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A Game Isn't a Series of Interesting Decisions

Rant_small 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.


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a good game is something that meets the play needs of its audience

At which point working, communicable definitions of "play" and "audience" become critical. You've gone to great lengths to communicate your views on both on this blog; how does one go about communicating the wider definitions to the rest of the game development world?

I have often wondered whether there exists a level of play that could be called 'optimal'; like the patterns in original Pacman. If such exists in every game where choice is inherent to gameplay, then at a high enough level of grokking, there would be NO choice. Interesting or not.

zenBen makes an interesting point. One of the things about games of pure strategy is that they can be broken. In other words, play can reach such a high level that choices become meaningless. Now, a game like Go will probably not be broken in our lifetimes, but theoretically is should be solvable.

Likewise, Typing Tutors have no real 'choices', but DO qualify as games. There's a branch of game that isn't about figuring out what to do or how to do it but on properly ACTING on that decision.

It's a level of game that needs to be mastered before one can ascend to meaningful choices, for the most part, which is why Meiers games don't tend to contain a lot of that element: They're pure strategy, and making someone have to worry about controlling the characters as well is deliberately NOT part of the game.

Aren't sports a series of interesting decisions? Some pre-meditated, some on the spot, some made by the body and not the mind.

Lion-gv : I could argue that sports are exactly where my previous point about optimal play is most clear. Depending on your physique and that of your opponent(s), plus all the other factors of the moment, there is a single perfect action. The most highly trained sports men take this action automatically - they don't even have a choice. The response comes from their body, muscle memory, whatever.

However that is only my viewpoint. And my sport is karate, which is geared toward the single perfect action philosophy!

I dunno . . . if a game didn't have a bunch of interesting decisions, there wouldn't be much incentive to play through it. Although that means the definition of "decisions" can be debated over . . .

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.

There's a bigger problem here. Some specialized game designers think in terms which are only applicable to their specific fields, then go out and make other kinds of games. There is a reluctance to understand that not all games are equal, or similar, or even in the same category of experience.

I think my comment calls for a teensy bit of clarification. I'm talking about puzzle games with stories, exploring-driven games with multiplayer, supposedly peaceful games with action thrown in, that sort of thing.

“a game is a series of interesting decisions”

Since you don't have a source for this quote, can I assume that you don't have a context either?

Taking it (the quote) at its word, I'd argue that it isn't referring to "gameplay" at all. (If it were, I'd agree with Chris that "choices" works better than "decisions.")

Instead, maybe it's referring to "game design". A game is a series of interesting decisions on the part of the designer. Decisions, for instance, of which "patterns of play" to emphasize or de-emphasize. I dunno. Just a thought.

Which leads me to wonder, "interesting" to whom? To the target audience? Or to the designer herself?

That's why GH is not really a game - it's a toy.

I think you're considering the definition of "decision" too narrowly. While playing Guitar Hero, I have lots of decisions to make: which buttons to press, when to strum, when to whammy. These are not strategic decisions, but they are variable and intentional.

Maybe there is nothing in life other than a series of either real, unnoticed, or perceived decisions. If that were the case then it doesn't help us have a definition for games. Maybe games are a fixed set of rules to be explored and exploited.

"Maybe there is nothing in life other than a series of either real, unnoticed, or perceived decisions."

And maybe there are no decisions! :)

This comment discussion game is broken! *chuckles*

But I do completely agree with the article taken at the level it is pitched though, rather than taking it way deeper as some of these comments do. Although I'm fortunate (although becoming less fortunate as the games industry DOES mature) to BE the target audience for the kind of game Mr Meier does do well.

I still think that a game is a combination of a toy (something interacted for with pleasure, with inherent limitations as to how it can be manipulated), as well as rules that define a winning condition or measure of success (and perhaps place extra limitations on possible actions).

I still consider these comments and some RPGs a toy rather than a game.

A thoroughly well-argued article. Nothing to add, except that I vaguely remember the word 'good' being in there too.

I know the comment was mentioned in Edge at least once, but can't remember if it was originally from an interview with them...

