Jeff's World of Game Design

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Schrodinger's tabletop: a superposition of {game, activity}

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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Some of the most contentious debates about certain games is whether game X is a puzzle or a game, or whether game Y is a game or an activity. The implication of such debates, as perceived by proponents of X and Y, is that if X is a puzzle, if Y is an activity, then it is somehow less than a game, unworthy of the attention of serious gamers, and that in liking it they must themselves not be serious gamers, or at least that this is what people calling those things "puzzles" or "activities" must be intending to imply.

But that's not our main concern here. Rather it's to build off of something pointed out in our recent discussion on the Who What Why cast about fun. I said that the question "is this game fun?" is actually a nonsense question, because a game is an inert object. It is not, cannot be, fun in and of itself. Rather, the experience a game creates is, or can be, fun. When we say "X is fun" what we mean is that we personally find X to be fun, or in some cases that X reliably creates fun experiences. The players who play the game make it fun, or not. Well and good.

But what I've realized is that the players also determine whether something is even a game or not, by the way they approach it and the way they play it.

As an example: golf is a competitive game, with rules for stroke play and match play that arbitrate how to determine the winner, but that's not how most people play. Most people go to the course with a few friends, hit the ball around, tally up their scores, and go share some beers. Not many people play with an eye toward emerging with the best score of the group, and for those people, golf is an activity not a game, however much the rules of golf may support a competitive game for those who want one.

I am thinking about this as I've been contemplating the enormous success of Wingspan juxtaposed against what I consider to be actually a rather convoluted set of Jamey-esque scoring rules: bird scoring, egg scoring, secret goals, round end goals, there's a lot going on here, a sort of scoring puzzle. And it seems that solving this scoring puzzle would be a bit intimidating, or at least more effort than your typical casual non-gamer would want to engage in, yet everyone who raves about the game talks about how much their non-gamer [spouse/grandmother/Uber driver/tax collector/yoga instructor/arresting officer] like it. And how can that be?

One possible explanation is that the game draws new levels of cognitive capacity out of these casual non-gamers that they didn't previously display, that they didn't realize that they have. But I think a more likely explanation might be that these people are simply along for the ride, they find the ride pleasant, and then at the end of the ride the ride tells them whether they've won or not. They're trying to do things that make points, but they don't care that much about doing the "best" or "most efficient" things, and they don't much care whether they actually won or not.

There are analogies for this, notably a couple of rides at Walt Disney World. One is "Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin", where you have a light gun that you use to shoot at targets throughout the ride and then see who in your car accrued the most points at the end. Another is the Toy Story ride, where you play a series of carnival games with a little shooter doohickey and see who in your car scored the most. But the competition in those cases is far, far less important than just the experience of participating in the ride and enjoying trying to shoot targets and stuff, and whether you win or not is immaterial and beside the point.

And I wonder if games like Wingspan appeal for similar reasons: there's stuff you can do, there are points awarded to such stuff, someone wins at the end but it doesn't really matter who and anyway winning wasn't the goal.

I would suggest that for people who play a game like Wingspan that way, that although Wingspan is certainly a game, it is being used by those people as an activity.

The point isn't to pick on Wingspan, but to ask broader questions about game design, such as: in a previous post about designing for the mass market, we asserted qualities like simple rules as being important, but perhaps it's also important/useful for a game to support being played as an activity. i.e. even when the game is played "just for fun" among some or all of its players, it still holds up and everyone still has a good time. This suggests that we might do well to consider whether our games do, in fact, hold up and provide enjoyment as activities, and that we might specifically test the game with an eye toward answering that question.

This is actually quite a challenge since we have as our axiom that scoring incentives shape player behavior. So how do you steer the players into a fun experience if they don't care that much about the incentives? What are the qualities that make a game a pleasant diversion for those who wish to use it as such?

I'm not sure there's a good answer to this, other than to watch what playtesters react to and what they say about the game. But I think maybe it also helps explain the surprise success of some hit games. Why did Pandemic become a hit, why did Wingspan become a hit? We can look at those games retrospectively and try to interpret their huge success based on mechanical qualities they possess, but it may be as simple as, the experience of playing the game was pleasant enough for those who wanted to engage in it passively, that the appealing characteristics about the game (e.g. the "let's work together" aspect of Pandemic, the lovely artwork of Wingspan) were enough to elicit broad appeal without the gameplay proper tamping that appeal down.
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