Into the Heart of Gameness

An essay for Games Studies at the NYU Game Center

Gameness has never been, is not now, nor ever will be definable. Many have delineated rules of play, rules about what rules are have been outlined and reiterated time and time again, but what a game, and therefore gameness, is, changes every day of every year, and pinning it down would serve only to stymie the industry as a whole. As Leigh Alexander observes in her analyzation of the 2013 Independent Games Festival at which Richard Hofmeir, winner of that year’s grand prize, relinquished his booth space to Porpentine’s Howling Dogs: “Definitions about ‘what games are’ are not constructive, and insistence on descriptors––for example, what is and isn’t a game––‘constitutes a major impediment, and disallows more imaginative work [from] taking form ... stranger stuff can be more easily imagined,’ adds Hofmeier.” Alexander makes a valid point in calling out the futility of defining games, however the exploration of that domain, the attempt to do what we know is not possible, is what makes being human fun; nothing, not even evolution can stop us from attempting the impossible.

That a word like gameness should be vague or difficult to comprehensively describe does not mean that it is entirely futile to meditate upon it. In Narrative Discourse, literary theorist Gérard Genette dives into the titular world of narrative, deconstructing it piece by piece so as to better understand its nature and relevance to culture and society at large. Spending fifty pages on the facet of narrative described as mood, Genette observes at the end of his dialogue that, “this ambiguous––or rather, complex––and deliberately nonorganized position [on mood] characterizes not only the system of focalization but the entire modal practice of the
Recherché” (210). In this sense, Genette’s digression on mood is able to enlighten and embody the researcher, despite––perhaps even because of––the fact that it contains, “the concurrence of theoretically incompatible focalizations, which shake the whole logic of narrative representation” (211). If Genette can devote such thought to that which may in its end be moot or paradoxical, what is to stop us from digging deeply into a cultural art form that has such vast sway and depth of meaning? In light of these observations I maintain that the heart of gameness rests within our own; if one genuinely believes they are playing a game, they are. Within that heart, however, we may find certain inalienable elements, namely play, regulation, and expression.


Half of the heart of gameness is play, it is interacting and causing change where there is placidity. That change, however, can take infinitely many forms. Be it the full bodied running and jumping of traditional sports, the simple hand movements behind mountains of thought in chess, or timed mathematical mental gymnastics, embodied or stationary, any activity that cannot be completed without play may not be considered a game. This critical facet of gameness is itself comprised of two components, those being that the activity in question must be both free and interactive. Without either of these components, play may not be established and the heart of gameness ceases to beat.

Much of the world is at this very moment playing an easily definable game; the ever increasing popularity in digital gaming from mobile to PC means that a great many people are currently playing digital games and that many more are suspended between play sessions. According to a 2015 report from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), approximately 155 million Americans––over one third of the population––play games, and as of 2013 it was estimated that there were over 1.3 billion gamers worldwide, just over one sixth of the global population (Spil). Beyond these figures are those who are playing non-digital games, and beyond those is the rest of the population that, whether it realize it or not, is playing also. The only time we ever stop playing our game is when we’re unconscious or dead, and even in these states we may still be used as tokens of play in someone else’s. Despite this life-bound nature of games, however, play remains utterly voluntary; if one’s actions are forced they are not playing a game. This facet falls in accordance with our theory of the life-long duration of our games in that as conscious beings we are able to override our evolutionary tendency to live. Morbid though the thought may be, living is entirely voluntary.

It almost goes without saying, and so is therefore often overlooked, that to play is to do. Even the simplest ludic activities require some effort on the player’s behalf, whether that effort is counting or even just regulated breathing. This active process is a significant part of what makes gameness unique when compared to other media and in some cases provides the lone aspect of a work that makes it a game and not a film. The freeness of games, and our voluntary approach to them, only matters in that we then act according to our own will in those game scenarios. This interactivity, however, is not without frequent stipulation, and the aforementioned freeness can never wholly be present. This brings us to the second element of the heart of gameness: regulation.

Games have rules, and that regulation serves as the second element of the heart of gameness, completing its structure. Though many games don’t appear to be overtly regulated, I assure you they are. It simply isn’t possible to play without some kind of rule set, no matter how distant it is from the game itself. From a digital standpoint, abstract games like David Kanaga and Ed Key’s Proteus are not only governed, but created by rules: “The rules of a video game are contained within the game itself, in the game code ... and thus the game embodies the rules, is the rules, that the player must confront” (Consalvo, 85).

Even non-digitally it remains impossible to play without rules. Take Looping for example. Practiced only in New York City, Looping is defined by its chaos as the loopers cavort in their costumes or underwear, improvising their movements as they go. Co-founder Matthew Silver described it in an interview with Rolling Stone as, “silly, adult, play ... it’s important to have this childlike mentality, everybody needs playtime.” His partner in Looping, Fritz Donnelly, added, “It’s a license, not a cult, not a religion. It’s about movement. It’s permission to play as an adult.” Silver and Donnelly get at what Johan Huizinga describes as child-play, which “possesses the play-form in its veriest essence, and most purely” (17), but even as such a random sequence of actions, Looping is also a distillation of gameness in all its childish splendor, and therefore regulated. The loopers follow laws as well as a their own decorum; though there is no winning or losing, it is quite easy to imagine a scenario in which an outsider who stumbles into a Looping session fully clothed and with no desire to roll around Washington Square Park, breaks the rules. Regulation, tacit or well-marked, is present whether or not we choose to follow it, and that decision, to follow, bend, or break the rules, is highly expressive of an individual player.