"at a high enough level of grokking, there would be NO choice"

Even then, though, there is a very real game - one of mental agility in being able to recall and perform those moves from memory.

Maybe there are broadly two types of games - ones that test decision-making and ones that test 'performance' and at a certain level, Breakout, Pacman etc. turn from a combination of the two into purely performance-testing?

Interesting food for thought anyway.

P.S. To distinguish between a game and work, a game has pleasure as an intended effect of playing it. With work, the end result is the main point.

Sorry if my language lacks clarity. I should sleep.

Are games any activity that is purely autotelic? Could one argue that the human condition is inherently productive and/or playful, so that if one strips away the elements of production from an experience, what is left is always a game by the emphasis placed upon it by the subject?

I just came up with that, so I haven't thought it through. I do think it might be profitable to approach the work of defining experiences from the point of view of 'that which experiences' - before looking to the experience for classifiable attributes, qualities, ontological structures and so on.

This is a very well-articulated argument. I think we can all agree that the enjoyment that comes from many games comes from the mere act of play itself. (just like we dance for the sake of the fun of dancing.)

However, I think your proposed solution offers some problems as well: your thesis that a good game (the standard of excellence for a game) is meeting the play needs of its audience. I don't necessarily have a problem with making the standard for greatness relative to an audience, but the notion of "play needs" (as Peter Crowther points out) is somewhat vague.

My counter-proposal is to define games as systems of rules, and talk about play in terms of the gamer's apprehension and mastery of those rules.

so that if one strips away the elements of production from an experience, what is left is always a game by the emphasis placed upon it by the subject?

Surely you don't consider film-watching a game?

Pleasure and even play might not necessarily constitute games.

I do think it might be profitable to approach the work of defining experiences from the point of view of 'that which experiences'

Not sure I follow. Surely as humans, we are 'that which experiences' and can't help but define things from our own point of view?

Not to sound mean, but I think your opinion ends where game design begins. There's a far more well-worn adage. "Do what you're best at." or alternately "The only way to do great work is to love what you do." Evidence - Way too many "Guitar Hero" clone pitches from companies who have zero composition or music experience. Also a flood of "hero in the open world big city" games that will never make that 10 million units, based on the simple fact Rockstar has had 5-6 tries at the genre. Companies compromising what they're best at in order to garner a few more units usually equates to a compromise game.

Hi Chris,

Lovely post.

One of my favorite types of game is the slot machine. It has two choices, "Play" and "Don't play." Based off game theory it has one optimal choice: "Don't Play."

From a strategic perspective, it is one of the most idiotic games of all time. You lose money by playing. Many will argue that it 'isn't even a game.'

However, in the grand history of games, I suspect that simple games of chance go back nearly as far as early sports. Certainly our fascination comes lodged deep in the primitive decision making apparatus of our brains.

I still like the definition of a good game being a 'series of interesting choices', but only if it is augmented with the phrase 'from the perspective of the player.' Once you include the player's cognitive limitations and preferences in the mix, you can ask the sort of questions that you love to ask. What interactions or choices does this particular player find interesting? What are the classes of choices that different players find interesting?

Now you have a tweaked definition that allows you to include something like a gambling game and analyze it properly as the epic and mysterious emotional roller coaster players see through their gambler-colored glasses.

