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Mark Sorrell

You should read Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. It's basically Philosophy and uses games as metaphor, but it does explain what an infinite game would look like. They're certainly possible ('art' is an example of an infinite game, I'd say) but they don't tie into gamification norms. If it even has any.

Nils Echterling

Your definition of 'game' is rather limited, I think. Many computer games nowadays try to be a story or a simulation. In fact, most RPGs try to be either of this. While a story is necessarily finite, a simulation is ideally infinite.

However, I agree with your analysis of gamification; especially in spirit. I have also written my own version of "Why achievements will fail" some weeks ago.



I think the characterisation of 'limited' is wrong. If anything a great deal of the thrust of this blog is embracing rather than rejection or reactionary, and my mission is all about game makers finding their own creative way.

However I think games are like any art in that they are constrained by some natural boundaries (things that are fundamental as to why they work, and things that fundamentally don't work no matter how hard developers try to make them work).

'Game' isn't all things to all men, as that simply means it is nothing to no-one, but it has taken 30 years worth of work from makers all around the world to really find out what it is. We're at the point now where we really can say there are ground rules and no-no's and some ideas that will simply never fly. We are at the point where we can say with reasonable certainty what games are, and what they aren't.

And I think that when we can do that then creatively we will be able to own what it is that we have made, and start developing the art in a positive way.

Thanks for the comment!

Joe Cooper

It might be worth it to consider what we're talking about. It's commonly noted that simulations "aren't games", and I think the same might apply to "Adventure games" and other interactive computer products.

This gets people upset because when one says something "isn't a game" it can be seen as a knock, just like Pluto fans in that whole stupid "what's a planet?" debate.

But for definitions to be useful, they need to be more specific and not have to contort themselves to include everything we feel like ought to be included.

There's a lot of relevant aspects to (for example) adventure games that consist of a series of hand crafted puzzles wrapped in art, or (similar) a jigsaw puzzle. But it's plainly a different beast than the rule based systems that usually count as game. So are simulations.

Doesn't mean they're less or bad or inferior and certainly doesn't mean they aren't worth discussion, but one ought to recognize that they're different entertainments in key ways and not refuse to discuss the aspects of one because some elements don't apply to the other.


Risking the wrath from writing a disagreement as my first comment, I believe the premise this argument is based on is a bit shaky.

1) While life itself can be defined as infinite (in complexity, or whatever) I have not encountered any gamification games that attempt to encompass all of life. Rather, these games seem to self-constrain themselves to very specific aspects of life. A Task List game restricts itself to task-listing, a toothbrush that reinforces good brushing is limited to dental care, etc.

2) For many people, life itself has a limited scope. People who never leave their home town, or who rarely travel more than 5 miles from home/work or the commute in-between, are not rare. It's catchy to say that life is infinite, but by looking closely we can see that there are many, many constraints in our lives - some self imposed, some community imposed, and some legally imposed. A gamification game could potentially fit into these niches.

Mark Sorrell

"We're at the point now where we really can say there are ground rules and no-no's and some ideas that will simply never fly. We are at the point where we can say with reasonable certainty what games are, and what they aren't."

This is both depressing and, dare I say it (guess what, I dare) flat out wrong. We are not at that stage and frankly, I'd be amazed if we ever were. Not only that but your preceding comment about "30 years worth of work" can only apply to videogames, a very recent development in the history of games. Games pre-date the written word for sure, and thus literature, and have a history far longer than 30 years. You can multiply that by 200 at the very least.

And yet, 30 years ago, technology and ingenuity, and indeed the desire for humans to create new ways to play games created a whole new, vibrant subset of games.

We're not at the end, we're not even at the end of the beginning. The very idea that games can be defined - "What Games Are" is a presumptuous provocation I had assumed was intended to draw attention rather than a sincerely held belief.

If you want to discuss a single type of game - Jigsaw, Bridge, FPS - then sure, that's a reasonable pursuit. But trying to claim there are rules that govern ALL games? Well they are few and far between and aside from "whoever must play cannot play" and "mutually agreed rules" and other incredibly basic definitions (that could no doubt still be argued about or worked around), I don't think you can say anything of particular meaning.

The question here, I suppose is "Can a game exist where there is no winner and no way to win?" My answer to that is yes. Any game where the idea is to create a better or different or uniquely satisfying answer to a question can run happily without the need for winners or an end. Think of many competitive hashtags on Twitter for instance. #reasonswhytahdgkellyiswrong for instance. You could run with that one forever. It has rules. You can choose to play or not to play. It's self-contained but there can be no permanent winner, so no end. It is an infinite game.

Games are an expression of human creativity and share only the same limits. We've a way to go yet.


Hey Mark,

The problem as I see it is that many folks who work in game dev have what I called the tetrist mentality that only tends to value what I called founderworks. A goodly portion of the folks I know in games are caught in the trap of only really valuing next-big-thing thinking. Everybody wants to discover some fundamentally new way to play, but really the plain fact is that the rate of discovery of new ways to play has fallen to near zero. You might be inclined to find that depressing, but I think it's simply the form filling out.

