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The Post In Which I Get Philosophical

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am an agnostic.  So it might be a surprise to learn that this post was inspired by a sign on a church.  I was out on my bike this afternoon, a place where I do some of my best thinking.  I was reflecting on the challenges that have faced me and my close friends over the last year or two and how we have supported each other through some very difficult times.  Near the end of my ride, the sign on the church in the center of Campton said, “If you’re headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns.”

People who know me also know that I am interested in games.  Any game, anywhere, any time.  That is, I’ll play any game, anywhere, any time.  But I’m also interested in studying them as an academic topic.  One of the game scholars that I ask my students to read is Greg Costikyan.  He wrote an article in 1994 (long before game studies was recognized as a legitimate area of academic interest) in which he tried to provide a definition of “game.”  The article, called I Have No Words and I Must Design, identifies six elements that an activity must have in order to be considered a game.  I don’t completely agree with Costikyan in his efforts in this article but I think that’s because I have the benefit of having read tons of articles that analyze games and “gameness.”   So even though I disagree on some points, I respect and admire most of what he says.

Costikyan says an activity must have six elements in order to be considered a game.  If it is missing any of the six elements, it is something other than a game, perhaps some other kind of play, but not a game.  His six elements are: tokens, goal(s), opposition, decision-making, information and managing resources.  By the way, here comes the geeky part of the post.  If you aren’t a geek and are just interested in the philosophical part, jump ahead six or seven paragraphs.

A game must have game tokens.  He means that there must be something within the game that represents the player and the player’s status within the game.  In Monopoly, for example, the player’s piece (top hat, race car, horse, and so on) is a game token because it represents the player.  But the cards with the various properties that the player owns (Broadway, Marvin Garden, Illinois Ave, and so on) are also game tokens because they also represent the player’s status within the game.  In addition, the fake money that a player has represent how wealthy or poor the player is and, therefore, are game tokens.  In some games, like basketball, the player’s body is his/her game token.

A game must have a goal, something the player is striving for.  In Monopoly, for example, the goal is to be the last player with money or, in other words, to bankrupt all the other players.  in War, the goal is to obtain all of the cards in the deck.  This is an item that makes some activities that we normally consider to be games not games in Costikyan’s point of view.  For example, SimCity and The Sims are not games according to Costikyan because they don’t have goals that are set by the game.  The player can create a goal to strive for but the game doesn’t impose that on the player.

A game must have opposition, something that gets in the way of the player reaching his/her goal.  This is a simple, yet profound, statement.  By entering into the realm of the game, the player agrees to try to reach the goal of the game in a kind of circuitous manner.  The particpant in the game of War will not just grab all of the cards in the deck but will instead abide by the rules of the game and attempt to overcome the obstacles that the rules place in his/her way.  The opposition in a game typically comes from the rules of the game as well as any opponents who are trying to achieve the same goal.

A game must have decision-making.   This is perhaps the most important characteristic of a game.  A player must be presented with a series of choices, each of which impacts on his/her chances of reaching the goal before his/her opposition.  In fact, Costikyan would not consider the card game War a game because there is no decision-making.  In War, a player simply flips an unknown card at random from his/her deck and hopes for the best.  Decision-making allows the player to control his/her destiny (to an extent).  Through decision-making, the player expresses a personality, a strategy for how to win the game.

In order to make good decisions, a player must be presented with some information about those decisions.  To understand this concept, think about the game of War (which, again, Costikyan would not consider a game).  The player in this game is not presented with any decision-making opportunities.  He/she simply flips a card and hopes for the best.  Many of my students, presented with the challenge of adding decision-making to the game, suggest that the player’s deck of cards be split into two decks and the player must decide the deck from which to flip a card.  If the cards are all faced down, this clearly does not add a decision to the game, because the player has no information about the contents of each deck.  That information, in other words, is hidden from the player.  So in order to make a good decision, the player must be presented with SOME information.  In Chess, the player is presented with perfect information, that is,  nothing is hidden from the player.  In a game like Texas Hold ‘Em, on the other hand, the player is presented with imperfect, or mixed, information, that is, some of the information is known to the player while some is unknown.  The player must use the known information wisely and make an informed guess at the unknown information in order to make the best decision possible.

