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I think you're both wrong*.

For me, if a game has been a positive use of time, I'm happy**. Overall, I don't care whether I win or lose, or do or don't, or proceed or not; I just care that I've been entertained for a while.

*: although, in your Loops article, you imply that hitting a note in Guitar Hero is a win. That being the case, I enjoy 'winning' individual notes in Guitar Hero, but I don't play it to win tracks.

**: unless I'm playing Fight Night with my best buddy. In that case, if my mini Tyson is repeatedly forced to go to sleep, I do gradually get less and less happy.

Gary Penn

Another thoughtful piece, Mr Kelly.

I also disagree with Jane. Of course games are about winning (well, overcoming challenges). There is no game without challenge otherwise it's just play.

Play in itself can be rewarding but you need challenges to make play compelling. Challenges can be primary (the big win), secondary (supporting the big win) or tertiary (no effect on the big win). Challenges create friction and friction means drama and emotional stimulation. Freytag's triangle/pyramid applies just as much to games as it does good stories.

Your Transport Tycoon example shows how the lack of drama can undermine a game (the exploit killed the friction).

I don't think it's as simple as perceived fairness. It's more a matter of feeling like you can make the difference and a sense of 'fair play' is part of that - but, as we see with sports and many card and board games, luck can play just a big a role (but too great a dependency on luck is a bad thing).

Tetris tends to lack explicit challenges so there's nothing formal to win. But I agree that if you set yourself the challenge of, say, beating a score then it's perfectly wintastic. (As an aside, I find most versions of Tetris are inadequate games because they lack formal challenges so I'm forced to make my own entertainment.)

Your comments about Scrabble remind me of the value of opponents who are out not to win necessarily but to make sure you have the best fun.


Such opponents are seldom human so there's enormous scope for improving artificial player performances (and most people have no idea if they are playing real or artificial players online anyway).


Ooh, make that a third person I disagree with, then. Playing without challenge isn't 'just play'. In the traditional way of talking about them, toys seem to differ from games in two respects: games have challenge, and games have rules.

You take challenge away (the bit that you two think is important), and you're arguing you're not left with a game. I think one *is* left with a game. Entertainment with rules is where it's at.

Plants vs Zombies is the most obvious example I can think of at the moment. It's rarely challenging, but it is a staggering amount of fun. I'd still enjoy it if there weren't a win/lose state, or different zombie types, or anything. It wouldn't be 'just' play (for which I read 'unstructured play'), but it'd still be ace fun. For me, at least.

(And yes, you could still argue that there's still some level of challenge (if you didn't bother doing anything, you'd certainly 'lose'), but it's not really my point.)

Maybe it's all terminology, but to boil down to games being 'just' about challenge – which everyone seems to be doing at the moment – is, I think, doing the medium a disservice.


I think it's more that games rest on a bedrock of challenge. Taking PvZ Unlimited Mode (as you've described it) there's still a challenge there in keeping things organised.

A good example for me is Rez. Rez has a mode in it called Travelling where the player is able to zip through the levels and shoot stuff, with absolutely no fear of losing lives etc.

It's completely without threat or challenge in any real sense. It's also pretty boring though.


Come to think of it, this discussion touches on one of the earlier things in McGonigal's book that I disagree with. She defines the four things that games have to have: goals, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

Whilst I'd find the second and fourth difficult to argue with, I certainly don't believe that games have to have goals (in the traditional sense), and I certainly don't believe that game have to have feedback systems (at least not in the traditional sense).

For an example of the former, we're into Thought Experiment time. One could easily imagine a version of Tetris that doesn't ramp up in difficulty, or have scoring, or anything like that (things that games 'need'). I reckon that a lot of people that like Tetris would happily spend an hour or two with this version of Tetris, even though there's no goal (other than spending one's time engaged in positive rules-based play, but that's a goal of the person, not a defined goal of the game). I'd expect that it would be more likely to appeal to people for whom traditional games don't.

On to feedback systems. In Reality is Broken, feedback systems are defined as things that tell the player how close they are to achieving the goal. Again, you can have a game (according to my rules) without a feedback system. I'd say that something that tells you after play whether you've won or not could be useful - but note that that falls outside McGonigal's definition.

Example: Foursquare. I don't earn badges on purpose, but when I'm told I've got one, my happiness increases accordingly. Note that the feedback is post-goal, not pre-, thus falling outside the definition.

I'd posit that one could play Chromaroma for a while without getting feedback, as well. You'd still know you were playing the game, but not in a goal-driven way, and without relying (or wanting) feedback telling you how close you were to whatever goal you're not interested in achieving.