good stuff,

I really couldn't disagree more with this article. First of all, whether the author is referring to malapropism of an alleged Sid Meier quote or not, the correct version of the phrase is "Meaningful Choice"... not "Interesting Decisions" there is a big difference between what these things mean. 'Interesting decisions' suggests that a player can be amused by vacillating between several intellectual courses of action. Meaningful Choice simply means that a player can understand the differences (and by extension, the potential pros and cons) of a choice in any given game situation. The argument for meaningful choice is an argument against pointless complexity in a game system. If a player is presented with too many choices, none of which affect the outcome of the game in a measurable way, the choices become meaningless. What's the point of having a choice if it doesn't change the outcome? All good games contain meaningful choices - sports are full of meaningful choice on the strategic and tactical level, despite the author's suggestion to the contrary. Likewise, games like Guitar Hero have plenty of meaningful choices - everything from when you activate star power (the choice to use it to get a big multiplier or save it for a hard portion of the song) to which finger you use to hit a particular note based on the notes before and after it, constitute choices with clear, understandable, meaningful outcomes that you make while playing the game.
Ironically, the 'meaningful choice' argument can be more accurately leveled AGAINST strategy games. Games like Civilization, for example, give you tons and tons of choices to make. Which square do you build your city in? What kinds of units do you train? What technologies do you research? What advancements and wonders do you pursue? There are so many choices, each with such a small impact on the gameplay, that its very difficult to determine how these choices affect the outcome of the game. Simpler games tend to have more meaningful choice. Whereas a player trying to decide between training one of two similar units in Civ4 will be hard-pressed to understand the outcome of one choice over another, someone playing Super Mario World will know exactly what they're getting when faced with a decision between the Feather and the Fire Flower. Their understanding of the respective pros and cons of these two items, as well as knowing what's ahead, make the choice of which item to select meaningful and fun. People who like complex strategy games and simulations tend to actually enjoy the fact that the game system is opaque and their choices produce less clear results, because this mimics the kind of uncertainty present in the real-life events that these games strive to simulate.

How does GTA not constitute a series of decisions? They plop you down in a massive overworld with carte blanche to do whatever you want. You're free to attack anyone you want, with any of a wide variety of weapons. You can spend life after life just going on cathartic sprees if you want, or you can play through the missions, which theoretically present you with a particular task and a variety of ways to accomplish the task. If that doesn't constitute a wide range of interesting and/or meaningful decisions in a game, I don't know what does.

Hoplite, I disagree with your assertion that there is little meaningful decision in strategic games. If we're talking about a well-designed strategy game, like, for example, Starcraft or Age of Empires, where you build your base (or move your base to) and what kind of units you build in a given situation greatly affect the outcome of the game, or rather, the immediate conflict. Whether you trample your enemies with an unstoppable swarm of Zerglings or a smaller group of more varied units that compliment each other may not affect the overall outcome of the game in a campaign mode with a linear story, but the game is about how you fight a series of individual encounters, and your decisions matter greatly within each conflict. Other strategic games like AoE or Empire Earth present you with the option for non-military victory through economics or construction of wonders. Then there are occasionally games like Star Wars: Empire at War which allows you to actually manage the individual battles themselves by using units' special abilities from the overworld, sacrificing their immediate combat use for the sake of neutralizing an enemy hero or destroying valuable enemy assets before the fight even begins, decisions which can be utilized to greatly affect the outcome of the individual battles.

Incidentally, I don't refer to games like Starcraft and AoE as 'complex strategy games' in the same way as the Civ series, Sins of the Solar Empires, etc. I wouldn't call Starcraft 'simple' in the pejorative sense, but beauty of the game is that its vast complexity comes from having a small, manageable number of choices that present clear outcomes. You know exactly what you're getting when you build a group of Marines as opposed to building Firebats (or a lone Ghost for that matter) - every unit has clear strengths and weaknesses, and when used in combination with one-another, they create a beautiful and engaging (and yes, complex) gameplay experience that's full of meaningful choice. Imagine if the Terrans in Starcraft had 6 or 8 different types of Space Marines, each with only slightly different range, armor, speed, and attack statistics. Sure, you have more choices of what to build, but the relative significance of the choice you make drops, because its less clear how these choices impact the outcome of a battle. Just to be clear, I like all kinds of games, everything from 'twitch' titles to story-based RPGs to RTS and Grand Strategy games. I would suggest that meaningful choice in a game like Civ 4 is somewhat diluted by the daunting number of options available for the player, but the satisfaction I get from playing such a game comes more from the pleasure of building a virtual empire and experiencing the march of (fake) history than from gaming a system in order to win (as I would if I were playing Starcraft)

I'll second the position that your definition of 'decision' seems a bit limited, as well as agreeing that 'choices' may be a better word. Essentially this comes down to the most basic definition of a game, in that without some kind of decision-making, without some kind of interactivity, you don't really have a game at all.

