Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

What the heck is a game anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary has several definitions of use to us:

game, n.
1. Amusement, delight, fun, mirth, sport. Often in game and glee, game and play, joy and game; also game and solace. upon her game: in fun. no game =
‘no fun’. Obs. exc. dial.
...
3. a.
An amusement, diversion, pastime.
Also collect., play, diversion. at game: at play.
...
4. a. A diversion of the
nature of a contest, played according to rules,
and displaying in the result
the superiority either in skill, strength, or good
fortune of the winner or
winners. For round, square game, see ROUND, SQUARE. at game: at play.

The first definition is interesting in that it is the oldest (and is now considered obsolete). It and 3.a. both make a game sound like something that is devoted to fun. This makes sense because the root word (gamen or gaman) means joy or glee. Many of the problems that I have had with games in the past have to do with definition 4.a., which has become the standard usage of the term.

A game, as I see it, is a thing that one does with other people in order to have fun. In our screwed-up overly competitive, rat-race world, we have this idea that a game is something that you play to display superiority. But what about the rest of our lives that are crammed full of dominance establishing activities? Don't we deserve a break from that? Why should I take time out of my struggle to get ahead at work only to struggle to get the better of my friends?

Role-playing games, in many ways, seem to fit the bill for me. The point of an RPG doesn't have to be about being better than someone else. Role-playing can be about getting together with friends and creating something cool. When I was younger that worked well. I gamed. I had fun with others. No problems. So why doesn't that work so easily anymore?

The folks over that the Forge have established (in my mind convincingly) that role-playing can be "about" one or a combination of a few simple things. To me, it all comes down to what a game is. And I think that a game is any kind of structured social fun. For some people, what's fun is competing with others to establish superiority as described in the OED definition 4.a. above. Those folks structure their fun by making rules that establish a level playing field for everyone competing. This style of role-playing is pretty easy to do. It's the other folks that have more trouble.

Most of the people that I used to play games with can't even figure out what they like about the game, or what they used to do that was cool that they can't seem to do anymore. Without a better grasp of what your social fun looks like, it's damn hard to find or make rules that make it happen. I'll be talking about this a lot more in future posts. The Forge guys have made some real headway toward defining what makes the game fun for a variety of folks (though in a way, I'm not sure that they have it as nailed as they think they do). But the finding a way to determine where you and your fellow players fit into the scheme is less well established. And figuring out what to do about it seems to be entirely hit-or-miss at this point.

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