I have to be honest, this was supposed to be an article continuing the Game Testing 101 series. But there was so much that I wanted to write about that I just couldn't complete it. I wrote and re-wrote, heck I even tried writing in rhymes (don't believe me? Wait for next Tuesday, the Testing Tuesday post might be a bit cheesy)
I settled for separting my giant post into several not-so-giant posts, and this is the first one of those.
When I was 8 years old a firend of my mom gave me 6 Goosebumps books. They changed my life. I was impressed after reading each and every one of them, they were my first deeply inmersive experience, for real. I hadn't even connected with videogames as much. It was so personal, so meaningful, that it opened up my eyes to the world of story telling. I would make up stories of everything, I would read stories of everything, and I would soon connect to videogames at a deeper level.
I guess that most of us can pinpoint the most life-changing events we had in our childhood. This was one of my top 5.
I could see myself in the characters, I would get scared at the most ridiculous things because I was so deep into the story, that I was living the story. Eventually I grew up to be an avid reader and an avid gamer, and it wasn't until I started studying Game Design that I could understand why noone could have ever explained what a Goosebumps book was really about.
If you look up the the definition of a game in Wikipedia, you will find not one, but many definitinos that have been "perfected" over the years, out of which my favorite is Eric Zimmerman's and Katie Salen's "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome."
It is one of my favorite definitions because it has the following key elements:
System: A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole, that has structure, behavior, and relationships between the elements.
Conflict: It can be an obstacle, an enemy, a puzzle that the player as to solve. I like to replace this word with "challenge"
Rules: Also called mechanics, they give the structure to the system, this is implied by saying that games are systems but sometimes it's good to be redundant.
Outcome: The result of the game, I don't know if Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen meant it this way, but it's not always winning or losing, it's more about what the player learned from the game, how the game changed the player's life.
And, most importantly, I like their definition becuase it has:
Players' engagement: Exactly, there is no game without player, the game means something because of what happens in the player's mind.
However, like all Game Definitions that I have read so far, this one leaves me unsatisfied, empty. How can anyone define such a complex thing in just one or two paragraphs. Even if I were to tweak their definition with my conception of a game to something like this: "A game is a system with rules in which players face challenges, and that results in the shifting of human values meaningful to the player." It seems like a futile attempt of compressing all that a game is into very few words, it just doesn't feel right.
After thinking it through, I realized that the reason that I'm not satisfied with any Game definition is because I've been asking the wrong question all along (Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Reference and Spoiler alert coming up).
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a super computer called Deep Thought is built with the purpose of answering the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Deep Thought started working and after 7 and a half million years, the answer was ready. Everyone gathered around this super computer and waited to hear the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, which turned out to be... 42!!. After a conversation with Deep Thought and general disappointment, it was revealed that the answer seemed so meaningless because the people who asked the question were asking the wrong question all along.
Ultimately they asked the computer to generate the proper question, so that it could afterwards compute the answer, but the computer was not powerful enough to do so and it created a much more powerful computer with living beings incorporated into its processing systems, which would turn out to be the Earth.
See? This is precisely how I feel with every Game Definition I have ever read, it is as though I needed to know the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything (and Games), and all I get is 42!. After all, games are complex systems with humans thrown into them, so surely it's not that simple. The implications of making a game are so deep and have so many variables that it is jut not right to mix it all together in one paragraph definitions.
So I realized that I had been posing myself the wrong question all along, I didn't want to know what games were, I play games everyday, I have quite a good grasp of what they are, as does everyone who has played a game at least once in his life. No, the real, more meaningful question is why do we play games?
So, why do humans play games?
Ah, that's a different and refreshing point of view.
The most important word on that sentece is humans. If we couldn't speak or write at all, what would a language really be about? If we couldn't speak or write, we can define a language as a set of characters that can be put together using predefined rules... again, empty, it's missing the main objective: Communication. You can see where I'm headed, the definition of Games is also missing the main point: Communication!
To me games are a form of communication between the player(s) and the system. The system speaks and listens to the player(s), and the player(s) speaks and listens to the system. That's it. There is no game without player, and no player without game.
Think about Minecraft for a second, it is a system, it has rules, but the conflict and the outcome are not as visible. It's the communication that makes the game a game, the player wants to build something, the game displays the tool it has avaiable for that, the player chooses it and puts it wherever he needs, the game displays said piece in the desired location, and so on. The game eventually tells the player "Here's what you built" and the player is either satisfied or keeps building.
We play games because we want to communicate, learn, achieve, even show off. Humans play games because they are expecting to retrieve a meaningful experience out of them. Much like the experiences that I retrieved when I read my first 6 Goosebumps books.
We must, then, be guardians of the game experience. The thing is, that it is not that easy. As Sylvester Tynan puts it in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences, this communication between player and game creates events, which are the responses of the game during each particular gameplay session, these events trigger an experience, which is a set of emotions, thoughts and decisions inside the player's mind.
But beware, as Jesse Schell says in The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses the game is not the experience, the game enables the experience. So don't get confused, remember that we are not trying to answer what a game is, but why we play them.
How can we possibly ensure that the experience that each and every player has is the one that we want them to have? We can't, because we don't live inside the players' minds, and that is a sad truth that we must deal with as designers. We can, however, make our games adequate for a target audience and manipulate their experience by understanding how people react. We can make our games similar to the most manipulative girlfriend or boyfriend that anyone could ever have, anticipating the players' emotions and giving them tools (visual tools, musical tools, tools with rules) to experience what we want them to experience, and then step back and see them experience their own unique experience, and hope that it is as close as what we designed.
And we can only do that by asking the right question. If we are designing, for example, a Survival Horror game, would we be interested to know what a Survival Horror Game is, or Why would a player play our Survival Horror Game? If you guessed the second one, you were right. There are many additional questions, don't get me wrong, one key question would be: What kind of player will play my game?, but by asking Why would a player play our Survival Horror Game we will get answers such as: To feel scared, To live in an extreme world low on resources, To kill monsters. To save others from extreme, unknown danger.
And things like these are the real clues which will get us in the path of finding and molding the right game for our players.