Guitar Hero, as others have pointed out, involves decisions that are much more physical than most other games, but they are decisions nonetheless. The most prominent of these decisions involves the whammy bar, where players must decide when to move their hand from the strum bar to use it.

The 'interesting' part of the phrase is where we encounter an argument on what makes a good game.

I have worked with Sid and I have had opportunities to discuss the quote mentioned in the article (Soren has too, far more than me, had the opportunity to talk to Sid at length on the topic). I won't presume to speak for either of them, but I will give my take on the idea. As I understand it, the emphasis is on "interesting" not "decisions" or "choices". Sid has stressed that giving the player a choice between a red tank, a green tank and a blue tank (of otherwise equal stats), is not interesting. However, making the player choose between equally appealing and potentially beneficial opportunities is the key to keeping the game fun.

That's my simplisitc take on what is obviously a much deeper conversation. Of more importance to me however, is that I really dislike the idea that so many people are looking for the Theory of Fun when in reality, it is really more like the Discovery and Practice of Fun. I hate the formulaic approach to anything. It's a lazy person's approach to creativity. You see much the same in a lot of storytelling as well (in books, games and film). Once the cat was out of the bag that Lucas had drawn deeply from Campbell's journey of the Hero, we've seen huge, exploitative, on-the-the nose abuse of the Cambellian myth cycle. Plug in the proper variables to the arc and you have an epic story plot.

Much the same applies to game design. It seems there are those who are looking for a formula and those who discover them. Sid doesn't blindly follow a formula. He prototypes, he plays, he questions, he makes changes, he plays again. He "finds the fun" when and if he can - he doesn't sit at his computer enumerating "interesting choices".

Remember the Zen saying: "Seek not to emulate the master. Rather, seek that which the master seeks".

"Pleasure and even play might not necessarily constitute games."

This is getting into the area of where one can draw a line under games, and where it becomes 'mere' play. The problem with creating definitions is that the whole enterprise works best if you simply divide and conquer...use adjectives or classes to carve up the ontological space and then define each piece. I suppose in that sense, what I said before about all non-productive activity being a game would have to be looked at the level of animal behaviour, the games of animals, etc. We like to think of our social constructs as more than animistic, but if there was any profit to thinking of them in such a way, it's not a great stretch.
Right here, right now, there might be no such profit though :D

Hmm. I agree that a game doesn't need choices or decisions. As someone here said, if a game has a certain optimal series of actions that yield the highest score, then there is no choice to be made. The game is simply about carrying out those series of actions. If you don't succeed, it's not because of a wrong choice.

I suppose you could say you had the choice of getting the highest score or getting a worse score, just as you could choose to lose a game at any time for whatever reason. But to me these are choices outside the framework of the game.

It's like that one guy who talked about the slot machine. He said you had the choice between play and don't play. You also have that choice with any videogame, but just like the above that's not a choice within the framework of said game.
Also, if you take interactivity as a necessary component of a game, a slot machine can't be considered a game, because there's nothing you can do to change the outcome. You can't interact with it. I mean sure, you pull the lever or whatever to start it up, but that would be like saying a movie is a game because you have to hit Play to watch it.

Dear all,

Hopelessly short of time, so I will just have to keep to a few quick points. I did enjoy reading everyone's take on this.

Firstly, I want to be clear that this was a rant aimed at a particular definition of 'game'... If one wishes to develop specific kinds of games, perhaps such definitions may be helpful - if one wishes to understand play, such definitions can be a barrier to that process.

To everyone giving me examples of interesting choices in Guitar Hero, I feel you have missed the point. Are you seriously going to contend that what few choices are afforded are the core of the appeal of these games? I would contend that the appeal of these games is imagining you are a rock god... as evidenced by the fact that the earlier games (Frequency and Amplitude) racked up very poor sales despite being essentially the same game under the hood. Adding a plastic guitar controller completely transformed the play experience - not by adding decisions, but by building a stronger intrinsic fantasy.

