It is as if you were playing chess: Is it a game?

While working on the course I teach on game making this semester, I got to thinking about the old, (bitter?) chestnut of game definitions, and I found myself wondering whether a pseudo-game such as It is as if you were playing chess meets the definition of a game or not. So, with the help of the excellent Jesper Juul, who wrote a nicely modular and clear definition of ‘game’, let’s see…

1. Fixed rules.

Seems legit. We definitely have rules, even visible in the above screenshot from the game – the rules are that you drag circles into destinations.

2. Variable and quantifiable outcomes.

Uh-oh? So this gets at the reason I thought this might be an interesting exercise, because It is as if you were playing chess is a ‘game’ that contains a game in some sense. Although the player isn’t specifically aware of it, the chess game she is going through the motions of (or ‘performing’) has a quantifiable outcome (a draw, or black or white wins). Furthermore, it’s variable because the chess game you’re playing through is randomised (not that you influence this outcome as a player).

Even furthermore, if we look at the meta-game of performance, we could claim there are variable outcomes, because the game always ends on an implied emotional tone, randomly generated by the game’s grammar. (Although the emotional tone implied at the end does not necessarily match the actual result of the game being performed, which is unknown to the game in the first place.)

_3. Valorisation of the outcome.

_ Following on from the above, it’s clear that the outcomes are valorised as well to the extent that in the underlying chess game it’s desirable to win (presumably), and to the extent that the final emotional tone implies a valence above the ending of the game, even if it’s maybe up to the interpretation of the player whether that implication seems to be “good” or “bad”.

_4. Player effort.

_ This one is a problem I think. The obvious actions you take in It is as if you were playing chess are trivial, just dragging a circle to a destination. On the other hand, the performative element of the game, striking the appropriate poses with your body and expressions with your face, isn’t trivial at all and could be said to involve player effort. In a cute way, we might say that the player’s performance even “influences the outcome of the game”, because it will shape the player’s affect and emotional connection to the game’s imagined end over time. On the other hand, Juul’s definition doesn’t seem to strictly require having an influence over the outcome (e.g. games of chance).

_5. Attachment of the player to the outcome.

_ This seems entirely possible to claim for the game. Even when pretending to play chess, we might imagine that one wants to pretend to win? Or perhaps we could even become attached to other performative outcomes, like appearing to lose, or appearing to go through a great struggle during play. Such outcomes are admittedly mostly defined by the player, but it’s in collaboration with the emotional and spatial cues provided by the game.

_6. Negotiable consequences.

_ It seems fairly clear that It is as if you were playing chess could be “optionally assigned real-life consequences” – its actions/moves are indeed “predominantly harmless”, as all you do is move shapes around on a screen and do some acting (unless you perhaps find the acting itself traumatic I suppose). So you could negotiate any kind of consequences for the game you might want – you might agree to act as if your imagined result of the game affects your whole day afterwards, for example, or you might bet money on the game’s outcome, deciding whether you won or lost at the end!

So having gone through with that exercise, it seems like It is as if you were playing chess is a game. So there?

Update: Jesper Juul says it’s not a game, my world is in ruins around me. But I’ve always kind of liked post-apocalyptic settings, so it’s okay?

1 September 2016
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