Media, Technology, and Education

We Are Playing a Game

One of my blog buddies, the fabulous Caroline Bender (she of Drawing In fame), wrote an entry yesterday about the “game” she and I have been playing on Facebook.  I put “game” in quotes because one of the questions she asks is whether we are actually playing a game.  So here is my response to her opening move in this blogscussion.

Several weeks ago, Ms. Bender made an off-hand comment on Facebook about having started to play online Scrabble.  This is one of the two games that I continue to play on Facebook (the other is Go).  She had warned her potential Scrabble opponents by posting a status update that she “knows you all thought I would better at Scrabble. (Well…all but 2 of you, I think).”  How could I resist?  I challenged her to a game. 

We’ve now played several games and she does not get very high scores.  We have had a couple of snippets of conversation concerning the differences in our styles of play.  My style of play typically leads to high scores while hers does not.  All of that is fine with me.  Whether I win or lose, I just like to play.  So, to get back to her question, are we playing a game?  To answer it, I’ll look at what I think are her reasons for asking the question.

I’ve written a bunch about definitions of games and analyzing various activities to determine whether they are games.  I most often use Greg Costikyan’s definition, with its six elements that every game must have, as my framework for analysis.  Ms. Bender does an impressive analysis (which I won’t recreate but which you should go read) of Scrabble using this framework.  I think some of the things she discovers in her analysis lead her to question whether Scrabble is a game.  The most interesting item that she raises has to do with goals.  She also raises an interesting possibility of a seventh criterion for making an activitiy a game and I’ll talk about that possibility in relationship to goals.

Ms. Bender rightly points out that Scrabble does indeed present its players with a goal.  But I would state it a bit differently than she does.  She says that the goal of Scrabble is to get the most points and use all the letters.  I would instead say that the goal is to play your letters in order to score points.  The difference is subtle and yet, critical.  Ms. Bender has made the assumption that everyone plays games for the same reason–to win the game.  But I have written a couple of papers (and blog entries)  in which I argue that this common assumption is a problem in game studies circles.  My argument has been controversial.  Anyway, here’s the basic idea.

First, when Costikyan talks about goals, he is not talking about player motivations.  He really means the objective that is set up by the game for the player to achieve.  So in Scrabble, the objective is to score points by laying your tiles on the board.  Some players will be motivated to engage in this activity because they want to win the game.  Other players will be motivated because they want to hang out with their friends.  Yet other players will be motivated because they get pleasure in finding particular types of patterns.  This is what Ms. Bender refers to when she says, after showing that in our current game I am beating her quite soundly, “It’s not that I don’t care.  It’s just not what I care about.”  Her motivation for playing is something other than getting a higher score than her opposition.  And by the way, so is mine.  But more about that later.

So there’s a difference between player motivation and the goal of the game.  What do we know about player motivation?  There is an old, simple media theory called the uses and gratifications theory that is helpful in understanding motivations for using media such as games.  It is one of the first theories that focused on the recipient of media messages.  One of the most famous quotes about the theory comes from a paper by Blumler and Katz in which they say the theory explores

1) the social and psychological origins of 2) needs, which generate 3) expectations of 4) the mass media or other sources, which lead to 5) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in 6) need gratifications and 7) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones. (Blumler J. G. & E. Katz (1974): The Uses of Mass Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. p. 20.)

In other words, people have needs that they seek to gratify by consuming media that they expect will gratify those needs. The theory goes on to articulate a large number of needs that people seek to gratify by consuming media messages.

What does this have to do with games?  It means that people play games for many, many reasons, to gratify a large number of needs.  We in the game studies field have primarily focused on the need to beat the competition, that is, to win.  But I think the popularity of Farmville, especially among a non-typical gaming population, should make us question this assumption that people play games in order to win.  (And by the way, it was this argument about Farmville in particular that was so controversial at an awesome video game conference in Oxford this past summer–the counter-argument is that there is nothing redeeming about Farmville.)

So when Ms. Bender says that she sees Scrabble as “verbal sudoku,” she is saying that it gratifies a need for her other than the need to win.  The interesting thing is that I feel exactly the same way about Scrabble.  For me, it is all about finding patterns.  It’s just that the patterns that give my brain a little jolt of pleasure are different than the patterns that give Ms. Bender her gaming high.

Ms. Bender also asks: “I am interested to know if #7 criterion should be that we have to be playing the same game, or is it still a game anyway?”  I think my analysis above makes it clear what I think about this.  But in case it isn’t clear, here goes.  We ARE playing the same game.  We simply have different motivations for playing that game.  And that, to me, is fun.  The fact that we have different motivations is indeed PART of the game.  She said that I am not her opposition because she has a different motivation, something other than winning that she cares about.  But I am indeed her opposition because opposition is anything that puts obstacles in the way of the player achieving her goals, both the objective presented by the game and the goal of having her needs gratified.  So everytime I block an area so that she can’t use it to create the word BARGAIN, I present an obstacle.  And THAT is fun.

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. Robin DeRosa

    This makes me think about the time you hucked that Nerf ball at my head and tried to kill me. I bet that was “fun,” too.

  2. Cathie LeBlanc

    You’re misrepresenting my motivations. And yes, that was fun.

  3. Scott Coykendall

    You and I play Go (two games at a time) and Scrabble (I could five current games) on Facebook, but I wonder if your motivation is the same in each? For me, Scrabble has become a little less exciting–if for no other reason than the hundreds of matches I have played with you and others has desensitized me to it. But it’s not just Go is something I play less frequently, there seems to be a very different enjoyment I take from the game.

    Scrabble–and particularly FB scrabble, which has a built-in dictionary and doesn’t penalizing you for placing made-up words–is about strategy (placing my letters for th maximum score as well as using my placement to block opportunities for you), but it’s also about the pleasure of word-play and word-discovery.

    Go is more like Chess in that I have to play in anticipation of how you might react. There is an element of luck in Scrabble — if I happen to draw the letters for a bingo, I can outscore what may have been your superior strategy. There is no luck, I think, in Go. Each stone has the same weight and power as every other stone. Our choices (and this relates to another conversation) have short- and long-term consequences. The pleasure, then, is that EVERY move seems to have higher-stakes associated with it than does Scrabble.

    Too, it is possible to deceive in Go (through feints, etc.) so as to make your opponent react to what they perceive is your strategy. There IS strategy in Scrabble, but it is generally less subtle and (as I said before) can be overcome by sheer luck.

    And there’s tradition. While I don’t know as much about the history of Go as I would like to, the ancient nature of the game, and it’s important place in East-Asian philosophy, society, and politics, makes me appreciate it as somehow “more” than a board game.

    And that’s where my question comes in. Where in Costikyan’s six elements does this fit? Is the cultural or historical context of a game important? Chess is not only a fine and complex game, it has cultural cache. To some extent, the board games that have survived for decades (Scrabble, Monopoly, Risk, etc.) have a bit of that too, while the knockoffs may have goals and structure and interactivity and so on, but be seen as not just less original, but less enjoyable. Is it simply that these are time-tested, or do we want some sort of authority in games?

  4. Scott Coykendall

    wish I had edited that ^

  5. carolinebender

    I need a cigarette.

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