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Raph Koster

Near perfect match to the game grammar breakdown I did way back when.

I think the one thing I would question is whether the ball can really be defined as a currency. It has behaviors, after all (affected by physics, bounces, independent location, etc). To me that shifts it out of being a currency and into the realm of being an actor of some sort.

From a graph analysis point of view, you could actually see the ball as a territory node, I suppose.

I want to say that some of the other game grammarians were able to break down football/soccer (not the American kind) successfully... Stephane Bura or Dan Cook might know, I think they did it at Project Horseshoe.


High praise indeed Raph, thanks so much.

I considered ball sports from that angle, effectively labelling them as more tool, but they seem mostly acted upon rather than acted with. In tennis, for example, the player's main tool is his racket and the objective of the game is to hit the ball with the racket past an opponent to trade it for points. In soccer it's the same but the tool is the player. Or, from the player's perspective, his boot.

That brought me down on the side of currency, despite physical properties which are effectively hidden variables, much as the exact running speed of a zealot in Starcraft is not a value that the player sees.


Raph Koster

Looooong comment on a particularly tiny nitpicky minor issue!

I'm definitely sure we can't generalize to all ball sports. Dodgeball's ball, for example, does not act solely as a currency. ;)

I think there are many games wherein there are tokens of which you may have temporary possession, but which may also have anywhere from event-driven to self-driven behaviors within the system, and which may be used as tools. Many if not most of them can be analogized as either tools or territory if we want to go all the way to the abstract.

The place where I am dubious about calling it a currency is most fundamentally in its lack of fungibility. Two different balls (as occurs within a single game of football/soccer) will have differing statistical profiles, causing them to be subtly different in play. Their response to physics stimuli will differ (and I think we have to regard physics itself as an implicit part of the ruleset of the game -- I always analogize it to an "imported library" in code). This makes me think of them more like a form of token than like a currency.

As a comparison, you *could* make the case that territory can be treated as a currency -- see my breakdown on Blokus, for example, or the classic Rules of Play example for tic-tac-toe/noughts & crosses. But territory nodes have topology attached to them, and that makes differing territory non-fungible. So we end up regarding territory as its own "part of speech."

So let me try to make my case indirectly. If we look at, say, cue sports, I think we would be hard-pressed to regard the billiard balls as pure currency; they occupy territory and are even used as tools on one another. They implicitly have differing statistical profiles according to the ruleset (stripes, solids, the 8) and this affects the outcome when they do interact (the cue ball must strike one of your balls before caroming off an opponent's, for example).

Can the same sort of case be made for a football/soccer ball? I think it can; there's a variety of spatially related rules that touch on the ball's physical location, including offsides, goalmaking, and tackling vs foul. Plus there's at the least the convention that you do not use the ball as a physical weapon (though tricks like intentionally bouncing it off of an opponent's shin to drive it out of bounds are comparable to some degree). These all argue for the use of the ball as a tool, similar to billiard balls.

I think the billiards case is pretty evident, and the football one less so, but I think that's just because the presence of multiple of the balls.

Fungibility and equivalency is a core characteristic of pretty much every definition of currency in other fields... I would be very hesitant to surrender that aspect of the word. After all, when we do exchanges with things that are non-fungible and non-equivalent, we call that barter, and explicitly do not consider the goods exchanged to be currencies.

But like I said, damn, this is a pedantic point. :)


I’ll be honest, I don’t really follow game grammar, but surely in tennis a ball is a currency AND an actor? While in soccer it’s a currency, actor, and tool? This not only avoids muddying terms, but it breaks it down for implementation.

That said, I think currency is a confusing word for a ball because you would have an economy with a persist value of 1. It seems like the ball is a trigger and actor, whereas out-of-bounds and/or goal is an event and region/territory. No?


Hi Raph, (Equally pedantic post incoming :))

I think Dodgeball balls fit comfortably into the description of currency. Here's what I mean:

* Teams earn the balls by rushing to acquire them.
* Once they have them, they use them to try and reduce the resource of the opposing team (in this case, the players), and risk having their own resources reduced (if the opposing player catches the ball)
* The players are therefore tools, but are also metered. When that meter hits zero, that triggers the win condition.
* Depending on the variant of the game, rules for out of bounds, throwing a ball into a basket hoop and so on affect the meters too.

