Wednesday, February 29, 2012
What is a Game?
What is a game? Ludwig Wittgenstein posed this question nearly 60 years ago to the readers of his Philosophical Investigations, now considered one of the most important works of 20th century. How do we define the meaning of the words we use? It is one of the central problems of philosophy.
It turns out that the meanings of words presuppose how we use them. What is a game? Is it something we do to amuse ourselves? I dont think Bobby Fischer, Kobe Bryant, or Lionel Messi would agree. Is it something we do to compete with each other? Playing catch with a football or peek-a-boo with a baby doesnt seem to be a competitive activity. But doesnt a game have to have rules? Not really - as anyone who has messed around in Halo's Forge World will attest to. Its quite clear that you are playing a game of Forge, but its not nearly as clear what the object of the game is, what the rules are, and even who are the players and who are the spectators. Ive certainly never seen someone win a game of Forge, but I do know that playing it is fantastic fun.
Wittgenstein's point wasnt just that words dont really have concrete meanings, but that they dont need definitions for us to use them successfully. Dear Esther, the game which is reviewed in the above video from Gametrailers, isnt really a game in that there are no objectives, you cant shoot anything, and there isnt much to the game world in terms of interactivity. But you can explore, there is a narrative, and the world is immersive, if short lived. It was originally a mod for Half Life 2 made by a college professor which was then further developed and refabricated into an extended version by one of the artists who worked on Mirrors Edge. So its a mod of a mod - a metagame within a mod.
Journey, a downloadable PS3 exclusive set to release in mid March, also asks this question. Developed by the makers of Flower, the game has no map, no instructions, and no objective other than to walk towards a glowing mountaintop in the distance. You can however, meet another player in the desert - if your PS3 is connected to the internet. What you do then is up to you.
Are these works of art? Are they games? Are they worth buying? I dont think anyone can answer these questions - certainly not me.