I am not denying that some players do want a high degree of agency, and thus that some players do want meaningful choices. But there are also players who, faced with a game that delivers a suite of meaningful choices will still not enjoy the game because for that player meaningful choices aren't the fun they are looking for. Indeed, do you seriously expect your grandma to enjoy Civilisation simply because it has interesting decisions? (Although if anyone does have a "Civ gran", do let me know!)

Discussion of the boundary between toy and game is certainly relevant to this discussion - but trying to draw this line confidently can be a losing battle. One person's toy is another's game... is focussing on how these words are used going to help the situation, or simply create new arguments about the meaning of the term 'toy'? I find this an interesting sideline to the main discussion all the same, but it descends into philosophy of language quite rapidly.

Will Wright has said he considers Sim City to be a toy... some people consider Sim City to be a game - both viewpoints can be correct without any contradiction because 'toy' and 'game' are not terms that depend upon the nature of the subject material at all but upon the (language) beliefs of the observer. (In fact, this is always the case, but as Wittgenstein observes it is clearer in the case of words like 'game' which act as "family resemblance" categories).

Moving on, I think it's unfair to modern slot machines to suggest they don't give the player some choices (they certainly do!), but at the same time the classic slot machine formulation does not, and yet is still a form of play that can be fun, and well within the boundaries of what we consider to be a game. I hope no-one will suggest that Craps and Roulette cannot meaningfully be considered games!

The other interesting boundary question is the film thought experiment: what distinguishes the static slot machine from the DVD player in the sense that the player presses a button and gets an experience? Perhaps it is that in the case of the slot machine the player believes they are involved in both the process and the outcome (whatever the mechanics of the situation) whereas in the case of a film no-one has any expectation of involvement - it is expressly passive. Not so with the slot machine - even if the only decision is when to put the coin in the slot, the player has a play experience with such a device - a random state resolves and can lead to a win or a loss - and the physiology of this experience can be compared to videogame play in terms of the emotions evoked at the very least. (Not that you should construe from this that I believe a game must have a win and/or loss condition - I see this as a different kind of error, one which unfairly excludes tabletop role-playing games from being 'games'...)

So would the film become a game if you bet on its outcome? Personally, I feel it is clear that it would. That, for me at least, helps highlight some of the psychological differences in play here. The "Pro-Choice" (:>) voices in this discussion may use this as evidence of the importance of agency, if they wish, but I still don't think the (casual) player who enjoys snowboarding down a mountain in a videogame more than competing with other snowboarders in the same game is gaining their enjoyment from decisions over (say) the innate experience (i.e. Mimicry in Caillois' terms).

Looking at gambling is definitely relevant to understanding play - the gambling industry is still worth far more than the videogames industry (in terms of turnover), and one could choose to argue from this that the kind of play delivered by casinos is more appealing to a mass market than what is currently delivered by videogames. I believe this claim is essentially correct - although presenting it in such broad strokes is doubtless misleading on many fronts.

We, as players who can and do enjoy Strategic Play, may look at "Deal or No Deal" while scratching our heads and holding our hands up in dismay, but it is still a fun game (show) for its audience. Of course, one can make the claim that this is a game centred upon interesting/meaningful choices, even if for us as individuals we might apply our Stategic thinking and render those choices effectively meaningless... Thus our discussions have moved full circle. :)

My thanks once again to everyone for sharing their viewpoint, and further discussion is always welcome!

All the games you mention (GTA:SA, Brain Training, GH and the Sims) have decisions the player has to make. The Sims has the most - it is thoroughly strategic - and GH the least, but even GH has plenty of interesting decisions: where do you place your fingers for certain sections of a song? When do you alternate pick? When do you use star power? Those are all obviously part of the "strategic" definition, but even just choosing which button to press and when to strum is a decision (you can argue that it isn't interesting because the choice is obvious, but my counter to that is that you have so little time to make the decision that even an obvious choice is difficult to make correctly).

I think there's a certain amount of stretching of the definition of "interesting decision" you have to do to fit everything that could be called a game into the quote, so perhaps a better term is "engaging choices" - in other words, a game presents you with a series of options and a method of determining which option is best (and usually, a time limit). A "good" game makes sure that the difficulty of choosing amongst your options is properly scaled to the time limit.

