Play vs Prop: Games, Videogames, and Why Videogames Aren’t Games

What are games, exactly? It’s a tired question in the videogames industry, but it’s tired mainly because nobody has been able to agree on an answer. Many game designers are fed up with the whole debate and find all the semantic squabbling rather pointless, yet I think it’s telling that the debate persists. No other medium causes such confusion–everybody knows, and can easily identify, a book or a film or a sculpture or a painting. Videogames, on the other hand, are more ambiguous. Take Feed the Head, for instance–is it a game? Is it a toy? Is it something else? This is not a deliberately experimental work meant to push the boundaries of definition, this is a relatively modest (though delightful and admittedly surreal) work of simple entertainment. What about David Cage’s Heavy Rain? Is it a game, or is it an “interactive film”? Is there a difference? What about SimCity? Its own creator, Will Wright, attests that SimCity is a “toy”, not a game. Does this make other simulation games toys as well? And what does that mean for the toys? Could a toy, typically associated with the frivolous play of children, ever be art? Could one use a toy to tell a story, or convey emotion?

The fact that the debate is ongoing, and the fact that you will almost never hear a board or card game designer asking themselves what a game “really is”, leads me to believe that there is something at the bottom of this particular rabbit-hole. In fact, I believe a great deal of the ongoing confusion arises from a conflation of games, arguably the oldest art form in existence, with videogames, a much newer and rather ill-defined medium. To illustrate the difference between these two media, and the dangers in conflating them, it will be necessary for me to introduce a little theory.

Every game ever played or conceived of consists of two parts: the abstract, and the concrete. The abstract part is the part we usually think of as the “rules”: it’s an imaginary layer of pretend that we use to build whatever system the game is about. In the game of Chess, it’s the rules describing how and when you can move each piece, and the conditions for winning. In the children’s game of Cops and Robbers, it’s the abstractions concerning roleplay (who’s the cop and who’s the robber), gunplay (imagining that you’re shooting at each other, and not just making noises with your mouths), fair play (you have to lay down if you “get shot”), etc. These abstractions I will collectively call the premise of the game–they are the ludic equivalent of the “suspension of disbelief” necessary in other forms of media. Note that the premise need not be made up of rules, per se–it is simply the elements of the game that are not directly based on reality: that are either imagined, fictitious, or self-imposed.

The concrete parts of the game constitute its props. Props include physical objects such as balls, cards, dice, dolls, etc., but they can also include the players’ surroundings and even the players themselves. For instance, the only props necessary for the game of Tag are the players and a place to play it in. Props allow for a great many of the restrictions and attributes of the game to be implicit, because they are encoded and enforced by the laws of physics, not a referee. For instance, you will not see anywhere in the rules of Chess the restriction that you cannot leave a duplicate behind when you move a piece, because that restriction is inherent to the physical properties of the pieces (i.e., they can only be in one place at a time). The less abstract the game, the more important these implicit “rules” become–in Basketball, for instance, no one made it a rule that the ball has to fall back down after it’s thrown, because this is an inherent property of the ball prop.

A game, then, is the sum of its premise and its props. In particular, games are a type of formalized play (I think we can all agree on that) in which the premise and the props are codified, usually as a combination of rules and a goal. But this is where it gets tricky–not all videogames have goals! Are they still games? Can a game have rules, but not a goal? “Game = Rules + Goal” is the most obvious definition of “game”, so naturally it’s the one that gets torn down the most often in these kind of debates. However, I believe that it’s also the correct definition, mainly for this reason: remember those board and card game designers? You won’t see many of them trying to create a game that doesn’t have rules or a goal. Even most children’s games have rules and goals, however loose and informal they may be. The fact that some videogames don’t seem to have them strikes me as evidence less that games don’t need them, and more that perhaps not all videogames are games–this, I believe, is the question at the heart of this debate, and the key to answering it lies in the simple truth that videogames don’t have to have rules or goals.

Allow me to explain: when asked to describe the “rules” of, say, Super Mario Brothers, most people will talk about the mechanics: if you press A you jump, if you touch an enemy you die or grow smaller, etc. But these elements are not really part of the premise that rules belong to, because they are neither imaginary nor self-imposed–you cannot make a new “house rule” that says that B makes you jump and enemies make you grow larger, and you cannot cheat by getting an extra life at only 98 coins, or by getting to the end of the level a few seconds after the time limit. (At least, not without changing the code, which is really changing the prop, which again is not part of the premise.) Nevertheless, these attributes of the videogame are still labeled “rules”.

This is a natural mistake to make, because it is how games have worked throughout all of human history. Because we know that, in the real world, you do not die or grow smaller if you touch a turtle, or jump by pressing a button, we naturally think of these things as part of the fiction, the “pretend” premise. Until very recently this was a perfectly valid assumption to make, because there was no other reality where these things might be true–where we wouldn’t have to pretend that they were so, we could make them so. But the computer has given us this very power, and that has real and tremendous implications for the medium!

The so-called “mechanics” we create with software are not themselves the game, they are the prop! Their systems are not imaginary rules we must impose on ourselves, they are the actual, physical laws of an invented universe.[1] In other words, the relationship “if you touch an enemy you die” is less like the Basketball rule “you have to dribble while running”, and more like the physical law “the ball bounces when dribbled”.

