Reading Response #6
to Artful Design • Chapter 6: “Game Design”

Jack Xiao
MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University

Reading Response: Reflection - Games as (a) Mirror of our Humanness

I consider myself to be a quietly competitive person. Every activity I participate in, I always (often subconsciously) find a way to turn it into some kind of competition, whether it is against other people or (in many cases) against myself. So, thinking the meaning and design of games really resonated with a lot of my experiences. Most notably:

- Principle 6.5: Reflection - Games as [a] Mirror of our Humanness

was especially relevant for me. Perhaps the reason why games are so effective at providing unique perspectives on our lives is because we take part in so many games, intentionally or unintentionally. So many things in our lives are referred to as game. When someone is a smooth talker and possesses strong social charm, we say that they have “game”. In dating and relationships, when someone is (maybe too carefully) trying to balance commitment with remaining aloof, you might say that they are “playing games” with you. As with most (if not all) living entities, we generally adhere to the guiding principles of life and evolution, where the fittest prosper. And naturally that turns everything we do into a competition. Even in situations where there may not be a clear way to define what the game is, we find ourselves walking out of many situations having gauged some semblance of victory or defeat. And yet, this stands in stark contrast to the idea of play, which is defined by Callois in Definition 6.9 as “free, voluntary, uncertain, unproductive by choice; it occurs in a separate space, isolated and protected from the rest of life.” So, in a way, the phrase “playing a game” almost seems like an oxymoron. The free, voluntary, and isolated nature of “play” directly contradicts our usual competitive definition of a game. And yet the two concepts somehow work together. And this brings us to an important question:

What is a game?

Merriam-Webster’s first definition for a game is: “a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other”. This fits in quite well with many of the competitive games we take part in, whether it be sports or social interaction (or even activities where we compete against ourselves). However, Merriam-Webster’s second definition for game is an “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement”. This definition seems to align itself mores with the “play” side of things. And I think this distinction is important, especially when it comes to the choices we make when designing games.

We naturally “gameify” so much of our lives, and so we subconsciously do quite a lot of game design without even knowing it. We create unspoken rules of interaction and means of keeping score, from carefully calculating how long to wait before responding to a text message or pushing the limits for how long we can wait before starting (and hopefully finishing) and assignment right before the deadline. So much of the unintentional game designing that we do gears heavily toward the very real, very stressful competitive side of games. So, when artfully designing something that is truly meant to embody the principles of “play”, we ought to deviate a little bit from our instinct toward the competition. This isn’t to say that playing can’t be competitive; a little bit of competition and adrenaline can help us get into the flow (see Principle 6.14). But victory and winning should not be the ultimate goal, as it is with many of the games we play. In fact, I might go as far as to say that competitiveness, whether it is with ourself or with others, is the source of much of the stress and worry that we experience in the real world. In order to create a free, voluntary, isolated, and protected environment for play that amuses us and distracts us from the rest of life, we need a relief from the very real and overwhelming games that we have no choice but to participate in every day. And what better way to do that than a different, more artful kind of game that is carefully designed for play?