Yeah…I know! It seems kinda like a ridiculous question doesn’t it? But it’s a hurdle I’ve had to overcome lately and thought I’d share my amateur academic conclusions with you!
Ever since I read Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of what a game is…I’ve been smitten by it!
“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004).
I’ve always, however, had a problem with excluding ‘fun’. Fair enough, Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun really takes care of that, by proving that these attributes are actually fun. But I’ll get back to that at a later point – the thought is still not fully developed in my dark dust infested mind of messy infinite stupid thoughts.
But this is where I start to have problems! They also introduce Johann Huizinga‘s ‘Magic Circle’ (1955) to describe our state of mind and being as we are playing a game. “In a very basic sense, the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place”. Salen and Zimmerman’s definitions seem to indicate that we leave all ‘real world’ rules behind, as we step into another ‘magic’ rule system. A game is then another ‘world’ where there are different rules of space, existence and play. The player agrees to these rules when entering the ‘magic circle’. But what about games that are “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” but the players themselves have the freedom to make their own rules as well? Are they then creating their own meta game outside of this definition? The amazing Edward Castronova, who defines MMORPGs as synthetic worlds (at least that’s my impression) eloquently describes them like so:
“The synthetic world is an organism surrounded by a barrier. Within the barrier, life proceeds according to all kinds of fantasy rules involving space flight, fireballs, invisibility, and so on. Outside the barrier life proceeds according to the ordinary rules. The membrane is the “magic circle” within which the rules are different (Huizinga 1938/1950). The membrane can be considered a shield of sorts, protecting because it is necessary that everyone who goes there adhere to the different set of rules. In the case of synthetic worlds, however, this membrane is actually quite porous. Indeed it cannot be sealed completely; people are crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying their behavioural assumptions and attitudes with them. As a result, the valuation of things in cyberspace becomes enmeshed in the valuation of things outside cyberspace”. (Castronova, 2005).
As much as I love the ‘synthetic world’ definition, I feel it’s missing a few things as well. It’s really almost perfect! But gameplay kinda gets lost in it. It is my contention that these MMORPGs are in fact playgrounds, not games. In a playground you find several ‘systems’ of play and you freely (or not so freely) enter into them, but you never leave yourself behind, outside the gates of the playground. Your body, soul and mind come with you into the playground, but there are certain rules that attain specifically to the playground space. The same is true of MMORPGs. We bring our emotions and mind with us into MMORPGs, these are not left behind and are frequently used in the actual gameplay. MMORPGs are playgrounds that contain traditional (what an odd word to use) gameplay elements, just as the seesaw and swings are available for play in children’s playgrounds, so is gameplay in MMORPGs.
“MMORPGs are not a new form of play as much as a new communication medium that affords new forms of social identity and social interaction” - Nick Yee, 2006
Although the fabulous Mr. Yee makes a relevant point, I don’t really agree with him either. Most MMORPGs still have the ‘gaming’ factor. It has indeed become ‘a new communication medium’ but only through the act of playing. Although it is highly possible to enter MMORPGs and focus on the social factor, the act of gameplay is required! One can take on a new identity, but only within the strictest limits of the game space (and beyond).
Lost? Yeah…I know, I’ve pretty much managed to confuse myself as well!
I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that MMORPGs go way beyond any definition of ‘game’, but they still include gameplay. Therefore I choose to define them more as a playground that has gameplay elements built into it! There’s just so much going on in these worlds (jepp…definately believe they are worlds) and the experience is way more immersive than ‘just playing a game’. The communication is real and something that we bring with us. The wonderful creativity of these gamers is real…their choices are real…there’s just too much reality going on for it just to be gameplay.
Urgh! Who am I kidding? I don’t really know what the hell I’m on about!