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.
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.