What is a game? What is a game made of?

Is it built from the bottom-up? Top-down? Can it be without characters, levels, points? Does it need a story? Can it be boring, or make us cry? Does it need to have X or W, Y or Z?

There have been many different approaches to answering this question. Academics, professionals, journalists, and others have their own approach, mostly based upon previous work on media theory or using their field of expertise as a measuring stick.

Of course, I’m also trying to answer that same question with my own approach. My methods are what you might call “lazy”: I postulate that the best tool to define whether something is a game or not is the human brain. While attempting to play with something, the human mind quickly identifies whether it will be able to play with it or not.

In short, the human user is the best instrument to measure the “ludicity” property of a given system. Of course, this measure is always personal and can’t be quantified, but since I aim at being universal, imprecision is a risk I can afford.

There is a group of french intellectuals I greatly admire. The OuLiPo, founded in the sixties by Raymond Queneau (writer) and François Le Lionnais (mathematician) as a branch of the Collège de Pataphysique. The name, OuLiPo, stands for “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle”, roughly translated to “Workshop of Potential Literature”. The goal of the group is to broaden the horizon of literature by writing under the influence of “constraints”: algorithms or rules that force the author to bend the rules to come up with something new.

What I plan to do is to look for a definition of games through the use of constraints.

Now, we’ve been writing since the dawn of history (literally), and before the OuLiPo was created, it was generally accepted that there was very little room for innovation. Play is an activity that actually predates writing, but we’ve only just recently begun thinking actively about it. So… how can the techniques developed to give a second breath to a mature (and slightly sclerosed) medium be applied to one that’s just making its first steps?

It is my hypothesis (or rather, my belief) that creating under constraints is the best way to bootstrap an analysis of the media we are creating on, whether it has millenia of theory and practice or just a few years. As a matter of fact, the practice of creating under constraint minted by the OuLiPo has been successfully ported to music, radio and television. Each time it was applied somewhere, it forced the creator to think about the structure and general rules of the medium to bend them in new ways.

It also pleases me to see that I’m not the first to have thought that applying constraints to game design. The Experimental Gameplay project has already proven the success of three constraints applied to video game development (you can learn about their exploits here). However, I am surprised they didn’t continue looking for new constraints and applying them in the same fashion they did then. Maybe it’s because I’m french and prefer to sit around talking about stuff than actually doing it, but I really feel that constraints need to be fully exploited. The conclusions the EGP produced were a guideline for prototyping. Had they applied many different constraints, would they have achieved a guideline for everything?

The method I will apply is two-fold. On one hand, reverse-engineer existing games to extract its constraints and analyse the effect they have on their ludicity (a method OuLiPians call “Plagiat par Anticipation”). On the other, postulate a constraint and attempt to develop a game or series of games from it to explore the effect its effect on overall ludicity.

What this method aims to output is a list of constraints and their effects on ludicity, effectively drawing the frontiers between “game” and “everything else”. Or so I think.

Do, or do not. There is no try.