Image: Johnny Blood/Flickr
Image: Johnny Blood/Flickr

Last week I suggested that one characteristic connecting all games (and distinguishing them, at least in principle, from many of the traditional arts) is that they can all be described by some set of instructions for creating a tolerable degree of indeterminacy. The focus in “Playing the Manual” was on the first half of that equation, on the set of instructions that accounts for the transitivity of games. Nevertheless, it would be a stretch to say that those instructions are the game itself. The chapter on canasta in Hoyle’s Rules of Games is not itself canasta; no edition of the Basic Rules is a game of Dungeons & Dragons; the code Alexey Pajitnov wrote in 1984 is not Tetris until someone compiles and runs it.

In part, that’s because of that second clause. Some theorists have attempted to define gaming by focusing on the transitions between game states. Thus, in a game of chess, players begin in roughly equivalent states, with their pieces arranged in mirrored formations across the board from one another; the goal is to arrive at a state wherein one player is checked from making any move that will not result in the immediate loss of their king.

On the whole, that’s been a fairly useful way of looking at the phenomenon of games, but the formula in consideration simplifies things even more. It states that there’s really only one state that matters to gaming: indeterminacy. The differences between a chessboard on the first move and the same chess board on the last move is an index of the course of that particular match. Likewise, the rules that determine that full range of moves that can be made in any given chess match give definition to the game of chess itself.

The instructions by which we describe the game give chess its particular shape, so to speak, but what makes chess a game is its indeterminacy — that is, the possibility that any given match could go one way rather than another. The final move, check mate, ends the game because it closes off that possibility. The indeterminacy of the game evaporates, taking with it the game itself.

The indeterminacy of the game is not a side effect. Rather, the rules are there precisely in order to foster indeterminacy. They are “a set of instructions for creating indeterminacy.” Or, looked at another way, they’re restrictions we observe in order to afford an opportunity for play. That’s the upshot of the game’s indeterminacy: it allows us to play.

But let’s be specific on this point: not just any old indeterminacy will do. Maybe you’re Determinist, and believe that every outcome is predictable give the physical structure of the world, but from the finite perspective of human subjectivity, the future may as will be undetermined, since none of us knows enough to trace every factor that will determine tomorrow’s events. There, in miniature, are the limits of gaming. Events that are too narrowly constrained, that admit of no indeterminacy, cannot be a game, as they allow no room for play. A program that does nothing but rehearse the exact sequence of moves from Capablanca’s 1921 match against Lasker is not playing a game. At the same time, events that happen in a space of total possibility, where nothing is constrained or determined, may be a form of play, but they’re not quite a game.

That is to say, there are tolerances at either end of the allowable range of indeterminacy. And it’s precisely here that some subjectivity must creep into our formulation. There does not seem to be any objective way to mark those tolerances. What makes a game worth playing will be the players’ personal tolerances for the indeterminacy involved.

For example: since there are no real choices to be made, and no real opportunities to change the sequence of cards in the deck, the indeterminacy of the card game War is all in the shuffle. Either your hand or the hand of your opponent will happen to have fallen in the best available sequence. That makes War a game of chance, and only just barely that. There’s some suspense in playing out the deck to see which hand is luckier, but if your goal isn’t to while away the time in the simplest way possible then you’d do just as well to flip a coin. That’s a low threshold of indeterminacy, and many people have little tolerance for so simple a game.

An even better illustration might be the child’s game, Peek-A-Boo. There, the indeterminacy is linked to the younger player’s conception of the world, which is still in the formative stages. Where did Mommy go? Will she come back? If so, how soon? As the child’s perception of events changes, the game loses its appeal. Mommy’s just behind that magazine. She’ll be back in a moment. In fact, she isn’t even really gone. Once reasoning has eliminated the indeterminacy, the child’s tolerance for the game dwindles.

The far threshold is more problematic. There are games that allow a great deal of latitude, and thus create proportionately more indeterminacy. The games with the least determinacy tend to be those that define no conditions for winning. That there is no way to win The Sims has prompted some to ask whether or not it’s even a game, rather than a toy. The acknowledged compromise is to call it a “sandbox game.” But in most particulars, The Sims sits will with our formulation — that is, it’s describable by a set of instructions (codified by its programming) for creating a tolerable degree of indeterminacy.

For the moment, though, I’m content to put aside the question of whether we ought to call The Sims a game or a toy, or even of whether the two are mutually exclusive categories. To duck down that particular rabbit hole would lead us away from a more extensive consideration of a relationship that I am, with this article and its prequel, only just beginning to explore. You could call it the relationship between the manual and the shuffle.

The promising thing about looking at games from the perspective of that relationship is the potential for seeing how they make it possible for games to involve us in a kind of meaning that may not be possible with, say, a novel, or a concerto. Like those arts, games can can be embodied in a kind of text, be it a rule book, the transcript of a chess game, or the scores of a soccer match. But the game is not the text, and cannot be read like a text. It must be played, and we play it from the vantage point of an undecided moment somewhere inside the shuffle.


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