Games: A Subset of Play

Matt Almeida

        Depending on the way you look at it there seems to be a number of ways you can interpret games and play. At first, the two terms may seem interchangeable, perhaps even synonyms, and indeed many people use them as such. However, upon looking more closely at these two terms and seeking out their differences they come to mean two distinctly different things.

                 First off it is important to see how games are a specific part of play. You might ask how are the two any different? Play seems to be an integral part of any game and a game seems to be a specific form of play. This is certainly true but games are more so just a specific and specialized form of play. Play is a broader term encompassing all sorts of activities while the word game indicates a very specific act containing certain aspects and modeling  a definition. In my opinion play can refer to any sort of enjoyable activity. It can be a sport, a toy, or any sort of activity someone partakes in for fun. Someone merely jumping on a bed or even cooking food for enjoyment could be considered play. Until the activity at hand has some sort of goal or purpose it is not a game.  Also, I think it essentially must be some conflict or battle for fun and for enjoyment otherwise any activity could be considered a game.

                The aspect of having a goal or objective is what I think is the most important part of a game. With this objective then comes a number of other things that help to constitute something as a game. In order to achieve this objective a number of rules and guidelines need to be set up that modify how someone reaches that objective. These rules make the act of play something more, something of greater meaning. They force players to enter the game, interact, and make decisions that affect the outcome of the game. Players must abide by the rules and make choices accordingly as they attempt to attain the objective at hand. There is now a formal activity taking place that takes the form of a game rather than just random play. The activity can now be distinguished and recognized, giving it a specific form and usually even a name. Just throwing a ball and playing around now becomes dodge ball, football, or baseball. Simply looking at cards or tossing them around now becomes poker or blackjack. Running around a park or a playground now becomes tag, hide and seek, or maybe even capture the flag. With rules and guidelines pertaining to a goal at hand, play takes a specific form and becomes a game.

                Along with the objectives and rules of a game I believe there are some  other aspects that are essential to games. Whether or not these aspects are taken into account when forming the game, they inherently become important parts of the game.  Some of these components are the fact that games are inefficient, uncertain, and that although apart from reality they are very real and intrinsically related to real life outcomes. Salen’s and Zimmerman’s definition of a game as “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” does not necessarily encompass all these components. I agree with the definition they state but I feel there is much more to the definition.

                Naturally, I believe aspects of inefficiency and uncertainly lie within games. By following the rules and attempting to achieve a goal a game becomes both of these things. Rules make a game both inefficient and uncertain. The most direct way to achieve a goal in a game is also the most efficient way. The most efficient way to score a touchdown in football would be to run the play straight down the field in a direct line. However, the rules making the defense attempting to stop this act complicates things. Next, one would most efficiently score by running around the defense but the rules setting up boundaries to the game also complicates this as well. Similarly, in baseball the most efficient way to score would be to drop the ball over the outfield fence for a homerun. But, the rules state that the ball must be pitched , often at an absurd speed with interesting movement, and then hit with a small wooden stick. This complicates this activity as well. This applies to all games as well. The rules also make these activities incredibly uncertain. The rules create two opposing forces consisting of many players who are attempting to achieve the same goal. The two forces battle and this makes the outcome uncertain. Although there are only a certain number of outcomes, there is no way of knowing what the outcome will be or how this outcome will be arrived at. The natural laws and rules of games make them both extremely inefficient and uncertain. These two aspects though are incredibly essential to games and make them what they are. If games were efficient and simple than it would take all the fun and enjoyment out of them. If you could know the simple outcome of a game before it started then what would be the point of playing the game at all?

                Finally, I believe that games are very much related to real life, even if the games may be “artificial” and have outcomes that are not entirely real. People become personally invested in games. People allow their emotions to be involved in games and they very much become a part of this game. The real life emotions of players as well as viewers of games are affected by the game and its outcome. Also, many people play games for a living.  Not only in professional sports, but in many other games such as video games, players play for money and this is an integral aspect of their everyday real life. The outcome of the game greatly affects their lives and it is no longer just some distant artificial conflict. The games are very real and have value of great importance. This also pertains to gambling and other such activities that involve money. With games such as this there is again a real life feature, in this case real money, that is on the line. This is an important aspect of games that is often forgotten or even sometimes contradicted in certain definitions.