Implicit Games

Games

In the last few years, the indie game scene has produced an explosion of new games and ideas. This post will discuss some of these games and propose a new genre that I’m calling implicit games.

Definition of a Game

In order to understand what an implicit game is, we first must formally define what is and isn’t a game. In his book, The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell offers an interesting distinction:

Toys are fun to play with for their own sake. In contrast, games have goals and are a much richer experience based around problem solving.

The key idea here is that if we call something a ‘game’, it must have both:

  1. A toy
  2. Goals for how to interact with that toy

The core mechanics of successful games make good toys. The mechanics are fun to play with, even in the absence of any explicit goals or problems to solve. This is why good designers spend so much energy worrying about their game feel. But a toy without goals is not a game. There is no way to inherently ‘win’ or ‘lose’ when playing with a toy.

Definition of an Implicit Game

It’s important to think about the source of both requisite components of a game. In an implicit game, the software only provides the player with a toy, while the player completes the game by deriving their own goals.

To phrase this another way, implicit games aren’t games until someone plays them. The player must add their own rules. This addition makes a game out of the original toy.

This is a pretty abstract idea; Let’s look at some concrete examples…

Minecraft

minecraft

Minecraft is the world’s most popular indie game. It’s also a great example of an implicit game because players are given free rein to create their own goals. Players will choose to do activities as diverse as constructing skyscrapers, spelunking, agriculture, fighting monsters, or creating computers. In implicit games like Minecraft, each of these activities is just as valid as any other.

Goat Simulator

goatSim

Goat Simulator allows the player to explore a small world from the perspective of a goat. The game awards players points for doing jumps or spins in a style similar to the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, but the points don’t have any real effect. The game’s world has several set pieces that the player can explore and interact with in interesting ways, but none of them allow players to ‘win’ or ‘lose’. Maybe the implicit goal in this game is to make yourself laugh.

Kerbal Space Program

kerbal

I must admit that Kerbal Space Program is my favorite of these examples. It gives the player no explicit goals, but if you look up, a tempting implicit goal is visible with the naked eye.

Dwarf Fortress

dwarfFortress

Dwarf Fortress is Minecraft’s bigger, meaner brother. And similar to Minecraft, the game can never be finished because there is no win state. Players can instead pursue any number of goals inside of Dwarf Fortress’s relentlessly complex systems.

Other Miscellanea

Now that we have a firm grasp on what an implicit game is, the rest of this post will cover some other miscellaneous thoughts about them:

Not Quite a Sandbox

While looking for games that fit in the ‘implicit games’ category, I found several references to ‘sandbox’ or ‘open-world’ games. I think it’s important to note that these terms do not mean the same thing as implicit games. These terms only designate a game as being non-linear and say nothing about the existence of explicit goals (or lack thereof).

As an example, think of Grand Theft Auto, a sandbox game that constantly gives the player explicit goals.

The Game is the Meta-Game

The gameplay in implicit games often becomes a meta-game. The meta-game is the player’s journey towards discovering and mastering the game’s systems. The player has created their own goal, and they need that deep understanding to discover if their goal is possible.

Motivated Learning

Implicit games cannot exist without intrinsic motivation on the part of the player. If the player is not motivated enough to create and pursue their own goal, then the implicit game doesn’t exist at all. Because players are necessarily intrinsically motivated, implicit games increase the potential for tangential learning.

Staying Power

Because one can never ‘win’ an implicit game, players can keep playing them indefinitely. If the game is successful, communities of passionate players will form around it. This combination of an evergreen activity and a passionate community create an environment where a video game can become a long-term hobby.

Wrapping Up

I hope this idea of implicit games was interesting food for thought. As games continue to innovate and change in the future, I suspect we’ll be seeing more implicit games. Be sure to keep an eye out for them.

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