What is a game? The fate of the world is in your hands!

What is a game? Why do people play them? Where does the obsession for them come from that we see in so many people? First, lets think about what a game is. A mathematical definition is that games are:

A model of a competitive situation that identifies interested parties and stipulates rules governing all aspects of the competition, used in game theory to determine the optimal course of action for an interested party.

The mathematical definition is my favorite because it reaches close to what I believe the essence of what a game is. However, I believe this particular definition misses something, or at least doesn’t highlight it enough. A game involves a series of choices within a rule set and these and subsequent choices can often be predicted. It is the interplay between the rules and a series of choices that ultimately makes a game involving to players, an interesting mental diversion. This is because the visible boundaries to our actions (created by the rules) and the generally finite, often predictable choices combine to produce a comforting and secure realm of possibility where we have almost complete control, unlike the real world.

An ancient game like chess is perhaps the best example of how rules and choices combine. The rules are simple and clear and the choices on each turn are finite. That the range of choices a player has ranges from zero to dozens on each particular turn (depending on board state) is one of the fascinating aspects of the game. However, above all other principles it is the finite and controllable nature of this world that underlies its appeal. For example chess puzzles in newspapers are popular because, bound by the rules, there is a ‘solution’ to a problem that simply requires analysis. That chess and similar games are ancient only highlights for us how natural it is for man to enjoy making choices in a controllable and controlled environment where success and failure are rewarded based on our clear thinking.

Of course, the real world is not so easy to contain or predict and you may be as likely to lose as win, regardless of your strategy. Perhaps this is why, as the world seemingly grows more chaotic, there is increasing interest in games of all kinds. War, famine, economic upheaval are instantly reported and the plights of millions who had no choice to participate in world events are piped directly into our homes. Games give us back control and we can find worlds at our fingertips. While we are bound by the rules we are expected to eventually succeed and our success empowers us with feelings of a job well done. We can have complete control, we can predict the outcomes and we can plan in advance to achieve them. This explains why we are often more relieved than surprised when we do succeed at a game.

If we accept that games give us control and this is compelling then why is it that massively multiplayer gamers seem the most dedicated? Online games are more unpredictable than offline ones right? And yet, across all kinds of games, computer, card, casino, board, there would hardly be a more dedicated group and multiplayer online gamers. Everquest players average around forty hours play time a week and this figure is likely to be broadly similar for other games in the genre. While many computer gamers play a lot I can’t imagine many non-MMOG games are played as often as Everquest. Yet, if we think about the appeal of games a reason becomes more apparent. MMOGs are set within a world that can be controlled and predicted and where success is rewarded by public recognition.

While randomness exists it is often the most loathed part of the game and intensive efforts are made to remove it. MMOG gamers are able frighteningly capable of predicting battle outcomes, devising the most efficient strategies and organizing to achieve the highest successes. For many people this is a lot more satisfying than the real world where success seems so far away and hard to reach. The playing field is level in an online game and time and a nominal fee are all that are required to compete. In the real world it may seem impossible to achieve outcomes equal to one’s peers, not so in an online world. In an online world we can experience the success we want and we can make this evident to other living, breathing, human beings. Your CPU doesn’t care if you just completed a 3 month quest arc, other people, however, are impressed, reinforcing the player’s feelings of success and self-worth. Why else do people shout ‘ding!’ when they level a character and enjoy a round ‘gratz’ and ‘well done’? Social affirmation of success, success built through results driven by predictable choices are what make MMOGs incredibly compelling.

Perhaps it would be interesting to study how many hard-core multiplayer online gamers feel they’ve had more real-life successes than online ones? I can only hypothesize that the more hard-core the player the less rewarding real life has been. Conversely, those who play infrequently or quickly get bored of MOGs may find that real-world successes are simply more satisfying and so essentially chose these rewarding experiences rather than ‘imaginary’ ones. How a person defines success would also be fascinating to compare to their online behavior.

What does this mean for our future? Perhaps as the complexity of online worlds increase many people will increasingly shun the real world. After all, it is entirely possible to make a living through playing online games and most bills and needs can be satisfied with a bank account, a credit card and an internet account. Why struggle in the real world when the online world can lead to more predictable success?

If this trend continues will we see the real world change as our societies respond to the changing expectations of the citizens? Will complex systems such as government and law be broken down to less complex systems to encourage participation? Perhaps a reluctance to involve oneself with anything overly complex or unpredictable will slowly erode mankind’s ability to innovate? Perhaps I should stop eating cheese before bedtime. Have a think and let me know!

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