Fun and Games and Hardcore Pornography

In 1964, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a certain French film called Les Amants wasn’t just risqué, it was obscene, and banned it from being shown in the state.  They were reversed by the Supreme Court in  Jacobellis vs Ohio, which is known not just because it restrained the ability of government to censor artists, but because of the reasoning used by Justice Potter Stewart in the case.  He argued that the Constitution protected all forms of expression except hardcore pornography, writing:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

This arbitrary and vague definition held for almost ten years until it was replaced with the “community standards” criteria that are used today.  During that time it was notoriously useless as a law enforcement tool.  Police and prosecutors could not use this subjective standard to determine which material to ban and which to allow.  They were constantly having to wake up Justice Stewart in the middle of the night, show him some dirty pictures and get a verdict.

Phallic is in the Eye of the Beholder

Obscenity or Obelisk?

Unfortunately, most designers have a similar working definition of important concepts like fun or gameplay or balance or immersion.  How can you be a game designer if you don’t even have an intelligible description of what a game is?  “I know one when I see it” isn’t good enough if your career depends on your ability to create experiences nobody has ever seen before.

Definitions are difficult because they often prove inadequate when you try to actually use them.  This is especially true in game design because it is such a young industry.  It is rife with definitions that sound good, but are flawed for a variety of reasons:

  • Resorting to merely supplying synonyms.  You can’t define fun as “an enjoyable activity” or “the entertainment value of an event.”  Those are just thesaurus entries.
  • Simply describing the characteristics or effects.  If you define a game as “something people play” or “a contest with rules” you haven’t provided any insight into its essential nature, you are just dissecting it’s parts.  It’s like defining a human as “some bones and organs inside a thin layer of skin.”
  • Defining too broadly.  A vague definition will include too many confusing counter-examples, so any decisions based on it will be similarly fuzzy and subject to error.  (“I know it when I see it” is an example of this.)
  • Defining too narrowly.  Often a designer will have a single insight about a concept, and elevate that one aspect to the level of a definition.  This narrowness creates a blind spot that will conceal possible innovations that fall outside of those artificial limits.

In order to be useful, a definition must provide enough insight and specificity to help make practical decisions regarding the term being defined.  When people agree on a definition, they should not only be able to use it to communicate accurately, it should in some way guide their thinking and establish a standard against which they can judge their work.  Given a sufficient definition of the ideal game, a designer should be able to objectively evaluate their game, and then improve it.

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4 thoughts on “Fun and Games and Hardcore Pornography

  1. Nice blog! I’m all for working toward a better understanding of the field. Let me know if you want me to review your stuff.

    There are a lot of definitions for “Video game”, but here’s the one I found to be most thought out:

    «A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable. » (Jesper Juul, 2003, p. 35)
    Explained in Juul, J. (2003). The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness. In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings (p. 30-45). Presented at Level Up, Utrecht: Utrecht University

  2. Hey Francois, thanks for commenting! Your time in the academic world hasn’t dulled your design skills, I see. 8)

    I’ve seen several definitions for “game” that are similar to this one, which is one of the reasons I wrote this post. It is accurate enough, I suppose, but it has some significant flaws.

    First, it is too broad. Filling out a 1040 tax form is a rule-based system with different outcomes, and I am very attached to the result and its consequences, but I would never call it a game. In another way, this definition is much too narrow. What are the formal rules of a game of catch? What are the consequences of a single-player adventure game? This definition dissects games into pieces, but doesn’t capture their essential nature.

    But my main issue with this definition (and many like it) is that it isn’t very useful to a game designer. It does not help them make decisions. If my game isn’t good, how does this definition help me make it better? Establish more formal rules? Make the consequences more optional? If my game doesn’t have outcomes with assigned values, like The Passage or Don’t @$#@ Your Pants, does that mean I should add a highscore screen to make it more like a real game?

    In fact, it probably hurts any designer that tries to use it by blinding them to ways they could improve their game that don’t fall within this definition.

  3. ” If you define a game as “something people play” or “a contest with rules” you haven’t provided any insight into its essential nature,” … ” Given a sufficient definition of the ideal game, a designer should be able to objectively evaluate their game”

    Wittgenstein worked to untangle this knot within the context of philosophy. Ironically, he used the word “game” as the primary example of how no definition can ever completely capture the essence of something, and he also used the term language-game to explain why. Words are always embedded in a social process, they don’t really capture the ideal essence of things, they are actually tokens that trigger behavior, moves that operate according to group consensus in simple or complex social interactions between people.

    Whether or not you believe that, it’s useful to consider what Wittgenstein was trying to do, which was to dispel some of the metaphysical puzzles that philosophers get into when they seek the ideal, essential meanings of words. Not to solve these puzzles, but to show that they weren’t really puzzles at all, to show that what appeared to be a knot was actually just a loose tangle that easily comes apart if you pull in the right directions.

    And it’s useful to consider what we’re trying to do when we seek good definitions for games. I agree with you that defining “game” is related to making good games, but I think it flows the other way, we don’t need a good definition to help us make games, every game we make, good and bad, is another move in the social process of defining games, in a way that’s exactly what game design is.

    I like to break things like this down to the basics, what do we actually know? We know that some things are obviously games, some obviously not, and some it’s sort of hard to tell. What are the qualities that make something more obviously a game? More obviously not a game?

    Then I like to ask where does this matter? Forget the global ideal definition, find the local questions where something important is at stake. Like the difference between a game and an interactive story, or the difference between a game and a loyalty program.

  4. Yeah, I thought about mentioning Wittgenstein (and I did touch on his work in my latest post) but ultimately decided against referencing him (or Husserl or Heidegger, etc.) because I didn’t want to get bogged down in language and defining definitions and divert from my ultimate goal, which is to provide a foundation for a theory of game design. Even if we do as you suggest, and define “good games” by gradually making better ones, we still need some tools to do that. An unguided random-walk solution isn’t as efficient as occasionally poking our heads up, figuring out what we want a good game to be, and reorienting our terminology to get us there.

    This post is a lot more about using language to guide thought than finding some fundamental definition; maybe instead of Wittgenstein I should have linked to Orwell. 8)

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