Understanding Games (and Formal Definitions)

Game designer Pixelate (click to see all games by the user on Kongregate) has created a series of interactive game/essays called “Understanding Games,” inspired by Scott McCloud’s comic/essay, Understanding Comics. Four parts (one, two, three, four) have been uploaded to date, though I’m not sure whether more are planned.

The parts about gameplay and identification are most interesting to me. I’d particularly like to see how Pixelate might engage with the question of how games provide an opportunity for less rule-based sorts of play. When I play Apples to Apples with friends, for example, we’re not really playing by the main set of rules, which say that you win by offering nouns that match with a particular adjective. The “winner” is usually the one who is most inappropriate (like when a friend of a friend won a round by playing the “Helen Keller” card for the adjective “Visionary”).

Even when you change the rules of such a game, the objective defined by the rules is still quite different from the purpose, which is just to laugh and be social. Games can (and do) facilitate this as well, but formalists studying game enjoyment seem to prefer flow theory, occasionally to the exclusion of other analytical approaches. Not that this should be a criticism of “Understanding Games,” which may yet be a work in progress, but I worry sometimes that reductive formal analyses lead to fewer directions in innovation down the line. Scott McCloud has done wonders for comics as a medium, including inspiring formalist efforts among new creators—but he hasn’t done any favors for the single-panel cartoon, which never made the cut for his definition of “comics” as “sequential art.”