Games in the Abstract

        What is a game? I've been avoiding this question, because to deal with it head-on would take a quite different book. People apply the idea of game, in various ways but always with some real usefulness, to the understanding of almost every kind of patterned human behavior and interaction -- conscious and unconscious, deliberate and involuntary, natural and artificial -- and to life itself.

        Even the narrower topic of the relations among play, games, and learning is so comprehensive, subtle, and complex as to give rise to an endless flow of books, among which Jean Piaget's monumental studies represent only one specialized view . His work suggests the possibility of systematic development of a pedagogy of learning -- games which are oriented towards, and which incorporate, the stages of learning for which a child (or adult) is ready -- a simple and basic proposition, whose details may be intricate enough to occupy generations.

        I imagine that all serious study of behavior and learning bears in some way on what can be done with learning-games. In any case, the task of constructing an adequate and general theory of learning games is beyond both the scope and the thrust of this book. Instead, I describe some particular games, how we played them and the learning we saw them related to . In a sense, this amounts to a concrete summary of our group's particular theories about games. But it's a very scant and operational summary, barely suggestive of the ideas from psychology, education, science, theater, politics and so on that we ourselves brought to bear from our other work.

        Though we talked about our ideas, we didn't try to reconcile them into a common theoretical framework -- not only because of the magnitude of the task, but because every attempt to define games, to pin them down, however much it added to their clarity and strength as tools, seemed also to restrict the kinds of uses we could imagine for them.

        With this said, there is still some point in talking rather abstractly about games in general -- at least to illustrate that there are orderly ways of beginning to do so, and to suggest some of the deeper ground of the problem of game-design. Most of the rest of this chapter is my summary of some of Ken Margolis' thoughts (drawn from his unpublished papers). I’ve drawn also on Tom and Susan Isgar’s Learning Games (US National Student Association, 1968), and C. Abt’s Serious Games (Viking, 1970), and my own thought, to offer this dry scheme of propositions:

[Qualities of Games]

        (1)  Experience always involves a particular setting; a form, which is governed by rules; content, which is what happens; and meaning, a subjective valuation in ultimate relation to needs.

        (2)  Play is essentially-unregulated interaction between a whole person and her environment or within her. Play is behavior liberated from external necessity (no wonder growing up constricts it!)

        (3)  In play, the spirits of fantasy and improvisation are sovereign. Play itself is neither subject to test nor narrowly]productive; as contrasted with work, its value and values are intrinsic. Complex play involves the acting-out of metaphor.

        (4)  A (group) game is a (social) organization of play around a particular problem to be solved -- a problem of being, skill, knowledge, or action. A game defines a context of means and limitations for the solving.

        (5)  A game embodies or represents a problem. It involves making a model, or acting out a metaphor. IIt involves one in living within a metaphor.

        (6)  A game creates a "secondary reality," whose aspects and truth are intrinsic, existing without reference to the larger reality. This secondary reality has laws and form; but it exists only so long as the players believe in it, and only because they do.

        (7)  Part of what makes a game believable is a sense of wholeness in its reality, of completion in its process. Hence a good game has strong internal demands for completeness, both of its overall reality and of each player's part.

        (8)  In a game, primary reality is set aside. One's normal roles and relations are suspended; one is freed from socially-defined behavior patterns. In this secondary, reality new kinds of risk-taking and behavior may be possible.

        (9)  A game creates a world of time and space. Its time has boundaries and internal structure; its space does too. A group game creates a social world with these properties.

        (10)  A game is played within a set of rules, which govern behavior and interaction, and shape them into pattern. Good rules contribute to the sense of completion .

        (11)  A game is only as well-defined as its rules are, though these may be implicit or unconscious. To act within the rules is to be within, to believe in, the game reality. Generally, a group should agree to the game's rules as explicitly as possible .

        (12 ) Some rules are of empowerment; they define the means by which players can address problems. Others are rules of constraint; they limit, clarify, and purify approaches to problems.

