That's a pretty succinct distinction and it seems pretty obvious.
A game points you towards some goal and the way to reach that goal is always to master some system, whether that involves shooting everything that moves or building a city from the ground up. In other words, in any game you try to win. That may seem trivial but I think that's a problem.
Winning provides players a surge of fiero
(the feeling of triumph over adversity). But what if we want to make a game about some other emotional experience like, say, exploring a forgotten desert (Journey
, 2010, PS3, thatgamecompany), the feeling of epiphany (The Witness
, coming 2011, Jonathan Blow) or the taste of a fresh peach (Ralph Koster from his 2006 talk at Project Horseshoe called "Influences"
The emotional core of these ideas isn't fiero. It's not about winning and it's not about goals. Other forms of art can reach those emotions. For games to do the same, we can't simply ignore the limitation that comes with goals.
We need to destroy it.
In thatgamecompany's 2010 game Journey for the PS3 (screenshot above), you explore a forgotten desert.
In Koster's 2006 talk
he suggests a series of abstract games like a game about "treeness". He concludes that modern games can't communicate such complex, unquantifiable ideas but his utterly profound lecture does indicate there is a bit of hope for games.
In one part, Koster describes his experience making a game that's about flapping your wings as a bird. A lot of people felt that it was very zen and gave them a new feeling that taught them about being a bird (useful information, I know), but at that point it wasn't really a game. It was a toy, since it had no goals.
So, to remedy this, he added a goal in the form of a 3D path that you had to follow. Then, the game was no longer about exploring the idea of flapping but, instead, became about following a path.
And that made it boring.
The original experience he was communicating wasn't about winning and goals focus a game towards that bland end.
The need to win corrupts everything except fiero. And plenty of otherwise-compelling experiences can be totally ruined by the drive for victory.
Tabletop RPGs, for example, are continually plagued by conflicts between powergamers and roleplayers, where the drive to win locks horns with the desire for drama and fantasy.
Or consider the experimental game Façade
(2005, Windows, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern), in which you try to smooth over a marital conflict by talking it out with the couple. Facade uses natural language processing, asking you to type in what you want your character to say. It was one of the most well-realized attempts at a natural conversation game. But my first instinct as a gamer was to experiment with different inputs, trying to figure out how I could best manipulate the algorithm to reach my goals. I'm taught to win and, so, rather than playing the game, I was gaming the system. When the characters ask me a question and my answer is one word repeated twenty times, I've shattered the fantasy and the game devolves into a crappy social sim.
In Michael Mateas' and Andrew Stern's 2005 game Facade (screenshot above), you try to smooth over a marital conflict by talking it out with the couple.
A lot of games have started to approach some new emotional experiences but seemed to flinch at the last second and add goals, hoping to make it a more proper game. For me, the best part of Flower
(2008, PS3, thatgamecompany) was just flying around in a beautiful landscape, chasing my tail and drawing patterns in the sky. But that's not truly part of the game. It's only something you can do with the embedded toy. The game just asks you to collect stuff and then deposit it at the end of the level. And having that goal cheapened the experience.
Look at more mainstream open-world games like the The Elder Scrolls (1994-present, Bethesda Softworks) series. A lot of the joy in these games is exploring the world, seeing its sights, meeting people and discovering secrets. Then there's Audiosurf (2008, Windows, Invisible Handlebar), in which some players find more fun in grooving to the music than getting a high score (and the game-y elements just seem like impediments to that style of fun). In Half-Life 2 (2004, Windows, Mac, Xbox , Xbox 360 and PS3, Valve Corporation) people like me slog through the game mechanics just to see more of the story.
The Sims (2000 to present, Windows, Mac and misc. consoles, Maxis) doesn't have a goal. Minecraft (2011, Windows, Markus Persson) doesn't have any goal beyond maybe staying alive. They're toys, in the end. Flower has a goal and it only served to make my play experience feel less meaningful.
Think about other software toys, like the misnamed falling sand games. They, too, aren't games at all, but rather interesting toys that experiment with cellular automata. Or consider the tone matrix
, a toy that communicates something profound about the joy of making music. Ernest Adams wrote a column ("The Designer's Notebook: Don't March, Dance!
", Gamasutra, 2010) about creating joy in a game, suggesting that designers try to reduce a player's anxiety towards losing and, instead, encourage playfulness.
In other words, make it more like a toy and less like a game.
My point is not that games are a dead art but that practical definition of "games" is changing.
Games do sometimes include embedding stories and toys and, in some cases, those stories and toys are becoming more compelling than the game mechanics themselves. I think we should embrace that.
Gamers and designers need to accept that games can be about something other than winning before the medium can evolve.
In Tale of Tales' 2009 game, The Graveyard (screenshot above), the player walks an old lady onto a bench, waits and leaves.
If a game is about joy, it doesn't have to be challenging. If a game is about "treeness," it doesn't have to require skill or strategy. If Koster makes a game about flapping, he shouldn't need to add a goal to call it a game
I hear a lot of hardcore gamers making fun of The Graveyard
(2009, Mac, Windows and iPhone, Tale of Tales) - in which the player walks an old lady onto a bench, waits and leaves - and similar games, but that sort of game is not supposed to be about mastery or winning. It's going for something different and we gamers should respect that, even if it doesn't initially appeal to us.
We expect to find goals in games. They are, after all, part of the definition. But we need to jettison that requirement and broaden our vision of what games are and what games can be because our medium is finally growing up.
And that's a good thing.