The Incompleat Gamester



2. What's in a game?

by David Parlett

From my introductory chapter to the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of Oriental Games curated by the Asia Society, New York, 2004.
Copyright © 2004-2017 by David Parlett

Other features of play in general also apply to games in particular, so let us now turn to other defining features of a game.

Winning and losing

A formal game is a species of play in which two or more players contend to achieve an agreed objective which only one of them can ultimately do. It produces by definition a winner and one or more losers, and winning is the end of a game, both in the sense of coming to a finish and of that being its aim or objective. Furthermore, what constitutes a win or a loss is intrinsic - it is defined by the rules of the game. If it is decided extrinsically - as for example by a judge or an audience - then it is not a game but a competition. Games and competitions are just two of many different types of contest.

It might be objected that an activity like solitaire or patience is hardly a contest as there is only one player. Yet the element of contest is certainly there in a game of card solitaire, for you may be said to be competing against fate, as represented by the way the cards come out after you shuffle the pack, or perhaps against yourself playing the same game on different occasions. The game of Solitaire played with marbles on a board contains no such random elements but still is still referred to as a game. Curiously, neither doing jigsaw puzzles nor solving crosswords is normally described as playing a game, though they are both equally obvious examples of "play". Here it must be admitted that, just as in one case we have slipped unobtrusively from the field of games to that of competitions, so in this case we have slipped into the field of puzzles. In fact, formal games, competitions and puzzles must be regarded as three overlapping semantic circles within the larger field of play.

You might also object that there are such things as cooperative games. This may be countered by noting that a cooperative game is merely a solitaire or one-player game played by a corporate body instead of an individual. The players are cooperatively competing against the contingencies of the game, or against themselves on different occasions.

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Unlike play in general, a game is a structured set of procedures defined by a code of rules to which the players, by an act of free will, agree to cede their free will by faithfully submitting themselves. Disagreements may arise as to what the rules actually are (it is well-known that hardly anyone plays Monopoly strictly in accordance with the published instructions28), but the very arousal of heated disagreement demonstrates how earnestly the players expect there to be some sort of ultimate authority that will command their allegiance and bring them unitedly to heel.

The agreement of the players to the applicable rules constitutes the ultimate validation of those rules. [...] There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on.29

Even the cheat acknowledges the existence of rules: he merely tries to win unfairly by circumventing them. The real bane of the games-player's life is not the cheat but the spoilsport - the one who doesn't really care what the rules are or whether they win or not, because, when all's said and done, "It's only a game".30

There is a western misperception about games that needs correcting before rules can be properly understood - namely, that authority resides within the covers of a book, or at least a printed rule-sheet. Actually, it cannot be overemphasized that the vast majority of games played throughout the world are not book games but folk games. Games are no exception to the rule that every local community imposes its own personality on its cultural heritage, a rule more readily observed in costume and cuisine, or song and dance. Games certainly require submission to a code of rules, but those of folk games exist only in the collective mind of a circle of players in constant touch with one another. Such rules are primarily transmitted by observation and word of mouth, and can only be arbitrated, where necessary, by consultation with older or more experienced players. Neighbouring areas may play games that, although apparently identical to the outside observer, nevertheless incorporate subtle differences of layout or rules of play - a circumstance well illustrated today in the vast range of similar race games and hunt games played throughout India.

Book games belong to highly urbanized, literate and administratively centralized nation states. Besidesproprietary games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, which can be credited to named inventors andpublishers, they also include traditional games such as Chess, Bridge and Backgammon, which originated as folk games of unknown authorship but have subsequently hardened into book games, equipped with a code of "official rules" available in print emanating from an authoritative body, such as the World Bridge Federation or the Fédération Internationale des Echecs. The growth of computer games and on-line play has further strengthened the urge to regulation, thus reinforcing the misperception of universal fixity. As a matter of fact, it is even the case that most non-proprietary western games are themselves folk games. Nobody learns Noughts & Crosses, for example, from a book, though that is partly because it is so simple. Such "folk" as students and soldiers play many card games that have yet to reach the pages of a book, and may never come to enjoy the dubious luxury of official regulation. Nevertheless, westerners do have a marked tendency to expect " real" games to have "official rules", and are largely unaware of the existence and widespread popularity of such folk games as are born and thrive and die at a sub-literary level. It is important to remain aware of this fundamental fact of life when approaching the world of Asian games.

