Games Don’t Exist

16 November 2012 | 0 comments

Last week, we decided to have a think about games and time. This is one of a collection of posts that came from that thinking – Mark’s reflection on how games need to be enacted to be real.

You can’t touch a game. You can touch the book containing the rules of a game, you can touch the playing pieces, you can touch the disc or cartridge it comes on, but you cannot touch a game. Games only exist as mental constructs in the minds of the players and the observers. Chess, when you’re not playing it, is a list of rules, a board and some pieces. Only when you engage with those rules and pieces does the game itself come into existence.

The rules of a game are no more a game than a recipe for a pie is a pie.

This isn’t true of linear media. A story is a story regardless of if it’s being read or watched or is simply sitting dormant on a shelf waiting. Stories, information, movies, books, newspapers and radio shows don’t need to be observed, to be interacted with, in order to exist, they just are. There’s a long-standing argument by Zynga New York boss, Frank Lantz, that games aren’t media at all. Considering the totally different manifestation games  and media exhibit, it’s very hard not to see this as being entirely true.

The big advantage that games’ transient and abstract nature gives them is that they can engage people in ways that linear media, that stories, cannot. Games exist only in the mind of the player. The player not only creates the game in their own head, they have to create the game in their own head. Like the difference between a book, where characters exact appearances must be imagined and films, where such things are dictated to us, games make us imagine the relationships between objects and the consequences of our actions, rather than having these things pre-determined, waiting to be played out.

While I may have a somewhat different opinion of a story to you and while we may get different things out of seeing the same movie, we did at least see the same movie. The same scenes, at the same time, in the same order. If we play a game together we both have totally different viewpoints, different information, different context to our actions and different aims and tasks. We have shared an experience, but in the sense of sharing a pizza. We ate half each, we didn’t eat the same pieces. No form of linear media can do this.

This means that games have an ability to reach into and adjust human behaviour in ways that stories cannot. Think of how we recontextualise common objects by using them in play. In the hands of a child, a cardboard box can become anything from a spaceship to a house to a cave to a mountain to a bus-stop to a different kind of bus-stop. A ball can be subject to a vast array of rules depending on the game it’s involved in. The same painted figurine might represent any number of concepts and game dynamics depending on the exact game in which it is being employed.

This is because games and play give us the mental tools to see new relationships between objects, new relevance to colours, shapes, surfaces, proportions and scales. That’s what games are – externally applied rules, processes, languages, systems. If we are used to judging lines in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, or jumps in Tomb Raider, we can’t help but find ourselves applying these game rules to the environment around us. Play enough Chess and that man over there you could take with your Knight, that lady with your Bishop. It’s hard to stare out of the window of a moving car and not see a Mario or Sonic running alongside, jumping the trees, skipping over pylons, and grabbing at rings and/or coins.

This is a seriously powerful ability and one that has the capacity to influence human behaviour in significant and far-reaching ways. From incredible entertainment, to increased engagement with a brand, through social change and cultural significance, games can do what no other form can.

Because they only exist in our minds.


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By Mark Sorrell

Mark Sorrell

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