That is not to say that there are no new discoveries to be had, but rather that the rate of them, and the scale of how dramatic a shift they actually are, is on a half-life curve tending toward, but never quite reaching, its end point.

So the real challenge for people who make games is to realise that just because they weren't born early enough and weren't lucky enough to discover one of those founderworks early, doesn't mean their work is meaningless. There's no shame in embracing the form of the sonnet to write poetry, or the landscape to paint a picture, or a three act structure to make a movie. We see those kinds of forms repeat again and again in every other art but they are used in new and interesting ways all the time. From a few fixed forms it seems there are endless infinite variations, subversions and styles to be had.

You're wrong in assuming that my blog name is just a headline grabber by the way. I've been writing about this view of games for months, that I think that the art of games and the discovery of founderworks are not the same thing. I think there are foundations to games and why they work, but from those foundations come infinite creative opportunities.

For example, to answer your question on winning, no you can't. All games are played to win. (http://whatgamesare.com/2011/02/all-games-are-played-to-win-design.html). It's not the presence of high score tables or the victory over another that defines that win, however. It's the mentality of play itself, or how the brain works, and it's a fundamental constraint.

However the shape of winning is various: It accomplishment, achievement, wondrousness of discovery of new neat things and that kind of thing. Victory-style winning is only a small part of that.

Similarly, your example of the Twitter hashtag contest is not really a game. What are the rules, how do I play, what does cheating look like? There's a difference between numeric trackers and numeric trackers in the context of a game, and that's why a game needs to be enclosed. Enclosure is also a fundamental constraint. (And in my big pile of posts, I plan to write what I think the various constraints are. Stay tuned.)

By acknowledging what games are and why they are awesome on their own terms, we'll enable ourselves to legitimately create the real art of the next century. At the moment we're sort of stuck in a half way house between software engineering and movie making, and it doesn't work because we spend our lives arguing over terms and concepts that come from other disciplines while never really finding our own.


Johnson Harald

Hi Tadhg (and all),

This is my first post/comment, and I have to say: I'm lovin' this! Thank you for the thoughtful blog, Tadhg, and for the opportunity to interact here. I've been looking for some solid writing about this topic, and I believe I've found it. Comments from others included!

I'm pretty new to game dev, and I'm clearly not doing the types of games many of you are involved with ($100K minimum? Ha! I'm typically under $2.5k per game), but I'm doing my own thing in this latest career, which brings me to the comments about Gamification, Founderworks, and Enclosure.

Gamification is an actual dynamic happening in some of my games (with a goal of it becoming more important as I evolve into more quest-like games that combine real- and online gaming worlds). For example, I have a new Facebook Application that's part-game, part-contest. It's very finite ("enclosed") with a starting date, ending date, rules, uploads, voting, judging, et al. It's becoming more popular and I keep getting comments from users like: "A worldwide contest/game like this has really helped me with my photography; I will spend more time here learning and sharing." People are engaging and taking from my contest/game something to improve their lives in a real-world way.

The key for me is that I am creating games for a niche audience ("photo enthusiasts"), and for that audience, ANY game is new and exciting. So looking at it from the audience POV, virtually every game I come up with is a "Founderwork". It's all creative, new, and a discovery -- not just for the audience but for me as well.

So I have no problem reconciling Enclosure and Gamification. It's built into my world.

I can't wait for the next posts! (and any comments to this comment)

Joe Cooper

I wanna second what Harald said; this blog is deeply refreshing and now most other game design writings look like the grunting of drooling monkeys in comparison. I've read it all and recommended it to people.

Tuantrung Tran

Hi Tadhg. This is my first comment also. Nicely written article about Gamification. Even though you have been trying to talk about the weaknesses of Gamification, you are actually demanding better design of Gamification. As a junior evangelist of Gamification, I really appreciate the well-thought arguments. I'm also on my own quest to design a better system to bring more game dynamics into life, so I would like to make my argument too.

I've played games every since I was 4. Besides being a stress release, games were part of my personal development tools that help me become smarter, stronger and more sophisticated than most of my friends. I used to imagine myself as a RPG character and gain stats when I complete certain challenges. That alone helped me going through the hectic or boring days of secondary and high school to become a "balanced" type of media engineer.

If I were to make a game story out of my own experience, I would have started as a sickly type of character with a bit higher than normal Intellect and Energy. Since my parents made me study shaolin and other kinds of martial art, I've racked up quite a lot of Strength and Stamina. But because of the hellish education system in Vietnam, I have to build up my other stats and skills also, which I couldn't focus on 1 specialized set of stats and skills. I chose the class Media Engineer as my career path because that offers the best education for both Technology and Design skills. I do some side quests to gain additional Business skills, too.