Gary Penn

There are degrees of challenge, for sure (and Farmville's even thinner than Plants Versus Zombies in that regard). I can have fun playing with the Plants Versus Zombies toys with their natural rules (that govern the microcosm) and even supernatural rules (that govern how to play) but it's still only play (and I say "only" with great respect for the power of play) but ONLY when a challenge - that unique combination of goal and threat of failure - is introduced do I feel there's a game to be played.

I'm in two minds about the need for a feedback system to make a game; it can help, certainly, but you could just as easily (artistically) choose not to provide any feedback - even any acknowledgement of what needs to be done and your status. Feedback seems more about enrichment.

Feedback contributes to fulfilling a pillar of "Alive" (attentive and informative) - and how you do that - the extent to which you do that - is down to author preference. (There's arguably more merit to a game with no feedback than one with too much.)

If there's no formal clarification of challenge then it has to be self-generated - but that's still a challenge to overcome: a game to be won. Any feedback'd also be generated by yourself.

With the example of Foursquare, only with feedback do you know there's a challenge completed - whether you were driven to complete that challenge or not. There again, you could just've easily set that challenge (made the game) yourself. Foursquare fulfils a pillar of "Convenience" in that it tracks statistics you'd otherwise have to track yourself (and that could involve near-implausible effort) - information you can use to determine a challenge and its degree of completion.

There's definitely a degree of semantics involved. It's a matter of whatever works - a degree of repeatable pragmatism - otherwise it's no more than rhetoric, no matter how entertaining :)


I don't think unchanging Tetris would really do it for people. Even the arguably much less vicious Bejewelled doesn't actually stand still, nor comparatively 'easy' games like Peggle. Pure monotone interaction like that is really not that interesting, so I think players would play it for minutes, not hours.

On the definition of what is a game, I think Jane's definition is a bit lacking. Voluntary participation is a bit woolly, as there's voluntary participation in sitting in a movie watching a scary film as much as there is in picking up a controller to play Halo.

Goals I get. Rules, however, is very vague.

I'm blogging a series on this at the moment, but the basic gist of it is that there are actions (what I do), constants (the global rules of the world), rules (specific arbitrary limits), conditions (for completing victories), loops (reactions to actions), dynamics (informal groups of loops) and segments (formal groups of dynamics).

I think feedback is important too though. The thing about the passive play of Foursquare and ChromaRoma is that they are so passive that I barely remember I#'m playing them. This means they're a distraction (from the engagement hierarchy) and have no real way of doing anything deeper with me other than acting as Gamificating Air Miles. I think passive play isn't really that interesting when you get right down to it, because by definition there's not much work involved.

Karl Bunyan

Reiner Knizia (about the most successful board game designer there is) has a very good quote: "When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning."


Nicely put.


I think this is pretty much right in the context of games as a specific subset of interactive media, but I'd only point out that not everything that gets called a game actually *is*. By these definitions, many art games are not games, even though they're often placed under that banner. Interactive works can involve a lack of a win condition for purposes of expression, commentary, or narrative and this is entirely legitimate, if not necessary. As you point out, having a way to win leads to optimizing for the mechanical rule set, and as long as that is the focus of behavior, emotional response will be difficult to inspire (though, that removal does not need to necessarily be done by the designer - a moment that suddenly causes the player to shift perspective away from winning is sufficient. See: Train). People have a hard time getting attached to rules: I'm not going to blink about sacrificing a game piece if I'm optimizing for a victory condition; I will hesistate before sacrificing a character that I enjoy the *experience* of being around though.

@Pete, I think if you view things somewhat more atomically, you'll find that those four things are indeed necessary in all games. Even your unramping tetris game has a goal; not to let the blocks fill up the screen, that is, not to lose.

And a game without feedback is not playable. In tetris, the block falling down the screen is feedback, having the block move when you push a button is feedback, the button actually depressing when you push it is feedback even, an so on. You just plain can't have interactivity without feedback; only static, unchanging media can get away without feedback mechanisms, without it you have no way of entering an input. Certainly you can have bad feedback, or fuzzy feed back, but if there's nothing there, there is no way to interact with anything. If you were to try to construct a game with the least possible amount of feedback possible, it would essentially be something that at seemingly random simply shouted out "You win!" but even that is a form of feedback, and given enough time with said game, assuming there was an underlying mechanic for making the game go "You win!" people would be able to work out the rules of the game and eventually master it by optimizing for the "You Win!" conditions.

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