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A Game is a Series of Compelling Button Presses

Designer and textbook author Chris Bateman has a post on his blog Only a Game challenging Sid Meier’s famous maxim that “a game is a series of interesting decisions”. To his mind there are plenty of games that succeed without featuring decisions that are particularly interesting, such as rhythm games like Guitar Hero.

Maybe it’s time to start delineating between ‘games’, ‘puzzles’, and ‘activities’; or would that simply confuse the matter further?


  1. Adam Parrish wrote:

    I’m pretty suspicious of this. Guitar Hero is not a strategy game by any means, but the claim that it “requires no judgement at all” seems pretty wrongheaded to me.

    The decisions in Guitar Hero mostly take this form: how do I get from my current state (e.g., my fingers on the fret board) to the desired future state (the configuration of button presses higher up on the screen)? There are a number of different ways to hit any particular note sequence, and different strategies for moving between sequences. Based on your evaluation of your own dexterity and your knowledge of the song, you have to choose a strategy that allows you to hit as many notes as possible, while keeping you in position to do well for the rest of the song.

    The fact that these decisions become autonomic (and perfected) with practice has no bearing on the question: some people can play Super Mario Bros. with their eyes closed, but that doesn’t make it any less a “game.”

    Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles Joseph wrote:

    To be fair, Bateman isn’t saying that a lack of discrete decisions makes something less of a game. He’s really arguing that we need to expand our ideas of what a game can be.

    I’m the one suggesting that maybe we need to distinguish between ‘games’ and ‘activities’.

    Friday, July 4, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Frank wrote:

    Yeah, I started worrying about this a few years ago, and usually deal with it by saying “choices/actions” where I used to say “choices”, eg “a key ingredient of most good games is meaningful player choices or actions”. The important aspect is that the player’s input matters, it makes a difference.

    (The difference between actions and choices is actually kind of subtle and interesting, for example in Guitar Hero the presence of choice can be seen, not necessarily just in the conscious decision to take this or that overall approach, but in each button press, the precise timing of which can be understood as a set of semi-conscious micro-decisions.)

    Anyway, the important part of Meier’s quote is “interesting” not “decisions”, no new definitions are needed, imo.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 4:28 am | Permalink
  4. I’ve only played Guitar Hero once. With little dexterity or practice, I was able to reach a flow state where I made no cognizant choices as my reactions were simply heuristic reactions. But I did fairly well and enjoyed reaching that feeling of non-thinking, simply reacting flow state. Because of this, I have a hard time buying the “subtle choices” argument…

    But I do agree we need to open up the definition of what constitutes a game.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Frank wrote:

    I don’t want to claim that there is no useful distinction between action and choice. However, I think there is a rich territory of experience that stretches between conscious, aware, discrete decision-making, and mechanical, automatic response, and a lot of game experiences take place in this middle ground.

    Each one of the little finger actions you take during a run on GH, could have happened a little earlier or later. The system loop that includes the notes on the screen and the finger-action-inputs is not a deterministic system. (Well it may ultimately be, but you know what I mean) Your mind is actively doing a ton of stuff, stuff that starts out slow and conscious, and becomes faster and denser and less conscious, but is still interesting, and not really ever completely automatic.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  6. It’s not automatic in the sense of heartbeat… but when a athlete is in that sweetspot between panicking and chocking (that we generally refer to as the zone) then muscle response is “next to automatic.” It’s like flinching when someone throws something at your eye… sort of.

    Friday, July 11, 2008 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

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