Let us consider the scope of our terms. We can throw the term 'game' to a very wide extreme, but certainly anything which fits that category will contain actions (or verbs, if you will) under any circumstance, and these actions imply there are activities. 'Gameplay' is trickier, as we know from research that people use the term broadly to mean 'enjoyment of a game', and we know that different people enjoy a game in different ways.
One of the more pronounced splits in how
people play is the split between goal-oriented players and process-oriented
When someone approaches play in a goal-oriented fashion:
- They generally want to know what they are expected to do next.
- They strive to complete tasks that are set them (often in return for rewards, but sometimes the completion of the task is a sufficient reward).
- There is a drive to complete all tasks, although it may not be sufficient to ensure all tasks are completed, depending upon the individual.
Conversely, when someone approaches play in a process-oriented fashion:
- There should always be activities that can be undertaken.
- Activities are pursued as long as the activities are enjoyable.
- All activities may be tried, but there is no drive to complete all activities.
Looking at the situation in this way exposes an essential connection between the activity (or process) and the outcome (or goal). Clearly, every activity has an outcome and thus there is a certain way of looking at the problem which says every process has a goal, and every goal implies a process.
But is this approach consistent with how we use the term 'goal'? I suggest that an essential property of how we use the term 'goal' is that a successful outcome is not guaranteed. We wake up every morning after the process of sleep, but waking up is not the goal of sleep - it is merely its inevitable conclusion.
This opens up the possibility of process without goals. Can we find games of this nature? Of course. Certain games of ilinx (vertigo) - such as rollercoasters - are entirely experiential. One climbs on the rollercoaster for the thrill of the ride (the excitement and fear inherent in the process), not with any goal in mind. We could fabricate a context in which 'goal' applied to rollercoaster, such as 'our goal is to have fun', but at this point goal has been extended to the point where the term is essentially meaningless, or at least stretched very thin indeed.
Similarly, certain games of mimicry - such as improvisational theatre or narrative-based role-playing games - are equally experiential. One partakes in such play for the narrative experience (for the emotions or plot that results from the process of exercising our imagination), not with any set goal in mind, although short term goals may arise within the narrative. Again, we can fabricate a context in which 'goal' applies to the process of pure role-play, but to do so is to make the process the goal, and therefore to undermine the meaningfulness of the term goal. Not to mention that narrative-play need have no end, and even when an end to the story is reached, it was never the goal of the play to reach it.
It follows (within Caillois' schema at
least) that games with elements of agon (competition) and alea (chance)
inherently contain goals. One cannot have a competition without a goal
(victory), and one cannot have alea without a goal (a favourable outcome). If
one's definition of 'games' depends on the presence of these patterns of play,
then there is no gameplay without a goal. But if one's definition of 'games'
includes the more experiential play of vertigo and mimicry, there may be
process without goals.
At this point, a final warning is required. Goal-oriented players are abundant in the community of videogame players, and even process-oriented videogame players still play at times in a goal-oriented fashion. Normally, process and goals are conjoined, and special circumstances are required to break this connection. If your game does not provide explicit goals, if your game does not hold out the promise of tasks to complete (and rewards therein) you are taking a terrible risk that your game will simply not appeal to a sufficiently wide audience to make back its development costs.
We can build games without goals, and from an artistic perspective we probably should be making some just to counterbalance the abundance of games that are build around explicit goals, but the focus of most videogame players still lies within the conventional realm of games, where process and goal are inseparable partners.
This post is part of the May Round Table at Man Bytes Blog, on the subject of goals and games. You can learn more about it here. If you have some thoughts on the subject, why not contribute a post yourself?
The opening image is by Tom McNease, and I found it here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.