Last week, I suggested a provisional definition: games are the formalization of play. That leaves us with two terms in need of explanation.

Formalization

By formalization I mean any principle brought in as a means of defining play. Two children letting their imaginations run wild are not playing a game. Their play becomes a game the moment they start to place rules on the proceedings. In the Tap Repeatedly article cited last time, Lange used the example “playing house.” That works fine, in no small part because children never play house without going through a constant process of defining what it means to play house.

There are two distinctions worth emphasizing here. One is that these rules are placed not on our means of attaining a particular state (that was the focal point of Bernard Suits’ definition) but rather on the activities themselves. That allows us to usher back into the fold games that do not have as their goal the attainment of some final state of play — playing house, for example.

The other distinction is related: formalizations are not about decreasing efficiency, but rather about giving shape to play. Looking again at playing house, the point of the constraints children place on one another is not to arrive at a particular end result or score, but rather to nail down just what it is they’re playing. They are, in other words, shaping their play to match their perception of what it is for an adult to make a household.

Incidentally, formalization also helps us distinguish between toys and games. You could argue that toys are also formalized, but it’s probably better to say that they’re formed. At any rate, they aren’t formalized in the sense of being defined by principles. Rather, they’re constrained by their physical properties — the joints in an action figure, or the rubber that makes a ball bouncy.

So is an open-ended simulation like The Sims a toy, as its designer Will Wrights claims, or a game? A bit of both, I would say. Video games build rules into their operations, but they’re also constrained by their physical properties. That’s not so problematic if you think about it. After all, popular games are often built around the physical properties of toys, the most obvious example being the ball.

Play

That second term proves much trickier, and it was likely in order to come to grips with it that Suits resorted to the more technical aspects of his definition. His tact is to pin it down to a particular attitude — call it lusory — but as a matter of practice we sometimes do things that look very much like playing games, without first having adopted that attitude.

That gives rise to some troubling ambiguities — for example, if I’m playing by the rules, and you’re cheating in order to win, are we still playing a game? Or are we involved in two different activities? The fact of the matter is that we don’t generally think of games as a state that changes based on the attitudes of the people involved. There are, as a rule, 162 games in a season of Major League Baseball, and that number doesn’t change simply because some percentage of the players think of it as a way to pay their mortgage rather than as an end unto itself.

It’s tempting to regard play as something irreducible and indefinable, the way G.E. Moore regarded the concept of Good or yellow. Given the approach many professional athletes have to their chose games, defining it in opposition to work seems like a dead end. Given the pragmatic origins of many games, we can probably also dispense with the “unnecessary” clause of Suit’s definition as well. It’s possible to make a game even of activities that provide the basic necessities — e.g. hunting. Suit’s “lusory attitude” could be treated as the additive that distinguishes played activities from merely performed activities, but just what does it mean to call it lusory? If it’s nothing more than the acceptance of rules that facilitate the experience of play, then is it even necessary? We can, after all, play without making a game of it. So what, exactly, is facilitated by the lusory attitude?

Let’s take a step back and say that play is a kind of exploratory behavior. That, at least, seems non-controversial. Fishing is a kind of behavior, one that can provide food for a community, but it doesn’t become play until someone says, “Let’s see…” We might say, “Let’s see who can catch the most.” That’s an activity that can be played even when fishing is your livelihood.

Exploration

If we want to be more specific about it, play is behavior that is concerned with the exploration of behavior. That’s particularly clear with playing house, where children will indulge in what they recognize to be chore-like behavior in order to explore what it’s like to behave as an adult.

Since we’re talking about behaviors that have been practiced and refined over years and decades, the exploratory nature of play may be less obvious when we’re looking at professional sports, but that’s putting the cart a bit before the horse. After all, the practice and routine are dictated by the formalization — which is to say that the rules have there defined play, such that a professional is unlikely to explore very far outside the boundaries of what’s known to work.

Even so, there are striking moments when exploration changes the nature of the game, like the introduction of the Fosbury flop to the high jump. On the micro level, every game demands a bit of exploration from its players, as when a batter and pitcher face off over several innings, each adjusting their approach to the other in hopes of coming out on top.

If we want to render it in more complicated terms, then, we can define games as behavior exploring behavior given definition by principle. Provided that we don’t muck with the meanings of play and formalization as I’ve sketched them here, though, I see no reason not to leave it at the simple version — games are the formalization of play.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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