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Process without Goals

Tommcnease Can there be gameplay without goals? The question seems simple, but entangling its meaning entails some careful thought. 

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 players. 

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.


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"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."
One might contend that waking up is indeed a goal of sleep, since it is not by any means an inevitable conclusion. However, that it is not inevitable implies a state of health which isn't usual, and so could be discounted this one time.

Ah, the Hypnophobe's Gambit. ;) For me, at least, waking up is certainly not a goal state - it is, in fact, not a very welcome event at all. :D

Whereas I don't generally look forward to going to sleep (I tend to put it off), and am usually glad to waken (99/100 I get up as soon as I wake).

Which is odd, as I don't really enjoy being awake :-P

Both states have their benefits.

Still, the goal inherent to sleeping is to restore the body and brain so that you can function better once awake. Not the waking up itself... unless you have to be up because you're catching an early flight, I suppose.

Even then, wouldn't the goal be associated with the act of waking up, not sleeping?


"Still, the goal inherent to sleeping is to restore the body and brain so that you can function better once awake."

A question of perspective still intrudes. 'Goal' implies intent. Sleep is autonomic, so to ascribe goals to it at all may be presumptious. :)

Four comments, all about sleep. Clearly a contentious piece! ;)

Well I would only comment here whilst awake - so maybe the asleep part of me is jealous.

Now I have to go through a painful "I'm not a robot, honest!" test just to put this here. You'd think it would stop me....

Well - I'm in the belief that it isn't a game if it doesn't have any goals. I wouldn't call a rollercoaster a game either. But an enjoying activity that most definitely contains a form of play, but not within the space or rulesystem of a game.

Playing a computer game has so many different faces! I feel gameplay definitely needs to be split into these two categories, gameplay enjoyment and gameplay goals. Because, let's face it, I don't think gold farming would be such a hit if 'farming' were fun. I don't know - do you know of anyone who actually enjoys doing repetitive tasks over and over again - yet we do it - because it is part of the work for our goals, which makes it highly addictive. In the meantime however, gamers take breaks from their goals - what do they do then? Explore, socialise a.s.o.? What do they do for fun in the gaming space? Because playing a game does not necessarily mean that you're having fun. It means that you're communicating with a set of gameplay rules. GTA, for example, was so great (at least in my opinion) - because the goals were fun, challenging and hard - but if they didn't have 'fun' stuff to do inbetween when you started back at the hospital AGAIN I wouldn't have played it that much!

Sorry - I'm on a time limit here - just letting myself ramble before I shut down the computer for the night. Hope I'm making some sort of sense!!

Have an excellent and adventurous weekend!


"Well - I'm in the belief that it isn't a game if it doesn't have any goals. I wouldn't call a rollercoaster a game either."

I'm open to definitions of 'game' as requiring goals, but it seems too limiting to my own tastes. Tabletop role-playing games are the breaking point for me - they can exist without explicit goals, and I cannot consider them anything other than games. :)

The thing for me is that most definitions of 'game' run into problems. The "interesting choices" approach, for instance, runs into problems with games like Begger-my-Neighbour, which are deterministic, but still obviously games.

I would generally consider a rollercoaster more toy than game myself, but it's an interesting case, as what do you have to do to a rollercoaster to make it a game? What if it branches and you can choose which way it goes? Does that make it a game? What if the rollercoaster is inside a virtual world? What, in general, must one do to a rollercoaster before it becomes a game?

"do you know of anyone who actually enjoys doing repetitive tasks over and over again"

It depends on the task, but yes, I know players who play through whole games from beginning to end repetitively, and enjoy it too!

Thanks for the ramble!

I am a bit of a new comer to the BotRT, so I'm taking it light this time around. It is interesting that you approach things from a goal/process orientation. Is there a particular reason for doing so? I have always considered certain process orientations as simply types of goals... perhaps my definition of 'goals' is too broad?

Marcus: The subject of this round table was goals, and my first thought was: 'are there games without goals?' which in turn lead me to look at the issue through the process/goal dichotomy.

The trouble with the term 'goal', as I attempt to touch upon here, is that it can be made implicit to any activity that it must have goals... but to do so robs 'goals' somewhat of its meaning. (Similiarly if you view process orientation as goals, I suppose).

As for a particular reason for choosing this perspective - nothing more than this was the approach that came to me at the time. I was trying to tease out interesting distinctions, I suppose.

Best wishes, and thanks for your comment!

"one cannot have alea without a goal (a favourable outcome)"

I disagree. Look at the 'magic 8-balls' and virtual equivalents. A group of friends and I whiled away a pleasurable half-hour or so asking an 8-ball various questions about each other. No 'goal' other than 'to elicit funny responses' which is as loose as the goal 'to have fun'.

Regarding the question of what a rollercoaster is, as it's entirely passive and without any real interaction, I consider it simply an 'experience' or a ride.

I personally believe that a game must contain goals. The 'blank card game' and goal-free RPG-ing are, to me, simply forms of play. But it's a distinction that not everyone would agree with, I know.

Behrooz: your Magic-8 Ball example is interesting - but surely the goal at each stage of this 'game' is to receive an aleatory answer to each question asked? I suppose my assumption behind this is that the player hopes to recieve a positive answer at each 'turn'. If the questions asked are intended to amuse, then I would tend to agree with you that we have moved beyond explicit goals, but at this point I can also argue that we have moved beyond alea, at least as Caillois defines it. :)

Regarding the rollercoaster issue, I reiterate my previous question: what would one have to do to a rollercoaster ride before you would be content to consider it a game? (See my response to Linn, above).

