Peeling the Onion, Part Two: Games

What is a game?

A theme of this current research has been the continuing revelation that things I thought were simple, like “game” and “play” are really not. So, if gamification is not the way to successfully engage audiences, then what is it about games that makes us interested in them? I would argue that the appeal for the cultural heritage sector is the way that games capture the attention of their players; the effort that game players invest in playing.

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Players concentrating by Flickr user sharyn morrow. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Latin word for game is ludus, which means two things, as readers of Ready Player One will have already discovered. It can mean “game” and it can also mean “school.” So this notion of playing games and learning being somehow connected is an old one.

Looking at the definitions scholars have tried to wrap around games is instructive. Here are four of my favorites;

“… a free activity standing quite consciously outside ”ordinary” life as being ”not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

– Johan Huizinga 1950

“… an activity which is essentially: Free (voluntary), separate [in time and space], uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe.”

– Roger Caillois 1961

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”

– Jesper Juul 2003

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

– Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman 2004

Juul’s six characteristics of games

Jesper Juul is one of the most influential game theorists active today. His latest work, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games is pretty wild stuff. In his 2003 essay, The Game, The Player, The World, he took all the definitions of games out there and tried to distill their common elements. What he came up was the following six characteristics of games.

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Rulebooks by Flickr user Ben Ward CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
    There is a set of guidelines that tell you when you’re doing it right, and there’s an external way of adjudicating disputes.
  2. There are variable, quantifiable outcomes:
    It’s not a sure thing and there is not only one way to play.
  3. There are values assigned to possible outcomes:
    You can win, lose, or come somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which one you’re striving to achieve.
  4. Player effort is required:
    Games that aren’t challenging, aren’t fun. Try Progress Wars or Universal Paperclip for examples. Games that are challenging can be very powerful. Iyadurai et al’s 2017 study of emergency room patients who’d recently suffered trauma found that playing Tetris in the emergency room significantly reduced the occurrence of disturbing flashbacks of their recent trauma, because of the demands the game placed on the player.
  5. Player is attached to the outcome:
    It’s no fun to play a game with someone who doesn’t care whether they win or lose. We decide as players to value some outcomes over others.
  6. There are negotiable consequences:
    After the game is over, the players go back to their previous states without any repercussions for their performance during the game.

To this list, I’d add a seventh:

7. There are positive and/or negative feedback systems built into the rules

One big difference between American style board games like Monopoly, and the newer German style games like Settlers of Catan, is their feedback systems. Monopoly has a very positive feedback system; make money, and it gets easier to make even more money. In Settlers, features like the robber serve to inhibit the power of the leading player and level the playing field. Positive feedback systems increase instability, where negative feedback systems increase stability.

Do the rules apply to heritage?

So let’s play a game. If we change the word “player” to visitor and “game to “heritage experience”, what do we get?

1) Rules: Games Heritage experiences are rule-based.

There is a set of guidelines that tell you when you’re doing it right, and there’s an external way of adjudicating disputes.

Screenshot 2018-03-04 09.41.25
The Tenement Museum’s homepage.

Aside from telling you what not to do, certainly most museum experiences give you very little guidance about whether you’re doing it right. Maybe there’s a map with names of spaces on it. Maybe there’s a tour you can follow. But by and large there’s nothing to tell you how to “do” it right. The Tenement Museum is a noteworthy exception. For museums that display contemporary art, this is a perennial concern, where there is abundant research to show that visitors feel ill-equipped to experience the art, and are certain “they’re doing it wrong.” When you’re having trouble in a game, you can look at the rules. What can you do if you feel lost in the middle of a visit?

What would the “rules” for your museum or heritage site look like?

2) There are variable, quantifiable outcomes:

It’s not a sure thing and there is not only one way to play.

One of the hardest things to get across to non-museum creatives is how different the expectations aer for a “successful” visit, than for other kinds of experiences. If you opened a book in the middle, read a few pages, flipped around to look at all the pictures, read the title, and then the final paragraph, that probably wouldn’t count as having “read the book” for most people. But two people can enter a museum exhibition, follow completely non-intersecting paths, look at different objects, and still come out the back end feeling like they “saw the show”.