I make a distinction between resources as visible variables that players can see (numbers of things mostly, but also territorial position) and hidden variables. Hidden variables play a significant part of sports and most videogames. For example:

* The properties of the ball
* The skill of individual players
* The physics of environment
* Whether players are prone to be injured
* Environmental factors like wind

That's just the tip of the iceberg. So a variant of ball affects a game (as was seen in the early stages of the recent Rugby World Cup where many kickers had difficulty scoring) but it's not a variable that the player can quantify. It's not a resource.

Does it matter that a currency be fungible?

While in many games there are multiple quantities of currency that are interchangeable, they often belong to a defined set. In Poker, for example, players buy into a game and receive set amounts of chips. The game then plays with that limited set. Dodgeball similarly uses more than one ball, a limited set, as do cue sports. Football-style field sports also use a limited set, that set having but one unit.

In your example of pool, for instance, both players acquire a set of balls (stripes or spots) that they must trade in legally (by potting them) using a white ball (a contested currency, like a ball) to be permitted to trade in the black ball and win. Territory is therefore vital. There are hidden variables at work too (physics for the most part).

So I think fungibility is not really a dividing issue. What these rules describe are restrictions on how and where currency can be exchanged, just as the rules of Poker restrict how and when bets can be made and for which values, or letters in Scrabble that can only be traded for points in a limited fashion (they have to make a word and not violate territorial rules).

Factors like offside, out of bounds and so are then like the rules of pool: They constitute illegal uses of the currency in attempts to trade it. When a player runs behind a soccer defence before the ball has been passed, for example, it is part of the attempt to trade the ball for a goal, but it breaks a rule and so the whistle is blown. Similarly bad tackles in Rugby Union constitute a defence trying to prevent a trade, but doing so illegally.

What differs balls-as-resources from tools (and this is an edit I'm putting into the article because it's not clear) is varying possession. In cue sports the white ball is currency. Break a rule in spending it (pot it, hit the black ball, pot an opponent ball, fail to pot one of your own balls) and you lose possession. However you keep your cue. The cue is your tool. While some games mix the two resources (temporarily possessing a unit in Starcraft for example), it's not the norm.

Thanks again for the awesome comment.



'Actor' is a term that I find tends to be too informal, much like why I stay away from using the term 'game mechanic'.


Sulka Haro

Regarding tennis, does the player have one ball, or infinite balls? In a match the player is free to exchange the ball if he's not happy with it, even if you can only act using one ball at a time.

To me the word currency implies a medium with a) variable transaction sizes through the game, and b) subjective value through scarcity or some other mechanism. A ball in tennis fits neither one of these, where the transaction size is always one, and given the singular purpose of the ball, the ball itself is of no meaning beyond being the actor.

Analyzing dodgeball gets a lot more complicated, though. ;)


Hi Sulka,

Outside of game time the player has lots of balls, but when in game there is only one. There is (or should be) no difference between each ball, so the choice is more one of superstition than anything real. However it's interesting to note (in relation to earlier talk about the physics etc) that there is a slight difference in speed when new balls are introduced.

I would argue that the ball in tennis does have variable transaction sizes and value however. Sometimes a point is worth considerably more if it's the right point. It can be a game, set, match or even championship point, and the winning of that point significantly alters the match where a 15-0 at 2-2 does not.

Similarly I would argue that the ball has subjective value as determined by possession. If you are serving then you are more in control than your opponent.

Thanks for the comment.


Great analysis of in-game resources. Something that I've started to notice recently, which is related to Sulka's question, is that establishing a relative value of those resources is necessary to frame any decisions about their possession or distribution.

If I'm given 15 widgets and asked to distribute them among 5 investments, then I would like a couple of pieces of information to prevent choice paralysis or indiscriminate distribution and later regret. A rough idea of how difficult that resource will be to acquire in the future as well as the estimated value of each unit of investment. They allow the player to make informed decisions.

Games that neglect either of those pieces of information tend to break my engagement with the world, and games that provide that information through subtle means draw me further into the player character role without my noticing.

Thanks for the article!

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