.  I was going to just call this “Rules,” which is fine for board games, but I don’t think that it covers exactly what I want it to.

In all games, internal interactions are the things that the player cannot change. The Bishop always moves diagonally in Chess, the Goomba is always squished when Mario stomps on his (its?) head, and you’re always out when Bobby hits you with a Dodgeball.  It is the rules of the game, the consequence of player actions.  In essence, it is the framework of the game. 

If internal interaction is all you have, and the player has no meaningful way to take any action, you have made kinetic art (or a screensaver). 

External Interaction

This is how a player interacts with and affects the game.  This includes moving your piece in Chess, hitting A to make Mario jump, and throwing a ball back at Bobby because he always aims for you and you’re not sure why since you’ve never done anything to him but you really don’t like him at all and he always takes your lunch money.


External interaction is the link between the player and the internal interactions.  External interaction without any internal interaction is like yelling at a movie screen.  You may be interacting, but since there’s no rules internally, then it doesn’t change anything. (This would also be akin to playing with a rock which, while fun, is still playing with a rock.)

(I must note a distiction between external interactions and the internal consequences of these interactions.  When the player presses A to make Mario Jump, that is external.  When Mario lands on a Goomba, this is internal.  I’m not sure if this was already clear, but it occurred to me that it might not be.)


This one I hesitated to include.  There have been plenty of things that people would normally classify as games that don’t have a clear cut goal.  However, in the traditional sense of a game, I think that there IS an explicit goal, and that is what I am trying to define here.  However, this does leave games like Sim City and Jason Rohrer’s Passage hanging out to dry.  I’ll talk about that in a moment.

A goal is an explicit end point, content gateway (which is a term I totally just made up to mean anything that blocks you from further content until you clear it), or really anything else the developer tells the player to do.  This would be, in terms of Mario, the defeat of the final incarnation of Bowser, any of the end level flags, or even just the right side of the screen.  Basically, if the game requires that you do something to progress or unlock more content, that is a goal.

There is a distinction between a gameplay goal and a story goal.  What I am speaking of is a gameplay goal.  The story goal of Mario is “save the princess,” which doesn’t really tell you how to play the game. 

Without goals, you have a toy.  I don’t think that’s a very good description, however.  Conway’s Game of Life is much more than a toy, and so is Sim City.  I think to be accurate, you have to use more descriptive subcategories, such as simulation (the Game of Life would be this, although it’s pretty much a simulation of something that doesn’t exist) or interactive art (like Passage). 


So if a game is a combination of these three elements, then what can we remove and still have a game?  We can boil down almost any game to a series of interactions between the player(s) and a set of rules.  This means that we can remove almost everything else, including storyline, music, and graphics.  Of course, this leaves us with next to nothing, but it gives us a place to start in defining a game from the ground up. 

It also makes Calvinball the epitome of games. 

Okay so that’s it

This thing has gotten long and unwieldy, and I’m honestly not sure what my point was.  Having read into the subject some more while doing this article (it’s taken me at least 7 days to write this, geeze), it turns out that other people HAVE in fact already considered this.  I suppose, though, that sometimes to understand something, you have to reinvent it.  In this case, writing this down has created a new passion for game design, and has been the driving force for starting this blog up again. 

Which might be a bad thing.  Have you ever SEEN any of my games?


, , ,

  1. #1 by playdeezgames on September 10, 2009 - 7:23 AM

    For contrast with your, here is my list of aspects important to a game:

    1) Game Mechanics: this most closely maps to your “Internal Interaction” section. Mainly game mechanics are the means by which the games state is changed.

    2) Success Metrics: this maps roughly to your “Goal” section. In any game, there must be a way to measure the relative success of differing end states. Where this deviates from “Goal” is that the metric itself is not the goal. Rather the goal is to have the most positive success metrics once the end state is entered into.

    3) Meaningful Decisions: this maps to your “External Interaction” section. The game must be interactive, and in order to be interactive it has to have participants. Decisions made by participants must impact the game through the game mechanics.

    The three above will make an activity into a game, just as you have laid out in roughly analogous terms.

    The following three do not impact whether or not something is a game, but goes a bit further into the game play ecology of the game, which is even more important than the game itself.

    4) Skill/Technique Development: if a game has skills that need to be developed in order to be good at the game, then mastering that skill may be part of the fun. This is, however, a difficult thing to balance. A game that is too hard to master will be frustrating, and a game that is too easy to master will be boring.

    5) Procedural Rhetoric: a game’s mechanics make a statement about the world in general. Sometimes this is difficult to put into words, and other times it is very depressing to realize what the rhetoric of a game is.

    6) Relational Factor: if a game fosters relationships between participants, then it has a positive relational factor. If a game isolates people and puts a wedge between then relationally, it has a negative relational factor.

    • #2 by Clint Emsley on September 15, 2009 - 10:42 AM

      This is exactly what I was looking for, actually. I love the idea of Procedural Rhetoric, that when you define rules and interactions in a game, you’re really making a statement on how you think the world works. That’s probably the best way for me to understand that idea, anyway.

      Does relational factor necessarily have to do with multiplayer? I’m a very single-player kind of guy (for the most part), so when I think of it, I’m thinking more like Zelda, where the secrets made people talk to each other about it without necessarily directly interacting, which would be a positive relational factor.

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment, it motivates me to write MORE stuff. Yay!

      • #3 by playdeezgames on September 15, 2009 - 11:12 AM

        Providing a game that has a community built around it will make the game fare better on the relational factor than just a game that is out there without anybody interacting about it at all. Most of my own games do not have any sort of direct interaction between participants, and at best the only real interaction any of them have is by competing against each other on a high score list.
        Games, since their inception, have been relational, as they always took place between at least two players. Solitaire and other puzzles do not count as proper games until you put two people side by side with the exact same configuration and time them.
        Once we brought computers into it, many games found ways to simulate the opponent, and so solo play games became the usual for the medium. It becomes as relational as reading a book in a corner silently by yourself.

  1. Pikmin is depressing « Clint Makes a Game

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s