Finally, the player must manage his/her resources.  A resource is something the player uses in order to achieve the goal of the game.  For example, in Monopoly, one of the player’s resources is the space s/he lands on.  If the space has not currently been purchased, the player can use the information they have about who owns what, the price of each property, whether s/he will make a monopoly, and so on, to determine whether to purchase this property.  The relationship between decision-making, information and the management of resources is an intimate one, one that is difficult to pull apart.

So what does all of this have to do with philosophy and my bike ride?  On my ride, I was thinking about my life and the lives of my close friends.  Nearly all of us have dealt with major life changes and difficulties in the last year or two.  We have been an incredibly supportive community for each other while we make difficult decisions about our lives.  This made me think about games and decision-making.  I can only speak for myself, but my guess is that we are all seeking a particular goal in our lives.  For me personally, that goal is to be happy.  I want to live a happy, healthy life.  But many obstacles (my opposition) have been placed in my way.  So I have had to use my resources (which include these very friends that I am writing about) and the information given to me at a particular moment in time to make the best decisions possible to try to achieve my goal.  The information piece of things was really interesting to me as I thought about this.  In our lives, our information is always imperfect.  We never know everything as we’re trying to make decisions about the direction of our lives.  We must use the information we have and make educated guesses about the information we don’t have in order to make the best decisions we can.

I was thinking about all of this as I rode, thinking about the decisions I’ve made in the last year or so and how I came to those decisions.  And I was thinking about my friends and the decisions that they are being presented with and how they will go about deciding.  It’s all very game-like, especially if you think about our goal in life being to achieve happiness.  There are probably other goals but that’s what I was thinking about today.  And then I rode past this sign that said, ” If you are headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns.”  And suddenly, it was like everything came together in my head (even though I don’t believe in God).

Here’s the connection.  Given imperfect information, we all make decisions about our lives that push us in a particular direction.  As we move forward, more information presents itself to us.  We use this new information to make new decisions about where to proceed.  At various points in our lives, we may figure out that at some fork in the road in our past, we have made the wrong decision,  We are now using the wrong strategy, headed down the wrong path to acheive our goal of happiness.  But  these are our lives.  It’s not too late to make a correction.  The fact that we have headed down a particular path for some amount of time in our lives does not condemn us to continue down that particular path, to use that particular strategy, for the rest of our lives.  We can reverse course and revisit our decisions.  It’s allowed.  We can use all of the information presented to us to try to achieve happiness.  It’s allowed.

Is that a philosophy of life?  I don’t know but I feel like I’ve lived it for the last year.  It’s been difficult but I think I’m on the right path now.  At least according to the information that has been presented to me up to this point.  That’s the best I can do.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Liz

    Great post, Cathie. U-turns seem impossible sometime….because of, I think, the comfort of momentum. I love the way all the game metaphors are working here.

  2. Meg Petersen

    Where I get into trouble is my reluctance to back track. I think I like to just make big loops that hopefully will get me going in the opposite direction, but may instead leave me spinning in circles. Thank you for this.

  3. KK

    Thank you for this, Cathie! I think this stuff helps me understand why I don’t like strategy games, games that make me think several steps ahead in order to be successful. In life I’m trying to be present, to be here and now, and to find contentment in the present moment. What makes me CRAZY is plotting to far ahead, or developing expectations, or strategizing, or mindlessly living the consequences of a past action. Life gets out of hand for me when I strategize. But when I try to act for right now, on the information I have at hand right now, and release my guesses about the future or my debts to the past, I feel much more peaceful. Happy, you could say. Thank you!

  4. KK

    How does one fix typos on blog comments? “too far ahead”, not “to”. Arg.

  5. Pingback: » Games and Lessons for Life Desert of My Real Life

  6. scoyken

    I think I sometimes make too many U-turns–backtracking when I meet resistance instead of pushing ahead. When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to know where you got off the path.

    Terrific post, Cathie.

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