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.

1 comment:

umo said...

It's always been great to break free of the corridors games put you in. In Left 4 Dead even though there are packs of zombies chasing you I can't help but go and investigate what's in all of these rooms and side areas along the way.

Dear Esther, Journey etc. seem to cater for that desire. GTA SA and Fallout especially do but they have more things for you to avoid doing.

Just having the freedom is sometimes enough by itself, like in this excerpt from Douglas Adams' 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency':

"The horse walked with a patient, uncomplaining gait. It had long grown used to being wherever it was put, but for once it felt it didn't mind this. Here, it thought, was a pleasant field. Here was grass. Here was a hedge it could look at. There was enough space that it could go for a trot later on if it felt the urge.

The humans drove off and left it to its own devices, to which it was quite content to be left. It went for a little amble, and then, just for the hell of it, stopped ambling. It could do what it liked. What pleasure. What very great and unaccustomed pleasure.

It slowly surveyed the whole field, and then decided to plan out a nice relaxed day for itself. A little trot later on, it thought, maybe around threeish. After that a bit of a lie down over on the east side of the field where the grass was thicker. It looked like a suitable spot to think about supper in. Lunch, it rather fancied, could be taken at the south end of the field where a small stream ran. Lunch by a stream, for heaven's sake. This was bliss.

It also quite liked the notion of spending half an hour walking alternately a little bit to the left and then a little bit to the right, for no apparent reason. It didn't know whether the time between two and three would be best spent swishing its tail or mulling things over. Of course. it could always do both, if it so wished, and go for its trot a little later. And it had just spotted whatlooked like a fine piece of hedge for watching things over, and that would easily while away a pleasant pre-prandial hour or two.

Good. An excellent plan. And the best thing about it was that having made it the horse could now completely and utterly ignore it. It went instead for a leisurely stand under the only tree in the field."