Strange liberties

The following post is sort of a reply to this post written by Sirlin. Although, on second thought, I’d say it’s more of an analysis on some of the topics he addresses. Please go ahead and read it all before continuing here. I mean it.

Alright? We are all in the same page here? Well, if I read that post correctly, Sirlin disputes the status of Train as a proper game based on a few of it’s characteristics:

  1. It’s not replayable.
  2. It’s not released to the public (the physical game itself and the rules) on purpose.
  3. It has a set of rules open to interpretation.

Interesting. Let’s start with the boring one shall we?

Since when did replayability enter the definition of the word “game”? Chances are, if the designer’s aim is to communicate a message instead of focusing on “the fun element”, wouldn’t that implicitly mean that said game won’t be very replayable? Then, by Sirlin’s logic, games can’t have communication of ideas as a main goal without ceasing to be games. I know I might have stretched his logic there, and I’m sure this is not what he had in mind when he mentioned it on his posts, but the idea of replayability as a defining factor for games rings hollow to me no matter how much I look at it.

Brenda Brathwaite Train Board Game
This is the game in question. Yes, those are trains and railroad tracks resting on a window frame with some of the glasses broken .... your guess is as good as mine.

Concerning that second characteristic, I can safely say that, in my opinion, games don’t have to be public to earn the right to be called “games”. I have made games for myself in the past and I have never shown them to anybody else, but that doesn’t revoke their status as “games”. I mean, sure, they are all garbage, but they are still games! This is pretty straightforward though, there’s not that much to think about. Either you think that a game needs a large audience to be called a game or not, there’s not that much to it.

Plus, Brenda has a very, very good reason for not releasing the rules and the game itself to the masses: It would lose almost all the necessary context and surprise factor. How else can you get people to play a game about the holocaust without them knowing about it beforehand? How do you pretend to maintain the potency of the context while mass producing the game?

Anyway, those two characteristics didn’t convince me at all as you have probably noticed by now. However, the third characteristic did  get me thinking: that’s a very good topic right there.

It’s a given that videogames, due to their programmatic nature, can’t exist without firm rules. It’s impossible to make a vague rule and open it to interpretation when there’s absolutely no interpretation going on whatsoever. Sure, you can interpret the meaning of a rule, but you can’t interpret the rule itself. That is, until you break free from that programatic restriction and design a game with real materials and not their digital counterparts.

In any board game, the player will have to read the rules from an instruction manual, interpret them, and if any rule is open to interpretation, talk to everybody else in the group to reach a consensus. That, in itself isn’t particularly interesting, I think we can all agree on that. But Brenda took this characteristic that is intrinsic of any board game and took advantage of it: She designed specifically vague rules to encourage discussion of the rule-set, and as a consequence, get the players [more] involved with how the game plays.

Now, this, to me, doesn’t nullify the status of “game” for Train, because of a simple reason: the rules were designed to be completed and interpreted by the players, and so, it just means more control for the players. The talking stick is shared between the designer and the players in a particularly non-orthodox way.

Yeah, I know, that wasn’t very easy to follow… well, to put it in other terms: It’s an interesting inversion. Take GTA for example. In that game, the rules of the world are immovable, but the player can do whatever he wants within the game. In Train, it’s the exact opposite: the players can’t do whatever they want and they have to follow the rules, but some of the rules have to be filled in by the players as the ambiguities surface.

One thing is for sure, this particular characteristic of Train is the one thing that makes me seriously think about the very definition of the word “game”. If Train falls inside the spectrum covered by the word “game”, then you can bet that it’s at an extreme point in the spectrum.

Does it fall inside of the spectrum? Does it fall outside? … Is it a game or not? Frankly, I don’t know if I care, but if you ask me, yes, it’s a game. It takes strange liberties with the rule-set, yes, but that doesn’t turn it into something else for me, particularly since I don’t know what this “something else” might be.

[Image “tehnically borrowed” from wikipedia]

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