What Is a Game?

Kevin Langdon

Copyright (c) 1979, 1988, 2000 by Polymath Systems.

This essay first appeared in 1979, in a somewhat different form, in The New Thesaurus.
Kevin Langdon has invented more than 50 games.


Games have existed among many ancient peoples and are known in all contemporary human cultures. It has been suggested that the playing of games is one of the key defining characteristics of man, though all young mammals and at least some birds play.

The sensitivities and impulses that result in game playing stem from the instinctive drive to explore and map the environment, which appears in simple invertebrates and reaches its fullest development in man, and from the sense of relationship to other beings which is the function of the second of man's three brain systems, the limbic system, development of which distinguishes birds and mammals from lower animals. The limbic system is the seat of emotional responses more complex than affective reflexes.

Games elicit a strong imaginative response, and thus have come to occupy a prominent place among the metaphors which have been employed for human life.

In this essay, the basic components of a game are identified and some possible ways of looking at games as representations of life are explored.

In addition to those properties possessed only by certain classes of games, such as chance, secrecy (as in most card card games), alliances, and so on, there are a few basic elements which are common to all games.

The first of these elements is players with conflicting objectives. For a game condition to exist, there must be conflict and the possibility of winning or losing, or at least of something of value being at stake. In some cases, the other player(s) may be simulated by a mechanical randomizing device (as in solitaire) or by a program running on a computer.

Secondly, a game must possess rules, delineating the powers and limitations of players, though the rules may not be completely known to the players.

A game must be visualizable--it must be possible to picture what is going on--and it must possess a certain simplicity or elegance. There must be a feeling that a world is being created which is interesting to explore. This world may represent some portion of the real world, as in chess (representing a battle), or Monopoly (representing real estate development). Some large- scale simulation games (such as my game Capital, which models production, distribution, and government regulation in an industrial market economy) may involve thirty players or more and take a day or longer to play. Other games are purely abstract. Thus, Fifty-two Pickup is not a game, but a practical joke, as it is not interesting once the trick is known.

Finally, a game must be playable. It must have manageable mechanics of play. (Many of the more intricate war games are of interest to only a small group of enthusiasts because they require reading lengthy instruction manuals and involve writing moves for dozens of individual pieces in each round of play, and thus are only marginally playable.) It must have unambiguous rules and no loopholes which permit players to avoid the limitations intended by the rules. And it must be nontrivial strategically, permitting the development of more subtle and effective lines of play as players become familiar with the game.

In order to play a game, a player must possess two characteristics: interest in the objectives of play, and sufficient intelligence to understand the consequences of possible lines of play (though not necessarily fully). More than one type of intelligence may be required. All games require at least some degree of abstract intelligence, while many also require sophistication, judgement (particularly where the human factor is important), creativity, or a combination of these. Computers have come to possess impressive abstract abilities--particularly in game playing, to which considerable effort has been devoted by researchers in artificial intelligence--but are still far from possessing the other abilities enumerated above.

At this point, it is possible to ask to what extent the paradigm of game, outlined above, is a useful metaphor for the processes of human life.

It has been shown above that games can serve as reasonably accurate simulations of the essential features of certain specific human activities, such as trade and negotiation. (Many players have told me, after playing Capital, that they never understood the economic system before.)

More broadly, the problem cognition which characterizes the state in which the vast majority of humanity spends almost all its waking hours fits the game paradigm very well. (It may not apply as well to certain undirected and contemplative states.)

One strives to achieve certain objectives, from filling one's belly to understanding the most abstract mathematical theories, against the resistance provided by the external and internal world. The rules of life are the laws of the physical and psychological universe. Many aspects of the world are concretely visualizable, however mysterious the ultimate nature of reality. Living provides many opportunities for practical action, no way around the rules, and strategic challenges to even the most brilliant individuals.

In addition to these basic game-like aspects of living, there are several more specific senses in which the notion of game-playing is commonly applied to situations in life. "Willingness to play," to step inside a common game structure, is a fruitful metaphor for acceptance of a social environment or of another into it; the latter can be seen unmistakably in the relationships of herd or pack animals with others of the same species inside and outside their immediate group.

"Gaming" is also employed to designate taking unusually risky chances, and the high-roller is spoken of as a gamesman, due, undoubtedly, to the propensity of people, in playing a game, to "go for broke" because the worst that can happen to them is losing the game (or, in most cases, a small stake).

"Playing games," in the terminology of modern pop psychology, is used to label deliberately deceptive relations with other people or dishonesty. While no one can deny that there are extreme cases of victimization of naive and credulous individuals by those who cold-bloodedly lead them to believe that they respect their values and will abide by commitments once made, this usage has led to some unfortunate misconceptions.

First, it has led to the denial by some of the broad applicability of the game metaphor to human problem-solving activity.

More seriously, it fosters in many people the naive assumption that they possess sufficient inner unity and authority over themselves to be able to deal with others according to a strict code of honor. Attempting to do so is laudable, but a little impartial observation of one's actual behavior patterns will convince one that one's integrity, particularly in very large and very small matters, is, to a great extent, a function of the psychic state of the moment, fluctuating wildly over a few hours or even a few minutes, often in the service of calculated selfish interests which leave no room for considerations of honor.

Many who accept the assumptions of contemporary New Age thought self-righteously proclaim that they "don't play games," then immediately lay incredible expectations on those around them, in the name of supposed agreements these others have never heard of or of "principles" which rest on metaphysical assumptions amounting to the belief that "affirming" what one would like to believe makes it true in reality. These people deny the necessity of accepting the world as it is and live in fantasy.

In order to be free of insincerity with other people on some level or other, even with the best will in the world, one would have to know oneself to a degree which cannot even be imagined as long as one lives in an imaginary world of moral absolutes, and one does not possess the best will in the world, but the ordinary human, fragmented will through which people cannot accomplish such obviously necessary and simple actions as refraining from smoking, eating too much, or oversleeping in the morning.

The inability of people to see their own immersion in game structures illustrates what may well be the most interesting way in which the idea of "game" is applicable to human life. In playing a game, and particularly a game in which one is interested, it is very easy to lose one's broader perspective and forget about everything outside the immediate game reality. This is a very good picture of man's relationship to the concerns of his life. In many times and places, and especially in our own culture, people have laughed at anyone who is interested in philosophy or goes in search of self-knowledge, proving that they are so immersed in whatever concerns command their attention that they have forgotten that they are alive--tiny creatures in a great and fundamentally unknown universe.

Thus a game provides a great temptation to lose oneself and become swallowed up in the process of playing. But with this temptation there also comes an opportunity to see, on a smaller and (often) more intelligible scale of time, space, and complexity, exactly how one's attention is fragmented and stolen by the failure to remember, in the course of dealing with one's immediate concerns, the larger context in which they are located.

In playing a game, precisely because it is an arbitrary exercise, it is sometimes possible to see one's motivations and actions in a new way and to understand that the attitudes with which one approaches situations in one's life are also, in many cases, quite arbitrary.

Immersed in arbitrary game structures, one tends to take the objectives of the moment too seriously and to disregard other objectives which are as, or more, important. From the point of view of a particular game structure, everything else is taken as "only game-playing" and dismissed as unimportant.

"Play," as in what one does for pure enjoyment, is often contrasted with "work," or what one does from necessity. The extent to which one is able to escape from this dichotomy and to find one's satisfaction in the work which needs to be done, is a measure of maturity and real understanding of life.



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