        (13)  Rules reduce play to particular contexts and orientations. Within their broad determination of patterns, they leave the individual free choice of strategy and tactics for dealing with problems.

        (14)  Each player contributes to the reality of a game only insofar as he is involved in and stimulated by it. Each player needs to understand his role well enough to play; and to understand the rules and objectives of the game and the consequences of actions within it.

        (15)  A group game often involves structured group interaction in problem-solving. Usually it is possible to describe and provide for this as a sequential process.

        (16)  A game may be seen as a drama of problem-solving. It has a scenario, a plot, conflict, motivations and roles.        

        (17)  A game requires maintenance, gamekeeping. A form of this is done collectively, by the very act of observing the rules, and may go farther. But often an external gamekeeper, of the game but not in it, is useful or necessary in order to operate from outside the secondary reality in order to maintain or enrich it.

        (18)  In general, a game involves the whole person -- her body, her mind, and heremotions -- in an integral complex of experience. The customary divisions between thought and action, between rational and emotional aspects of problems and their solving, and so on, are melted in experience, and may be seen newly.

        The singleness of focus ... in solving the problem ... frees the (player) for spontaneous action and ... organic experience." (Spolin) It requires a mobilization of the whole self, resolving the inner split between creator and critic.

Categories of Games

        Games may be categorized in many ways, as being group or individual, literal or metaphorical, and so on. Few games are rigid enough to fit narrowly into a single category; but here are some other useful ways of thinking about them:

        (a) A game may be a religious ritual, putting one in touch with essen-tial forces and qualities; or it may be a social ritual, creating a world of conventions in which certain behaviors make more sense than others.

        (b) A game may be direct and primary, a literal and unique encounter with the environment and perception; or it may involve patterning, the isolation of elements of behavior into discrete, repeatable patterns for learning; or its function may be mimesis, the representation or portrayal of elements, actions, and agents of the perceived world; or it may be a game of transformation, involving the acting out of metaphor.

        (c) A game's players may play with and/or against each other, or against a common problem. Competitive games tend to be win/lose affairs, with unique results and closed goals. Problem games tend to be win/win affairs, open systems without unique solutions. In a competitive game, one learns skills to use them; it is a training exercise in strategy and tactics, with direct value in the outside world. In a problem game, one uses skills to learn through them; it is a transformation in the light of one’s internal aesthetic, and its main product is self-knowledge, however real the problem may be.

        (d) A game may be thought of as focused in the sense that it has a goal or ideal, when its organizers have a specific principle, method, or body of information to teach through it. Or a game may be open, without predetermined answers, strategies, or configurations, when its purpose is to develop effective problem-solving skills.

        (e)  A game may involve free play, to explore the basic interplay of variables. Or it may involve controlled play, to illustrate the results of particular stimuli. (Such games usually involve structurable problems with known components.) A training game is a simulation reproducing information and decision-making in the larger world.

        (f) A simulation game may lead its players to identify with the game and role objectives. Such games are useful to analyze interactions and their effects on problem situations. Or it may lead them to identify with role personalities and their motivations. Such games are useful to understand decision-making. Both kinds of identification are necessary to experiment with alternatives to real-time planning and decision processes.

Essential Properties

        Finally, some essential properties of games as learning tools bear summary;

        (I)  Games are tangible ways to represent and deal with the abstract.

        (II)  Games are a special ground of learning, midway between first-hand, literal experience and the second-hand or worse digestion of other people's experience, abstracted and diluted.

        (III)  This ground has many special properties. Some are summarized above. Another is that through games the processes of real roles and conflicts, communities and problems, may be studied and experimented with, without the costs and risks of the real experience.

        (IV)  Games involve the acting-out of possibilities within a clarifying set of limits. They permit us to grasp what is normally too distant, quick, unconscious, or complex in real experience.

        (V)  Games are often the only effective way to teach active decision-making and cooperative problem-solving skills in particular circumstances.




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