How relevant the story above is to you is not very important. I wouldn't mind if you laugh at it just like a more experienced gamer would laugh at a less experienced one (either for playing a less well-known game or for building up stats in a less popular path). What important is that it's my own story. I am my own character. I don't care if others perform better than me, or if there is a way to cheat the system. I only care about my own satisfaction as a player.

I think being infinite is not the problem. The problem here is how engaging the rules can be, and how it can bring satisfaction to players when they follow (or even try to hack) the rules. Of course, I've played MMORPG also. Then, the system makes us think differently. We start caring about how others are performing. Cheating becomes unquestionable crime (just like printing money would be in real life). Then the game designer has to think about counter-measurements. If they don't, people would start quitting the game.

Correct me if I'm wrong, I think just like The Sim, Sim City or Second Life were not considered as "Game" before by some of the veterans in the industry (because there exists certain "boundaries" that define "What Games Are"?), Gamification is an evolving concept that is pushing the boundaries once again. The future of Gamification is something that is both more fun than the game shows we watch, and more realistic than the digital games we play. It will still happen on a screen, though.


Hiya Everyone, always suprised at the number of intelligent responses on this blog - I'll try to lower the bar a little. :)

A little bit of devils advocate in some simple statements. A few thoughts without a definite point.

Pen and Paper RPG's, which i play a lot of, are infinite game spaces. They are my top type of game without a doubt. Rarely has a computer game matched my experiences with PnP-RPGs. They do not have winners. All the players and ultimately the games-master tend to reign in the madness and therefore limit the infinity.

Limited game spaces do make for a better game though. Take Chess (great example) or Tekken. Odd comparison but i think similar in terms of small enclosed game with easy to understand objectives and a large number of channels to win, or Pong for that matter. Definite rulesets/parameters allow for limited experimentation. In a mess/play fight with a younger brother you wouldnt draw a knife would you?

Take, for my third nebulous (non-)point, again a fighting game. One with many iterations and therefore polish to it. Play it 2-Player. The way it was meant to be played. A.I. is just there to train you. It is a series of button presses that i choose to impress upon my opponent through the medium of a controller and then the screen. The output is watched and responded to by my opponent through his interface device. It is essentially a a ruleset that both players agree to, up, up, down, down, X, is countered by down, left, left, Y. et al.. It is the very epitome of game. Two minds using abstracted rules to find a winner. - Now simple increase the stage size, or the possible combination of buttons to near-infinite moves and you loose the game. Each tekken character has somewhere in teh region of 200 moves. at least. If this was increased to 2000 i believe the game would come apart at it's seams. If it's only 20, i would say that it's a bad game. (streetfighter 2 for example)(yeah i know, i said it.)

Err might be off topic, but it just got me thinking.



Thanks Gav,

However I think Pen and Paper RPGs do enclose the player. Consider these:

* You have a character bounded by a class and attributes
* You have game rules for combat and many other things like sanity, personality, etc
* You have a consensual setting. You're not going to see a D+D hero tramping around in a Cthulhu setting very often unless that forms a part of the setting the players have all consented to. Otherwise the game becomes unhinged and players don't like the anything-goes feeling.
* You do have wins. Completing scenarios, killing dragons and saving princesses.
* You have a moderator who rules what's in and out of bounds and also what the scenario entails.

The PnP game is definitely more flexible than most perhaps because its enclosure is created by the players, GM and setting rather than the hard limits of a digital game system. And yet they aren't infinite at the same time.


At the last Boston Indies meeting Kwasi Mensah gave a presentation about Stem Stumpers. He talked about designing for a range of people from the color blind to the fully blind. During the presentation he was asked if he felt limited in designing the game. He looked blankly at the person asking the question for a moment and replied that the 'limitations' made the game. They were not 'constraints', but additional elements. Great post. Thanks!

Jan Broer

Very interesting post (and blog as far as I can see so far, just stumbled upon it.)

Using your very broad definition of winning (achievement wins being essentially "do something you set out to do"-wins) I don't see how the notion of winning has anything to do with enclosure anymore or how it is different from life. When you allow for multiple wins in a single game, you take away the notion of finiteness. World of Warcraft has no end aside from the one I put to it myself and winning doesn't necessarily have anything to do with me finishing that game.

Then there's your set of boundaries that make D&D a game, but again I don't see how life does not have such boundaries. I have a character (me) bound by a variety of factors that shape and limit my actions in the world. There are rules that, while wide, are even arguably even more hard and fast than those of a D&D campaign. I also have wins by your definition (getting the girl, becoming independently rich, being famous on the internet). Depending on religious beliefs there's either a moderator or absolutely no need for one because the rules are iron clad.
Hey, one could even argue (assuming that you could play D&D independently from being alive) that life is more finite than a D&D campaign. Nothing in the latter actually requires it to end, while the former sadly does end eventually.

Ian Sturrock

Did you see James Wallis's blog post on Caillois-completeness, a couple of years back? Most of the gamification games fail on even more of those points than WoW does.


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