So Simon or GH can say "hit green, then red, then green again" because you don't have a lot of time to read the instruction and then translate it into the correct choice. But Civ has to present you with a much wider array of options and far less clear instructions, because you have lots of time to make the decision.

Something that I would like to point out is that in a lot of discussions about these types of topics, people seem to completely forget about gameplay dynamics that involve time constraint and physical dexterity. Action video games have time constraint involved in almost every decision a player makes. Non-video games do not, or their scale of time is completely different. (fraction of a second vs. seconds, minutes, hours)

Making a decision like "pick the blue box," when you have as much time as you want is a completely trivial non-decision. Making 10 of these decisions within a couple of seconds, while at the same time executing the physical dexterity required to make it happen is quite different.

When time is sufficiently limited non-decisions quickly become rather interesting and meaningful. (when designed properly, but that's a different discussion)

and guitar hero is not a toy.

"Adding a plastic guitar controller completely transformed the play experience - not by adding decisions, but by building a stronger intrinsic fantasy."

You seem to discount the fact that the guitar controller itself created a much better mapping for the interface of the game. Not just in "appeal" terms but in pure mechanical ones- It's about 1000% more playable than clawing a controller in frequency.

Besides the time bit, how the interface is constructed and the quality of physical demands it asks of the player plays a huge part in whether or not the decisions you make through the device are interesting, meaningful or even satisfying.

Re the original formulation of Meier's Maxim, apparently it was first made at a GDC presentation "many years ago". In an interview in 2006, Meier copped to saying "a series of interesting decisions", but since this is not the only formulation of the saying going around, there is always the possibility that he is remembering what people think he said.

An excerpt from the interview:

Meier: I did say that once many, many years ago. I was giving a talk at GDC called “ten rules of game design” or “ten rules of gaming” and we had to come up with a definition of fun. What is fun? How do you define fun? And I came up with “a series of interesting decisions.”


It’s just weird…it was not meant to be an all inclusive, standing the test of time definition. We just looked at the word “series” and said that pacing is important in game. We looked at the word “interesting” and said “what makes decisions interesting?”

Chris: "but it descends into philosophy of language quite rapidly."

I thought that was intentional.

Meier: "How do you define fun?"

Descending into philosophy of language. Rapidly.

"Descending into philosophy of language. Rapidly."

Gaaa! The abyss has looked into me!

Lenny: I'm not denying the capacity to find decisions in all types of play - all action requires some kind of mental process and that can almost always be expressed as a decision, although this can become quite spurious. The claim I am opposing is that the focus of play for all people is centred in the decisions themselves. I feel Guitar Hero makes this clear, but I appreciate the attempts to argue against this. What makes play fun are the emotional rewards - and these rewards do not always come from decision making - the winner of a game of snakes and ladders has fun, but the only decision they made was the decision to play in the first place. I appreciate this is a trivial example, but all my stronger examples are open to the complaint that there are some decisions involved. My claim is that those decisions are not the primary source of fun for some (but not all) of the players of those games. Finding decisions in those games does not disprove my claim.

ara: it may be that the guitar is a superior interface device, but that's not the kind of claim I'm making here. I am expressly saying that part of the enjoyment that many players are getting out of this game is fantasising about being a guitar-playing rock god - and the peripheral plays into this fantasy. For more on this, see my earlier piece on kinaesthetic mimicry.

Troy: thanks for the reference here! I looked and looked, and could not track this down. I felt confidence the quote/misquote was being used outside of its intended context, though. Definition of fun, though? Now that really is an old school way of looking at fun. ;)

caller#6: "I thought that was intentional"

Oh no, my cover is blown! :D

Best wishes everyone!

Well, once again Chris you have managed to quite quickly and thoroughly make me rethink my assumptions about games.

But an Idea (this one get a capital letter, I think) sprung into my head as I was reading this.

I was thinking about Arkham Horror, which I played yesterday. Then you brought up Snakes and Ladders. Both are Games by popular definition. However, I find Snakes to be boring and pedantic. There is no choice. You roll, you move, eventually someone wins. In Arkham Horror you move, you encounter, the general evil get worse and eventually you defeat it or everyone dies trying.

