Thursday, April 5, 2012

What is a "game", anyway?

A reader wrote me a mail asking "Your recent post on malicious players made me think about the structure and purpose of games today. Is EVE a game, or a platform for abuse? And what about the "gamification" of real life with location services or 3D games that use the environs around you as input into the game world. What is a "game" these days, anyway?". I would answer that a game is a risk-free environment in which you can try out various actions for fun or for learning without fear of the consequences, because the consequences aren't real.

As a consequence of that, it stops being a game when there are real-world consequences. For example "gambling" isn't a "game" in spite of some resemblances. A MMORPG stops being a game when it spills over into real life and results in real world threats to people and their families. Or when it is "played" to earn real money. And "gamification" isn't a game at all, it only uses game-like incentives and reward structures for real world purposes.

As you can see there is a growing trend of "games" turning into "ungames". There are many reasons for that, one of which is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Once you climb up that pyramid high enough, you are leaving the real world needs behind. If somebody's needs are for status and achievement, he can fulfill that need in a virtual environment, and these virtual environments are usually designed to offer a lot of that status and virtual achievements for less effort than it would take to achieve something in the real world. There are now a sufficient number of people who are sufficiently well-off that they can spend real money on virtual status symbols or game achievements. That is bound to be used by those who are still lower on the pyramid and are just trying to make a buck. The danger is that people become confused about where the border between real and virtual is, which leads to stories like the Chinese guy who murdered a friend who borrowed and then sold his virtual sword.

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