3) There are values assigned to possible outcomes:

You can win, lose, or come somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which one you’re striving to achieve.

Frank Oppenheimer’s quote that “Nobody ever flunked a science museum.” is relevant here. If nobody ever flunks, though, does that mean nobody ever gets an “A” at museum?

Are there multiple ways to visit your site? If so, is one better than the others?

4) Player Visitor effort is required:

Games Experiences that aren’t challenging, aren’t fun.

Papert’s idea of “hard fun”, which corresponds neatly to Lazarro’s definition of “fiero” in game theory, is a linchpin of informal education. Making experiences challenging enough without being too hard is the holy grail of exhibition development.

5) Player Visitor is attached to the outcome:

It’s no fun to play a game heritage experience with someone who doesn’t care whether they win or lose. We decide as players visitors to value some outcomes over others.

Now there’s an interesting one. Do you attach value to a particular outcome, or go hoping to experience something meaningful?

6) There are negotiable consequences:

After the game heritage experience is over, the players go back to their previous states without any repercussions for their performance during the game.

In my experience in museums, “transformation” was the desired outcome, that visitors leave change by the experience.

7) There are positive and/or negative feedback systems built into the rules

Positive feedback systems increase instability, where negative feedback systems increase stability.

Are there feedback systems that attempt to regulate the heritage experience? I’ve certainly encountered exhibitions and websites that attempt to provide positive feedback systems like “You’re interested in _______? Here are more examples of ________!”

What does this mean for heritage professionals?

A lot of these characteristics can be applied to cultural heritage experiences. For most cultural heritage professionals who look at games and gamification for help, I think the thing they covet most are Rules 4 and 5; Players who want to play and win, and who will devote remarkable amounts of time, energy, and effort to the game.

As an example, here are the stats on the costliest war in computer game history. The Massively Multiplayer Online Game EVE Online, boasts around 500,000 players who populate a science fiction galaxy called New Eden. In New Eden, players can explore, build, and come together in communities for mutual aid and protection. This had led to factions fighting over control of swaths of space, sometimes at huge scales. In the 2014 Battle of B-R5RB, two alliances with ~7,000 players fought for control of a strategic system in a battle that lasted 22 hours. At the end of the battle, more than 20 million soldiers had been killed and over 600 warships worth a combined USD$300,000 had been destroyed. January 2018’s Battle of 9-4RP2 was predicted to be three times as costly, but server issues intervened, causing the battle to never escalate to the level predicted.

But why is it enjoyable? The fact is that the game itself is not; it is the act of playing the game that is. So our search has to go deeper and look into playing.

5 comments

  1. The definitions cited and the specific characteristics listed apply only to particular types of games, not games in general. You can pick any of the proposed attributes and find games that are exceptions. In other words, you seem to be choosing a specific kind of game for your example rather than games in general, and it is a question whether you can draw the types of conclusion you are interested in from this broader exception filled reality.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the most important philosopher of the 20th century made a crucial comparison between language and games, the sense being that the multiplicity of things we call games is a useful comparison for understanding the multiplicity of language. There is no one thing that counts as language, and no one thing that counts as games, but there are different things that we can call language and different things we call games. It is simply not the case that there is an essence to either language or games, and Wittgenstein used a comparison of language with games to illustrate this. Rather than a shared essence that would give an ultimate definition of such things, Wittgenstein coined the term ‘family resemblance’ to indicate an overlapping of similarities, none of which are shared universally.

    If it is important that your case is built on the understanding of a specific and narrow version of games, that needs to be articulated. If there is a claim being made about games in general, then that is a whole different bag of tricks. We need to be careful of choosing facts to fit a theory rather than arriving at a theory based on the facts. Not every game is described by the characteristics spelled out above, or captured by the definitions proposed. Games are simply not the sort of thing that one can comprehensively define. They are not a natural kind, but are different conventions cobbled together in the history of human practices. Games are a human convention, not an article of nature. Drawing a line around groupings of salient features is itself an arbitrary act.

    Any of that make sense?

    Like

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