September 3, 2008

Representation in games

I have about ONE BRILLION things I intend to post here according to my various projects and schemes, but this isn’t one of them, this is just a passing thought.

I’m always interested to read people’s ideas about how games work – the ideal of the story game still intrigues me, and there are lots of people on the internet pontificating about such things these days. It often seems like a good first step to grounding a discussion of the workings of games is to create a taxonomy, or at least an analytic model, that can deal with the variety of games and categorize them by function. Something Linnaean. I’ve tried to do this a few times and will no doubt try again. It’s hard to do well.

Anyway, I think people get this stuff wrong a lot because they fail to make a basic distinction at the outset, between the raw logistics of a game and its representational content. Some games have a representational component, some don’t. But even those that don’t often sort of do. The little man in Parcheesi is sort of a man, isn’t he? Going for a walk of some kind?

Off the top of my head, here are some games that really and truly have no representational component:
Arm Wrestling, Darts, Golf, Pool, Scrabble, Crossword puzzles, Sudoku.

Here are some games that BASICALLY have no representational component but it might be amusing to argue that they do:
War, Go Fish, Checkers, Poker, Othello. Baseball? Football?

Here are some games that have very tenuous representational components that are nonetheless significant parts of their charm:
Chess, Minesweeper, Capture the Flag.

Here are some games where the representational components and the logistics are about equally important to the appeal of the game:
Chutes and Ladders, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Monopoly, Risk, most board games.

Essentially all computer games exist beyond this point; i.e. their representational component is relatively more important than their actual logistics. Or at least they coexist in far more elaborately negotiated arrangements than anything above. Sports video games are a bizarre layering, where the idea is to make the players feel that they are playing one game when in fact they are playing another that is a representation of it, which is itself only represented by the abstract electronic entities that the players manipulate, which is all representational in relation to what they are actually doing which is moving their thumbs. It is difficult to talk intelligently about what’s going on in such a game without breaking down those layers.

More to come on this? I don’t know. Please, commenters, pick apart my scheme, or categorize some more games for me. Or speculate about what the next several categories are (Super Mario Bros. is less dependent on representation than King’s Quest?) which I’m not quite ready to do yet.


  1. Two minutes later and I’m posting my own first comment because I have a new thought – maybe it’s the specificity of the representation that ought to be attended to, and not something like “how important it is to the experience.” The circles in checkers hold just as much potential to be anthropomorphized as the little people in chess; they just aren’t as inherently specific. A player who likes darts mostly because he thinks of them as a fleet of airplanes isn’t wrong, he’s just bringing the specificity himself. Maybe something like that.

    Posted by broomlet on |

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