Chris Bateman over at iHobo is mid-way through a curious series of posts talking about the value judgements of those who define games. I think (correct me if I'm wrong) this spun out of a debate started on this blog over 'what is a game' that erupted in the wake of Dear Esther. Specifically whether defining something as a game only reflects a critical bias on the part of the definer.
It's complicated, especially when viewed in such lights as the four lenses of game making. Clearly there are many ways that people who hold a belief about what games are, or should be, could conjure a definition of games to fit their own bias as a circular argument. However does that mean that all such attempts are doomed?
My own definition of game is quite specific and clause heavy:
A game is a simplified, fair, fascinating, empowering and enclosed world whose purpose is to provide structured play through moderated yet unscripted actions and learnable dynamics, with the goal of winning through victory or achievement.
You might consider this a value judgement, especially given the following paragraphs in the Glossary about creative constants, misappropriation of terms and so on. I'd counter that it is instead a judgement of other judgements, an acknowledgement of limitations of form.
Inclusiveness is good for pub-level conversation but in a formal setting it becomes too vague. There are the debates over word meanings, the citing of behaviours of children, the meta-game projects that gain much praise at conferences. And yet what actually works as a game, is played as a game and provides both fun and traction as a game is smaller.
So while it's intellectually interesting to suppose how interaction might work, it just rarely seems to actually work. Games are not that unknowable when we stop trying to jam everything under one term, much as stories are not unknowable when we stop trying to pretend that everything is a story. I don't see why saying that must imply values, but for some people it does.
Value judgement implies 'worthiness', that to define is to also rate, and I think that's pretty unfair. It is not my intent to engage in a discussion of worth, but rather of what works verus what doesn't. In many cases that may sound like it strays into opinions of quality (such as to do with storytelling) but it doesn't. I'm invariably arguing about form and mode, not whether I liked or disliked a game. Dear Esther is a case in point: I love it, and it is also not a game. Similarly, I don't think Dan Cook means to pooh-pooh the work of Jason Rohrer when he talks about games and skills, nor do I think Raph Koster is slyly finding fault with Stephane Bura's Storybricks project when he says 'narrative is not a game mechanic'.
The other question is whether avoiding defining games and labelling those who do as making value judgements is itself a value judgement. In his essays Chris argues that various definitions characterise 'systemic aesthetic' or 'conflict aesthetic' as predispositions to lens games all under one view. By this rationale I would argue that there is also an 'infinite aesthetic' or 'academic aesthetic', a predisposition to regard the functional possibilities of games as infinite for philosophical reasons, and to resist challenges to that position for professional reasons. It is much easier to tell a marketing story about games based on future infinities rather than sticky realities.
Trying to unpick forms is about utility and applicability, not a critical doing-down. Games are part of a larger set of play, just as poems are part of a larger set of writing. I think the three main kinds of play are gameplay, toyplay and performance. One is about structure, one is about tool use and the third is about pretending. In child form each may look quite loose or simple, such as Snakes and Ladders or Let's Pretend. In adult form they become specific and layered, such as strategy games and screen acting. I also think they cross over: Most tabletop roleplaying games, for example, mix in elements of performance.
If that makes you feel judged, then ask yourself why? What is it about games that makes you fear them being definable? Is it the fear of the end of experimentation? Will sticking a pin in games immediately destroy many other forms of experimental play? Will winning the war of words permanently relegate games as lower forms of culture? Will finding a common language neuter many a conference topic?
I personally believe that by owning games as they are we'll figure out how to expand the art form. I also believe that constantly wanting to avoid the question of 'what is a game', and calling everyone who engages with it biased, is an exercise in critical paralysis. Maybe that too is a value judgement. If so, it's one I'm perfectly happy to accept.