There are rules in Super Mario Brothers, of course, but they are not the videogame’s mechanics. Rather, they are the implicit goals and restrictions we place upon ourselves while playing. It is a rule, for instance, that we must rescue the princess. It is also a rule that we must avoid running out of lives. Neither of these rules is imposed physically by the system–you are perfectly free to spend all your time futzing about in the first level instead of trying to save the princess, and there is nothing stopping you from running yourself into a hazard at any time. Of course, Super Mario Brothers encourages these goals, just as a ball implicitly encourages catching and throwing, or a chess set encourages the game of Chess and not Backgammon or Go–but to confuse these true rules with the properties of the prop itself is a mistake, and not just a harmless mistake, but one that can and has severely limited the potential of an entire medium.

Why? Let’s consider: up until now, all games have had fundamentally the same basic props to work with: the players’ bodies, and their physical environment. Within these limits, of course, new props have been invented–from the venerable ball to more recent ones such as the slinky or the Rubik’s cube–but it has never been possible to circumvent the fundamental laws of the universe. You could impose rules that further limited what the players could do, but you could not lift the restrictions imposed upon them by the laws of physics. (This is why so much formal competition is about testing the limits of those restrictions: a race where you try to go as slow as possible is not very interesting, because you can limit your speed arbitrarily–but you cannot increase your speed arbitrarily, so competitions where people try to do just that are more interesting.) Since your physical limitations were absolute, all games had to be designed with them in mind, and premises that relied on systems the real world didn’t support (such as flying, for instance) were relegated to the games of children.[2]

With the invention of computers, however, we now have the ability to create arbitrary universes of any design, to support any premise we can imagine! Games that would have been impossible before, or very difficult, can now be created. Imagine, for instance, how Tetris might have been played without its software prop. A bag of tetrominoes and a timer? Even if it were possible to play it that way, it would not really be the same game. That’s not to mention videogames that rely on you (or your character) doing downright impossible things, like flying, or coming back from the dead, or using magic. No wonder so many videogames are adult versions of children’s play; we finally have the props to support them!

This new feature of the games medium is wonderful, and there’s a lot of interesting space to be explored here–as with nearly every other medium, the computer has allowed game designers to do things that wouldn’t have been possible before. But that’s not really my point–what few people seem to have realized is that the props themselves are an independent (and entirely new) art form! In the same way that music and lyrics can act as two separate media, so can a premise and its props. This means that the interaction between these two is far from trivial! In the past, game designers could largely ignore their props because they were, for the most part, known and unchangeable (a card acts pretty much the same no matter what’s written on it, and dice don’t change their behavior depending on what their number is supposed to represent). Videogame designers don’t have that luxury, and ignoring the difference between the game you are trying to create, and the prop you are making to facilitate that game, is very likely to get you into trouble.[3]

Okay, okay, so it’s important to be aware of the way your game’s mechanics and environment (the concrete aspect) interact with the game you’re trying to get your audience to play (the abstract aspect). But why so much fuss? If that’s all there is to the “what are games” debate, aren’t those who say it’s not worth debating right after all? Most designers (and not just of games!) at least have some vague sense that the mechanics should work well with the player’s expectations, and the best designers (Shigeru Miyamoto and Jonathan Blow come readily to mind) already make a habit of tailoring premise and prop to fit perfectly with each other. Unfortunately, this is still not really my point. Being mindful of the difference between play and prop will make you a better designer of games, it’s true–but the fact is, the medium of games interests me very little. What I want to know is, why does no one seem to be exploring the new medium that computers have given us? Why is it that no one is creating digital props for their own sake?

This, in my opinion, is the most disappointing consequence of conflating games with their props–by denying that the props are an independent element, you erase the very existence of the medium, along with all the stories that could be told in it. This is a twofold tragedy, because the medium of games would certainly be able to benefit from more experimentation in its component media, and because the audience that would really benefit from this new medium, and who might end up contributing most of its works, is largely unaware of its existence. You see, not everyone likes games. Not everyone enjoys competition, even against themselves–which is what a goal implies. But many of those that don’t (and many that do too, of course) do enjoy exploration and curiosity for their own sakes. The opportunities for creating the kinds of art that those people want to experience are astonishingly vast, and, what’s more exciting, they are almost completely unexplored! Videogames are neat, sure, but for the most part they are still just games, and those have been around since the dawn of civilization. But the medium of software has barely been invented! Why not say something in that medium–something that no other medium can say? As Jerry Holkins once said, “The answer is always more art“–so what’s your answer?


In a previous version of this essay I referred to a game’s abstract elements as its “play space”, but in retrospect I think this creates too much confusion between a game’s abstract elements, the act of engaging with that game (“playing” it), the more general act of play (not necessarily related to formal games), and the concept of “spatial art” which I’ll be discussing in a future essay. I’ve since switched to using the term “premise”, which I think is much clearer.

[1] Chris DeLeon goes into much more detail on all this in his essay, “Games Are Artificial. Videogames Are Not. Games Have Rules. Videogames Do Not.

[2] Children are okay with this, I think, because they aren’t as touchy as adults are about the disconnect between reality and their imaginations.

[3] You may be wondering: if props are an independent medium that can exist without a premise, is the opposite true? Absolutely! Play without any props is an art form millennia old–sadly, it’s no longer recognized as such. If you’re interested, I couldn’t possibly do a better job of describing the sorry state of this ancient and beautiful art form than Paul Lockhart did in his magnificent critique.


1 Comment

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One response to “Play vs Prop: Games, Videogames, and Why Videogames Aren’t Games

  1. Wonderful to see you back here!

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