Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Characteristics of Games (Part I.)

Over a series of posts I will reflect upon a good book I read: Characteristics of Games by George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield, and K. Robert Gutschera. The conversation started over at Finarvyn's forum. Comment here or continue the conversation there.

First, this book is really well written, clean, concise, level-headed and (at least seemingly to me) no axes to grind.

Of course everything cool that they said made me think about D&D, so I thought I would start a thread. In this post I will comment upon what struck me in the introduction.

So they refer to one of my favorite architects: Christopher Alexander. They make a point about new games vs. old games: "even very intelligent people can have trouble designing complex systems as good as the ones that have evolved gradually over time. . . Many problems that crop up repeatedly in deliberately designed games have been "evolved out" of classic games. Indeed, for many characteristics one can go to modern games for examples of problems, and classic games for examples of solutions -- not because ancient people were geniuses, but because the classic games that survive today have undergone a long process of evolution and of weeding out." p. 4.

The newer the game, the more it relies upon gimmick. The older the game, often, the more abstract and, concomitantly, the less gimmick: chess, checkers, parcheesi, etc. I know I for one enjoy a solid game of parcheesi over "Monopoly" (another race game) any day.

D&D related comment: I think I am committed to original edition because it represents more the culmination of a long-standing game tradition (war-gaming) rather than the birth of some new and overly-complicated system: role-playing games.

They are really careful not to overly or reductively define what a "game" is. They give Salen and Zimmerman's definition: "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." Is a crossword puzzle a game, or no? They list D&D as NOT fitting this definition. I was taken aback by that, but, then, I realized that by D&D they are talking about the role-playing game that goes by that name, rather than the set of standards for wargames campaigns which the title originally referred to. Alas.

Original edition: artificial conflict? Yes: where is the treasure? Quantifiable outcome? Yes: in-game "gold-piece" abstraction; meta-game: Experience-points. (They call this a "two-track reward system." They like it because it prevents "snow-balling." More on that stuff when I post about later chapters.)

They distinguish between roughly two major categories of game characteristics, qualifying that it should be taken as fast-and-loose, not hard-and-fast: systemic and agential. Systemic is what it sounds like, characteristics of the game as an abstract system. Agential means what the players bring to it. They warn against approaches to the study of games that privileges one of these types of descriptors over the other ("it all comes down to the system," vs. "it's all about player interaction," etc.).

Anyway, great book, good stuff. I hope y'all will want to engage it with me.

Next in the series.

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