Sometimes, a particular statement is heard so often that people begin to believe in the underlying claim without question. One such problematic assertion is the oft repeated Sid Meier misquote “a game is a series of interesting decisions”. Either this statement is in error, or it refers to a particular subset of games, because it categorically does not apply to everything that we call a game.
Game designers, and people interested in games in general, often like to draw upon this definition (which I’m reasonably certain Mr. Meier did not intend to be used in this way) as if it could be used for reliable guidance. For instance, the April edition of Game Developer magazine has an article by Soren Johnson which notes in passing “A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, and the “stuff” in the game is there not just to fill space but to let you execute decisions.” Soren’s conclusion is fine – but his assumption about what constitutes a game design draws on the Meier misquote and seems to predicate it. “After all,” he notes later in the piece, “strategy games are the original games. Humans first discovered gameplay with backgammon and chess and go...” Sure – provided “gameplay” means “the play of strategy games”.
In fact, what constitutes “the original games” depends upon what you define as games – consider, for instance, what “the original games” would be if you consider (as many people do) a sport to be a kind of game and not (as many other people do) a category disjunct from ‘games’: challenges involving running, throwing spears and similar athletic feats predate the oldest strategy game by millennia. (I might be inclined to go further and suggest the oldest game is Chase, which predates humanity and is probably at least 100 million years old if not older, but then I have a very open definition of what constitutes a game.) There is nothing wrong with Soren’s article – which, after all, is about strategy games – but it is a helpful indicator of how canonical the Meier misquote has become.
In the past, I have attempted to refute this particular definition by pointing to games like Snakes and Ladders and Beggar My Neighbour/Strip Jack Naked which include no decisions but which are still considered games, but this is open to the criticism (as has been raised in the comments here in the past) that these are simple games intended for children. However, I believe that my objection becomes crystal clear when one considers Guitar Hero (or any similar game) – these rhythm action games do not rely upon a series of interesting decisions, for the most part they have no decisions of any kind! You are being challenged to perform a sequence of actions, and judgement does not form a part of this play at all. The success of Guitar Hero hopefully makes it clear not only that a game need not be a series of interesting decisions, but that thinking about games in these terms narrows one’s assumptions of what a game could be, and thus artificially limits the potentiality of game design.
Throughout this piece, I’ve referred to the proposition in question as a misquote; I have reason to believe that the original Sid Meier quote was closer to “a good game is a series of interesting choices” (if anyone can attribute this to a source, please let me know in the comments!) Sid wasn’t trying to define what constitutes a game at all – he was making a claim about what made for a good game. Unsurprisingly, given that Mr. Meier is an acknowledged master at making strategy games, his comment makes most sense when applied to this limited domain. But outside of games of strategy, it is utterly misleading for game designers (or anyone else for that matter!) to think in such narrow terms.
I believe the videogames industry has an ongoing problem, in that a large proportion of the people who influence the game design process prefer Strategic play to other kinds of play. But as the audience for games has exploded into the mass market, strategy games (and other forms of Strategic play, such as adventure games) have become niche titles, with even the most popular titles selling no more than a few million units at most, while games with a wider appeal can rack up more than ten million units (as Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, GTA: San Andreas, Guitar Hero and The Sims all demonstrate in wildly different ways).
A good strategy game may well be a series of interesting decisions – but a good game is something that meets the play needs of its audience. If you want to make games for the new videogames market, you’d better start striving to understand just what those diverse play needs might involve.