Saying expression is necessary for an activity to be a game is like saying carbon dioxide is necessary for an engine to run on combustion: its presence is innately understood, but forgetting about it can be quite dangerous. Though play and regulation make up the heart of gameness, they are essentially useless without the crimson flow of expression. One way we might examine the manner in which players express themselves through game play is the way they don’t play games, at least, not according to the rules. In the words of J Barton Bowyer: “To cheat, not to play the game that reflected the norm, indicated that there was another world, the world of deception, in which people did not play the game, your game, but their own” (Consalvo, 91-92). The worlds that these explorative gamers inhabit do, as we’ll see, on occasion also affect the game world in which they take place.

When I asked a close friend what he felt to be the heart of gameness, he replied quickly with “grinding”––only somewhat facetiously––and as Consalvo frequently mentions, players almost ubiquitously dislike and attempt to subvert the grind, particularly in MMOs. It is telling then, that Blizzard, as a pre-order bonus for World of Warcraft expansions, often grants new players a character at the maximum level right from the start, attempting to entice those wary of spending endless hours leveling their avatar. This speaks volumes about what players value in these games and what they’re willing to go through in order to achieve their goals. By observing the way players cheat, Blizzard has been keen enough to pick up on the habits and opinions of so many of those players and turned it, ostensibly, into profit. Further, it is important to delineate between how we define cheating and how it’s employed. Though definitions of cheating vary widely, a series of sub section titles in Consalvo’s Cheating reveal what she found to be four of the major reasons players took to breaking the rules: “Because I Was Stuck,” “For the Pleasure of the Experience,” “Time Compression,” and “Being an Ass,” each of which create clear understandings of the players behind them and/or the games they found themselves in. An individual’s reason for cheating, however it’s defined, says quite a bit about their personal logic and temperament: cheating while stuck, for example, suggests impatience on the part of the player or poor game design, while cheating for pleasure suggests that the player has either exhausted the game of its intrinsic entertainment or that the game itself lacks much fun to begin with.

Surpassing an individual level, gameness might also result in an entire culture finding a way to express themselves. Clifford Geertz observes how crucial the cockfight is to the Balinese: “An image, fiction, a model, a metaphor, the cockfight is a means of expression; its function is neither to assuage social passions nor to heighten them, but, in a medium of blood, feathers, crowds, and money, to display them” (Geertz, 23). A typically repressed society when it comes to animal-like behavior, Balinese roosters, “are also expressions––and rather more immediate ones––of what the Balinese regard as the direct inversion, aesthetically, morally, and metaphysically, of human status: animality” (Geertz, 6). Elsewhere, certain games have similar, if not quite so existential, relationships with specific cultures. One need only look to the streets of whatever city is unfortunate enough to have won the World Series to understand what baseball means to Americans.

To employ what I’ve here described as the heart of gameness we might analyze Sid Meier's Civilization. On it’s surface Civilization is an extraordinarily compelling game about amassing power by developing one’s nation in a variety of ways. To understand why it remains so successfully compelling we can look simply at how it embodies this heart of gameness. There is no doubt that Civilization is a game with strict rules both in code and implementation that then direct a certain method of play that is both interactive and voluntary. However, analyzing it in terms of expression reveals much about the nature of the individual player as well as the game itself.  Much of what makes Civilization so compelling is how it dangles a variety of incentives in front of the player at all times. What the player then decides to pursue can speak volumes about them. The practice of min-maxing may be considered simply a straight-forward, expressionless manner to play such a game, but even here it becomes apparent that such a play- style does indeed reveal much about the character of the player. Someone who values the benefits derived from min-maxing knows exactly what they want and will potentially cut themselves off from many other avenues of play if those avenues get in the way of their goal in any fashion. Though the choices made after many successive games might be less expressive than they were initially, that a player is willing to explore all that a game has to offer is highly suggestive of a more general curiosity in all things.

The desire to learn, not only about the world, but about a game and about oneself, is crucial in coming to a full understanding of gameness. Though few games as ubiquitous as Civilization tout the “educational game” moniker, any game, through its inherent ability to unearth something we may not have known about ourselves, may be educational. All this thanks to the unique quality of expression found in games as facilitated by play and regulation.

Curiosity, learning, discovery, these are forces that drive us to move and act, they are what created this paper, they are present in any game regardless of its depth, and they are what make analyzing terms as ambiguous as gameness important. In understanding classic definitions of play and games we are then able to distill gameness down to its essential components, for it is this structure that informs how we create and how we experience the created. As people of such a ludic world, comprehending the heart of gameness in its veriest essence is key in understanding our individual experiences of life. Gameness, with its chambers of play and regulation, its flowing expression, is the heart of our world, and the heart of our world is, both anatomically and metaphorically, within us.