Ludology: What makes a game a game?
Updated: Jun 8
When it comes to designing Tabletop games there are many things that should be considered. Of course, the focus should be on mechanics and how the game is played. But is there a way to focus your own view, to help analyse what makes these games work? The answer, in short, is Ludology.
The word Ludology comes from the Latin word for game ‘Ludus’ and it predominantly focusses on the study of games in general and how they are played.
But let us dig into the title of this article with a ludologists definition of what a game is. Keith Burgen, a prominent games designer and theorist. He defines a game as “a system of rules in which agents compete by making ambiguous decisions.” (Burgen-, 2012) This definition does an excellent job of condensing all games down to one sentence. Of course, all games work like this; the agents in question are often the players but, in the case of a game with a single player, the agents could also be a system of rules to follow, or a computer offering decisions to combat the players.
The best example of this, I feel, is Chess. It covers the definition perfectly. The agents are the players, 2 people playing against each other, their decisions are made to manoeuvre their opponent into a decision they do not necessarily want to make. But are these decisions Ambiguous? The word Ambiguous is defined as ‘Open to more than one interpretation, not having on obvious meaning’. I would argue, that from the first move in chess, the ambiguity of the action diminishes exponentially. The first move in chess is completely ambiguous, with no real way of knowing the players intention, from there every move that follows is less ambiguous to the last, as the players plans are slowly revealed. By this logic, does a game of chess become less of a game as time goes on?
The answer to this is of course Chess continues to be a game, the ambiguity of the decisions that are made does not matter. What does matter is that these decisions have meaning. That is what allows people to enjoy the games that they play. Whether it be a physical tabletop game or a digital videogame, what matters is that when a player makes a decision, it has to carry meaning, not just for the player, but for the game as a whole. In their book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define a game as a “Process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant from which meaning emerges.” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). This definition helps us define all different kinds of games, even games that are more suited to artistic fixtures. As long as these games have meaning, and the player can extrapolate it, then we can define it as a game.
But what do we mean when we say a game has ‘Meaning’? On the right here we have a hierarchy of interactive
systems, illustrated by Keith Burgen. Each of these systems helps add meaning to a game. Now, let us look at meaning in a tabletop game, specifically on one of my favourite 4X games Scythe.
The game itself does not have puzzles as such, but it uses mechanics to add problems for the player. Players have to manage several different resources, as well as move their pieces to combat opponent and stop them from winning. These puzzles are present because the game inherently has competition simply by telling the players that there is a ‘winner’ That is where we start to conjure meaning in this game, knowing where you are in the games standing means something, and it can make you want to perform better, to make better decisions, which then makes your decisions more meaningful in the future turns of the game.
Now let us look at a slightly more well-known game, Dungeons & Dragons. Again, it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I love this game, not only from an area of enjoyment, but also from a mechanical standpoint. To anyone that has spent a great deal of time under a rock, Dungeons & Dragons is a game that is commonly played in a group, with one person taking the reins as the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM takes the players and the characters the players make through a story of their own devising.
I am using this game as our next comparison as it uses several different ways of conveying meaning. The game is incredibly open ended in how it can be played, and as such Meaning can come through in a multitude of ways. One group for example may prefer a combat heavy playthrough, so meaning is generated through players increasing the power of their characters, beating increasingly formidable creatures. Another group could get their enjoyment from uncovering more of the story that the DM is producing, so meaning can now come from the story the DM creates, or even as the players own characters gradually evolve through character progression, as opposed to just numerical power in the previous example.
For the long and short of it, Dungeons & Dragons can conjure it is meaning from a multitude of mechanics that the game offers in books that are released roughly every quarter. But these mechanics do not have to come from the books themselves, they can just as easily come from the players themselves, creating new and interesting ways for the players to acquire meaning via the mechanics they create.
In summary, there are many definitions out there for Games, and how to quantify them, the person I find does this best is Jane McGonigal who wrote “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” (McGonigal, 2012)
This definition is very totalitarian, much like our first definition from Keith Burgen. But this time we have more to work with, every game has a goal, and a set of rules that are set out to achieve it. Every game also has a Feedback System, this is where our meaning comes from, the feedback the game gives us is what the designer wants us to see or feel. In the case of Scythe, the feedback we receive is the result(s) we obtain throughout the game and at the games end, showing our achievement.
In Dungeons & Dragons our feedback is more progressive, every time we play, we are rewarded with more narrative, or perhaps other methods, like the levelling up of the characters or the obtaining of some magical relic.
The final piece, Voluntary Participation is where things get more interesting, no one is ever forced to play a game, some people may not get the same enjoyment, but the feedback, the rules, the goal are always present, ready for whatever player wishes to play it. If the players are forced to play games, then they may not care for whatever meaning the game is trying to present, they may not care to achieve the games goal, or pay attention to the rules.
But let us bring this article back to our question; What Makes a Game a Game? As we have discussed there are many different ways that a game can be defined, I feel it is most important to consider the intentions you have when creating your game. How is your game going to provide its own meaning?
· Does it focus on mechanics and the spirit of competition like Scythe?
· Will you provide a framework for players to conjure their own meaning, like in Dungeons & Dragons?
· Do you have a feedback system in place? Something to focus your players on during play.
· But most importantly, do people want to play what you create? Do they enjoy what you have created? Because, at the end of the day, I believe that is what makes a game, something that people can interact with, something that they want to play.