Friday, January 18, 2013

Implicitly Explicit Goals

Over the years I've come across numerous opinions that games like Sim City, The Sims, and most recently Minecraft, are not actually "games" because they do not have a goal. I would like to posit that not only is this position wrong, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how games work.

Or, if Minecraft's not really a game, then neither is World of Warcraft.

The misunderstanding comes from a belief that gameplay dynamics are more fundamentally defined by a game's explicit goals than they really are. If I drop you in the middle of a beat-em-up, you're going to start punching people not because you want to save your virtual girlfriend, not because you want a high score, not even necessarily because you don't want to die In fact you might have no knowledge of those aspects of the game No, your natural approach to gameplay is going to be to punch people because every aspect of the mechanics is centered around the act of you punching people. The action button makes your character punch, all the other people seem to want to punch you, there's a satisfying 'thwack' when your punches connect and an even more satisfying 'uaagh!' when they dramatically collapse and disappear after being punched by you enough times, and manipulating distance and time to land that finisher is a tantalizing mix of frustration and satisfaction. This is where the "game" resides because this is where the fun resides, not on a leaderboard or a credits screen, but in the mechanics of a virtual alleyway, a simulated ant farm, or an endless playground of voxels.

Now of course if I offer you an achievement that requires getting through my beat-em-up without any punching, only throwing enemies and barrels, this effects the game's dynamics a great deal, assuming (importantly) that you take up the challenge and decide to impose a rule on yourself that you won't punch. Interesting goals can change gameplay dynamics dramatically and potentially create interesting gameplay situations. Reiner Knizia has based many of his games primarily around an unusual scoring mechanism. But an interesting scoring system or achievement is not a requirement of games. You do not jump on the Goombas in Super Mario Bros. because of an interesting scoring system. It's also important to note that in our fictional generic beat-em-up, most of the achievements and scoring systems thought up off the top of one's head won't impel the player to stop punching people because that's what the game's about, irrespective of the "goal."

My favorite definition of "game" comes from Bernard Suits' underrated book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. It reads as follows:
"To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity."

We have the concept of "goals" here in the idea of "bringing about a specific state of affairs." Maybe this state of affairs is defeating the other player, maybe the state of affairs is making all the thugs on the screen go 'uaagh!' and disappear, or maybe this state of affairs is mining enough diamond to craft diamond armor. The key point in all this is that this "state of affairs" does not definitionally have to be chosen for you by the game itself. In fact, at some basic level the game cannot choose your goal for you, because you must consent to play (or continue playing) the game in the first place. If I'm choosing what to play, and I decide to mine for diamonds in Minecraft rather than shoot Nazis in Medal of Honor, it hardly matters that I could have chosen to build a castle (or any number of other things) in Minecraft instead, whereas there weren't a whole lot of other things I could have chosen had I booted up Medal of Honor; these are all, at some level, goals I'm voluntarily taking up.

Now you could perhaps argue (and I have seen it argued) that Minecraft is in fact a suite of games including "the mining game," "the building game," "spleef," etc. and that Minecraft as a whole entity is not a game. I find this position more sensible, but also wrong. By this logic, Ocarina of Time is not a game, but rather a collection of games which include "the horseriding game," "the swordfighting game," "the orcarina playing game" and "the accidentally restarting explanatory text game."

But perhaps you take issue with the Bernard Suits definition of games and insist that games require an explicitly defined goal. In that case I present World of Warcraft. Oh sure, you can compete on various leaderboards and win internet fame in the same way that Minecraft allows you to build insane things like this and win internet fame, but WoW doesn't have a goal as such. There are at least four main reasons for playing, but there's no way to "win." Many have remarked that endgame play is merely a cycle of "get better loot to kill more stuff to get better loot," and at no point did an NPC even state that your mission was to get the best loot, just like no NPC in Minecraft stated that your mission was to portal into the Nether or build a giant pair of breasts on the side of a mountain or whatever your proclivity. Yet nobody argues that World of Warcraft, or others of its ilk, aren't real games. It's right there in the genre title: MMORPG case closed.

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