Consider also this interpretation of the rollercoaster experience in game terms: if you patiently wait long enough, you get to ride the rollercoaster (win), otherwise you give up and go elsewhere (lose). It's a test of patience! :)

You are not alone in believing that a game must contain goals, and I freely admit I cast my definition of 'game' far wider than others do. In doing so, I feel the greatest confidence that the region I am dealing with contains everything that anyone might consider a game. ;)

Thanks for the comment!

You say elsewhere that Caillois "used the term 'game' in a very wide manner, applying it to all play activities." Are you using it in the same manner?

I ask because I feel like it's useful to have a distinction between 'play' and 'game', and for me it's much easier to imagine 'play' without goals than to imagine 'games' without them.

Yes, I suppose I am. :) Any structured play activity I am considering a 'game', and this is how I believe Caillois used it.

But I am wary about personally conflating games with goals, as I feel this over-represents the views of the existing game literate players, and under-represents players who would play videogames if only we designed them with their play needs in mind. :)

Fortunately, our languages are flexible enough to allow us to have multiple definitions... although it can be confusing to be sure!

Best wishes!

This really is an interesting thing to think about.
Most simple games, especially those with a lot of alea has goal. Let's take a dice game as an example.
If you watch a game, you will think that it is definitely played to achieve a goal.
But if you inspect how it is played and think in sessions instead of games it seems that people usually play game after game in a short period of time - this is what I call a session. A session consists of several games with different outcome, and in the end it is not about winning or loosing a game, but enjoying a session of games.
So, viewing it from a different angle you may say that even those games based on pure alea can be played for the process instead of the outcome.

"Structured play activity" is exactly the distinction I had in mind. I think my error is in conflating 'structure' with 'goal'.

So would it be fair to say that 'goal' as you are using it is always an in-game element (existing on the same abstraction-layers as 'game token' and 'game world') while the process-oriented player is more inclined to pursue meta-game elements?

VagabondX: I like your perspective here - and I recognise it from our own Texas Hold 'em games too... Once again, the distinction between process and goals seem to be a matter of perspective. ;)

caller#6: I am not certain if I always take 'goal' to mean an in-game element or not... If the player decides in The Sims to build a particular house, that is a goal but it is at the meta-level, surely? And I'm not certain that the process-oriented player necessarily creates their own goals. A process-oriented Snowboarding game player accepts the goals of that situation, they are just more focussed on the process of snowboarding than the outcome of winning.

There seems to be a little wiggle room every where you look. :D

Best wishes!

Your perspective of a rollercoaster ride is an interesting one - I'll have to think of how many other things could be 'played' in odd ways. However, I doubt anyone would actually treat the experience as the game you suggest.

Having looked up the rules for Beggar-my-Neighbour, I find it difficult to define a game (whether freeform or goal-based). I'm leaning in the direction of a game being "rules governing an interactive activity, designed to be pleasurable". (I don't really consider pure padia to be a game - just 'play'. Though aren't the environment and inherent limitations of the toys also part of the game?

I definitely believe that some interaction is necessary though. Even adding buttons, which must be pressed in order to proceed, could turn a rollercoaster ride into a game . By my definition of game, in the preceding paragraph, queueing itself wouldn't be a game, although a game can certainly be formulated (as you did), which includes queuing as the only activity included.

Bezman: thanks for your comments here! I find this rollercoaster situation to be a very interesting border case for 'game', and its the border cases that often shed the most light on how terms are used.

It's certainly possible to define games in terms of rules - it is difficult to find anything that qualifies as a game that doesn't contain something that could be called 'a rule'. Of course, this is true of other things that we don't consider games - such as shopping and cooking. (Although I'm open to the idea of these activities as games as well!) :)

But does a game have to be pleasurable to be a game? Now that's an interesting question! I shall have to mull this, but instinctively I feel that one can create a cruel game, and it is still a game of some kind.

Best wishes!

Chris: though shopping/cooking may have rules, they are not always pleasurable and for many people the result ranks above the pleasure as the reason for cooking/shopping.

Anyway, I decided during a discussion early on Saturday morning that games MUST have a measure of success - whether it's a goal that can be successfully completed or failed, or whether it's a score (maybe the amount of money made when gambling).

Game rules - a set of consciously acknowledged rules governing an interactive activity, with an objective and a measure of success, designed to be pleasurable

Toy - an object (physical or otherwise) either designed to be interacted with in a pleasurable manner, or commonly interacted with in a pleasurable manner

(could be cards, virtual objects, language, body parts...)

Game - Toy(s) with game rules in place.

I'm now about to cook some egg and bacon spaghetti. Primarily because I feel a small sense of enjoyment from occasionally cooking. The measure of success is how tasty the creation turns out to be and also (to a slightly lesser extent) how quickly I can do it.

The toys include everything at my disposal in the kitchen, including but not limited to the sink, chopping board, potential ingredients, cooker, pans, knives.

Bezman: While I agree that for many people the result of shopping or cooking ranks higher than the pleasure of the process, nonetheless, for many other people the reverse is true. This, once again, is the distinction between process and goal orientation. My wife loves cooking - but it is the process of cooking with me that she enjoys; conversely, I tend to judge the cooking by the quality of the result. :)

Furthermore, I support your assertion that a game should be considered to have a measure of success - in 21st Century Game Design we defined a 'toy' as a tool for entertainment, and a 'game' as a toy with some degree of performance. I suggested 'some degree of performance' rather than 'some measure of success' as, for instance, a tabletop RPG has differing degrees of performance, but does not necessarily have differing degress of success.

Thanks for the comment!

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