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A characteristic of play in general that bears especially on games in particular is that of uncertainty or unpredictability. Whereas unpredictability is an accidental property of play and experimentation in general, it is absolutely essential to the definition of a game. This is inevitable, since only one person can win, and if you knew for sure who it was going to be there would be no point in playing the game. For one does not play to win as a sure thing. The pleasure of the game is inseparable from the risk of losing.31 All games therefore involve some element of chance. In sedentary games it may be embodied in the equipment, such as the roll of dice or the shuffling of cards; in sports, it may be influenced by irregularities of terrain or the incalculable speed of events (by a species of "Butterfly Effect"32); in the most rational games of strategy, even, it is simulated by the unpredictability of an opponent's plans and reactions and may be effected by such extrinsic factors as stress, fatigue or dyspepsia.

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Many games counter the element of unpredictability with the antidote of controllability - in other words, a degree of skill. It is the conflict between chance and skill that gives a game that sense of suspense and tension which keeps its players, not to mention its onlookers, totally absorbed in its progress and anxious as to its outcome. Central to this concept is the factor of player interaction - the ability to increase one's own powers of progress by restricting or impeding those of an opponent. The less interaction there is, the more a game becomes a competition rather than a contest.

It is a moot point whether or not there is such a thing as skill at games in general, beyond such generic skills as decision-making and management of resources, but there are certainly more different types of skill that may be engaged in play than there are types of chance. In fact, people quite specifically choose to play whatever game it is that best exercises their particular skill or skills. As to the degree of skill involved, it may be very large, as in Chess, or very small, as in Parcheesi/Ludo.

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Abstraction. Huizinga stressed the representative role of play, and Caillois regards representation - mimicry and role-play - as one of four distinct categories of the term. (Significantly, the word illusion derives from ludere, to play.) Fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons stray close to thesemantic borderlines of play-acting; Monopoly invites its players to regard themselves as property tycoons; even Chess is characterized as a war game, and was certainly overtly representational of the classical Indian army to its presumed originators. But a more significant distinction of games is that role-play is not essential to their definition, and that an increasing attachment to skill over chance accompanies a decreasing attachment to representational fictions. When Murray adopted a classification based on the view that games are typical of the early activities and occupations of man - the battle, the siege or hunt, the race, alinement [sic], arrangement, and counting",33 one is entitled to ask whether he meant that games were consciously devised as representations of existing activities, or was merely proposing conveniently descriptive terms based on obvious but post-hoc resemblances. No self-respecting Chess-player regards himself in the role of a military commander when actually playing the game, or perceives the chessmen as any more than abstract powers of movement and power given material form for the sake of convenience. Even in a game as representational as Monopoly, who really thinks of themselves as would-be property barons once they get stuck into the wheeling and dealing? After a while, "Free Parking" ceases to have any meaning, and just becomes a square on which nothing ever happens. Nor is this a peculiarly modern attitude. Whatever their origins, Wei-qi/Go has sustained its abstraction for thousands of years, Backgammon has nothing to do with foot-racing, and games of three-in-a-row will surely continue to absorb future generations of schoolchildren (not to mention jurors in Twelve Angry Men). A tendency to abstraction is a key feature of structured games, whereas most examples of informal play are impossible, or at least meaningless, if divorced from some conscious representation of, or reference to, real life. In this respect a game more closely resembles a piece of music - which may be abstract or programmatic - than une pièce de théâtre, which cannot realistically be anything but programmatic.

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