Snakes has no choices, Arkham as lots (sort of). But maybe it isn't about choices.

Maybe a game is a series of interesting results.

The best games have things happen that get you to add meaning to outcome. Whether you choose or not. A lot of Arkham involves rolling dice to determine success. You make choices to get there, but ultimately you have no control over the outcome. But the results are still interesting. Interesting enough to create story around what is happening.

Games always have something happen. Good games have really interesting things happen whether you chose then to happen or not.

You have to remember that you decide whether you play snakes or ladders. It's deciding whether you gamble, that is the interesting choice. The actual play of snakes and ladders is more just working up some drama.

Then again, some people don't decide to play games. They just go with the flow, spend money on a game cause others spend money on games and boot it up cause the flow is everyone else boots it up. In that case I'd concede there is no decision or interesting choice being made if you find them at a game of snakes and ladders. And I'd concede there are a ton of these people and a ton of money to be made off of them.

But then again I wouldn't call it gaming. At all. I think gaming is about making atleast one choice and isn't about copying someone elses choice.

Duncan: "Maybe a game is a series of interesting results."

This is a wonderful extension of the original idea - it stretches to much wider examples of play. I'm not sure it's all inclusive though... there are some players who are enjoying the experience of a particular game, but not because the play is interesting, per se, but because it is engaging. But if we say a game is a series of engaging experiences, we have a definition so wide that almost nothing is excluded. :) This is part of the peril of trying to lock down strong definitions, however. ;)

Callan S.: "The actual play of snakes and ladders is more just working up some drama."

Absolutely - and that's an important play experience right there. The choice to play Snakes and Ladders is less important to its play than the drama generated by the situations that occur within the game.

"I think gaming is about making atleast one choice and isn't about copying someone elses choice."

This probably says more about your taste in games than it does about games in general - but then you invoked the term "gaming" which implies a hobbyist stance. :) And
I suppose we should expect those who pursue games as a hobby to have a different stance towards them than those for whom they are a passing entertainment.

This, perhaps, is why trying to come up with an all encompassing definition is so difficult - because the nature of the problem varies so wildly according to the players you are considering. And this, when all is said and done, was the point I was trying to make in this piece. ;)

Thanks for the comments everyone!

"Duncan: "Maybe a game is a series of interesting results."

This is a wonderful extension of the original idea - it stretches to much wider examples of play. I'm not sure it's all inclusive though... there are some players who are enjoying the experience of a particular game, but not because the play is interesting, per se, but because it is engaging. But if we say a game is a series of engaging experiences, we have a definition so wide that almost nothing is excluded. :)"

He forgot one thing that is necessary for a game to be a game, which is that interesting results are tied to player agency. That is after all how the game becomes play-able. That then excludes mere 'series of interesting experiences'.

In order to exclude the interesting results of participants in, say, a real-life battle or boardroom meeting, you could also add a necessity for bounded-ness to a rule-oriented magic circle type construct. However, I think that is unnecessary and begins to exclude games of a paidic nature. It would be more elegant to use the player as part of the definition. A game must have a player or players! The participants in the activity must be aware that they are playing a game.

I really think that if the 'definition searchers' begin to look more toward the player, they will begin to have more general agreement and less nit-picking over definition boundaries.

zenBen: "He forgot one thing that is necessary for a game to be a game, which is that interesting results are tied to player agency."

Surely this is an error! Unless the result of random systems can be tied to agency? Games of chance (alea) can have little or no agency - Snakes and Ladders - and still be games.

But I wholly agree with you that when you focus on the player, instead of the game, the situation with regards a robust definition becomes simpler.

Of course, my goal is not really a robust definition of 'game', although I have a few I can use to get by, but rather to provoke thought about games by pushing away from the space of definitions altogether. ;)

Best wishes!

"Surely this is an error! Unless the result of random systems can be tied to agency? Games of chance (alea) can have little or no agency - Snakes and Ladders - and still be games."

