The (Actual) Game Definition Game

At CGSA/ACÉJ 2022, I gave a talk on a game I created for one of my classes that I call the (Actual) Game Definition Game. The premise is simple – a Timeline-style card game based on definitions and engagements with the ideas of games and play. The name is a riff on an article by Jaakko Stenros. The title got stuck in my head and never went away.

But a bigger drive than an earworm was the importance of definitions in games courses. In a forthcoming piece, I present data from an analysis of games course syllabi, and among the discoveries was that definitions are perhaps the most common point of focus in games courses of all types. Considering we’re talking educational settings, maybe that’s not surprising; we have to learn what things mean to study them. But considering definitions of games are ever-evolving at best and a fraught battleground at worse, it’s not a stretch to say that heavy focus on definition in games classes means something about how we work to orient students.

How did I want to orient my students? Carefully, intentionally, and with an early understanding that when we talk about “games,” we’re talking about something incredibly meaningful and expansive. Rather than using definitions to limit, I wanted these foundational talks to be full of possibility. To do that, I needed something positive, fun, and memorable. Obviously, a game.

quote from Clara Fernandez-Vara that reads "The player is a necessary part of the text; it is difficult to find games where there is no player input, as the game is not really a complete text without a player that interprets its rules and interacts with it."The Game Definition Game is a work in progress – currently a bank of 30 possible cards used to create mix-and-match decks of 6-9 cards for small student groups. Each card includes a definition or framing of games and/or play (and the source). Unlike the game from which I drew inspiration, however, I do not include years on the cards on either side. Instead, as part of a lesson, students look at the full timeline together to compare to their constructed versions.

These definitions cards can also be used in a variety of sorting and grouping exercises and so are useful in helping to uncover themes and commonalities – as Stenros did with his aforementioned article.

I am currently designing v1.5 of the Game Definition Game and when it is complete, I will release a downloadable version here. However, I encourage folks to create their own. So many of the books we own and articles we’ve highlighted include ways of thinking about games and particular framing around the meaning and boundaries of the idea of play. If you’re teaching games, odds are you have ten books close to hand that all offer some definition of “game.”

For more on what I’m doing, and how you can do it yourself, check out my slides from CGSA/ACÉJ (PowerPoint; PDF), and reach out if you’d like a copy of my version when it’s finished.