Maybe our definitions of agency differ - what I meant was basically that the player is involved in the play. They could be rolling dice (the dice don't roll themselves). Betting on a roll they don't make also. The outcome is not causally linked, but emotionally linked, and this is what makes the definition so simple.

Speaking of cause, I wonder if a further clause would make sense - that the series of interesting results be causally linked to each other?

Well this is a fascinating shift in the argument, because this is not what I believe most people mean by 'agency'!

Here, you seem to be inventing a notion of 'perceived agency' or 'inferred agency' and saying (quite logically) that this is as effective at rooting the player in their play as any actual expression of agency.

I quite agree, of course! But it's still a surprising thing to read from someone else. ;)

"Speaking of cause, I wonder if a further clause would make sense - that the series of interesting results be causally linked to each other?"

I'm not sure this is relevant. In a game of poker, each result is causally separate from the other, only the bankroll connects them, and I'm not sure that changes in the bankroll represent casual connections between the results, per se. This might, therefore, be a step too far.

Interesting thought, though.

Best wishes!

"I'm not sure this is relevant. In a game of poker, each result is causally separate from the other, only the bankroll connects them, and I'm not sure that changes in the bankroll represent casual connections between the results, per se. This might, therefore, be a step too far."

Probably a step too far, over-restrictive.
I think there is a causal link here within the betting meta-game, but that again is a matter of the player's emotional perception, and so already covered by the 'perceived agency' clause.

Most games have a strategic component, and an ability (or skill) component. Some, such as Guitar Hero, are completely ability-based. Others, like Civ or Chess, are completely strategic. Sid is obviously talking about games of strategy, but I'm sure he understands how developing an ability affects the quality of a game.

Geoff: I completely agree with you that Sid was talking about the kind of games he makes. I don't believe he ever intended this statement to be used as a boundary condition.

And on the subject of games with no decisions, Nintendo's new Rhythm Heaven is another one which undeniably has no decision in the core play of the game at all.

I will revisit the theme of this piece soon, as I have a dialogue between myself and Nicole Lazzaro on the subject which will go up on the ihobo site later this year.

Thanks for commenting!

One aspect of games that seems to be what we're talking about is presented in many games.. Prince of Persia is a classic example, there is a set path, and most of the decisions are purely 'timing based' you simple need to hit the buttons at the right times in the right order.. like Guitar Hero..

If you get the path right, hit the buttons in the right order, you get through the scenario.

There were classic games.. Dragons Lair.. in which you merely watched, and hit the right button at the right time..

Bane: I agree that "Dragon's Lair" (or "Space Ace") is another example that can be deployed in this argument... If there is a decision in these classic arcade games, it is the decision to fail. And that doesn't feel enormously like a choice. :)

Necroing an old blog entry, hell yeah! But I just read Sid's GDC talk and somehow stumbled upon your blog (again).

Anyways, I think his definition is narrowed to cover what he does.

Obviously, unless by 'decision' one means pretty much any mental process, some games don't have it. For example - button mashing.

However, you can stretch his definition a little bit to cover such cases by replacing word "decision" with "problem".

That gives us:
"A game is a series of interesting problems."

There you go. It covers pretty much every case.

Gambling is a problem. Of course, you cannot solve it, but gamblers pretend they can, so there you go. So is Snakes and Ladders a problem.

"part of the enjoyment that many players are getting out of this game is fantasising about being a guitar-playing rock god"

All video-games are primarily about fantasy. That's what is cool about them. Of course, there are people who really only care about problem solving, BUT, I would argue that for majority, it's the fantasy that matters.

This does not mean that Sid's definition is wrong. Not at all.

The question we should ask yourself is: would these people like their fantasies were it not for all that perceived problem solving going on?

Generally, I don't think so. And in fact, if they would, I'd repeat my old stance: they are engaging in a distinct sort of activity. :P

But, wait, aren't detective films perceived as some kind of problem solving too? Like, wouldn't all that 'whodunit' thing make them some kind of game? Perhaps. But then, the appeal comes from actually NOT solving the problem, that is, it comes from being fooled into thinking you have solved the problem. If I figure out whodunit at any time, I get disappointed, because I don't get to enjoy the resolution.

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