Monday, May 7, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Element 6: Negotiable Consequences

If you haven't been keeping track, I've been analyzing an academic presentation at a conference on Game Studies by the Danish researcher Jesper Juul, presented in 2003. I had to take a little break in the series due to some real life issues (family issues, midterms, Avengers: Infinity War...). This post discusses the final element Juul uses to define what is and isn't a game, and I give a few thoughts on his definition of what a game is.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Element 6: Negotiable Consequences

Juul's final element gets a fairly long section in his paper, possibly because it is the fuzziest criterion for defining games. Basically, what he's trying to say is that games, as most people conceive of them, do not have serious, lasting consequences...but sometimes, they really do. Several of the sources Juul used to synthesize his definition of games listed something along the lines of being for fun or having no influence on the world at large. And really, when we think of games, we think of them as a form of pastime or entertainment. Games should be fun, right? We play them for fun. It makes intuitive sense.

Yet, we look at the real world, and we seem plenty of 'games' being played WITH actual consequences (financial, physical or mental health, relationship, etc.). We can gamble on nearly any kind of game, and it has serious financial consequences if the stakes are high enough. Professional games are played. Games can be addictive and damage our physical and/or mental health if we overindulge. What seems like a harmless family game may cause long-term relationship damage. How do we square this actual observational data with the ideal of games being 'just for fun'?

As I mentioned before, Juul posits a cline or spectrum upon which instances of game play can be placed from no consequences to however serious they may be (some sports have deadly consequences from time to time, and most professional sports have high stakes financial consequences).

I can play soccer with my sons. There is no money on the line. Ronaldo plays soccer and makes big bucks. Is Ronaldo not playing a game because he is making money from it? Caillois, one of Juul's sources (yes, I need to read this, I'll get to it) says Ronaldo is NOT in fact playing a game because he is working. But I think most of us would still consider a pro soccer match to be a game. It is identical to that game my sons and I play in the park rules-wise (well, we may bend them since my younger is only 3). Both have variable and quantifiable outcomes. Players are attached to the outcomes in both, and both valorize winning as opposed to losing. Both require effort by the players. Both fit all five previous elements of the definition. It is only in this last that they diverge. And in order to solve the question of divergence of consequences, Juul posits that the game exists independent of the consequences. A game on its own has no serious real world consequences. People may, though, decide to give a game consequences prior to play (negotiating).

In other words, this is not so much a defining element of games as it is a refutation of Caillois and others who claim that games are ONLY leisure activities void of consequence in a real-world sense.

As such, I think it makes sense to have it as part of the definition - because the question of "Are pro gamers still playing games?" is of academic interest. But it has little useful function in defining what is and isn't a game 99% of the time.

In this section, and later when he talks about the chart of games/borderline games/non-games, he mentions several activities that seem to meet the previous five criteria but HAVE serious consequences in real life. The stock market is one. Traffic and war are also given as examples. The stock market is interactive, has set rules, has variable quantifiable outcomes, involves 'player' effort, valorizes some outcomes and not others, and 'players' are most definitely invested in the outcome (pun intended). Yet trading shares of stock is NOT a game. It could be made into a game, but it isn't. Because the default way to 'play' the stock market (and we do use that verb with it, don't we?) demands real financial consequences of play.

Similarly, we have traffic laws. You won't always get to your destination (you could crash, or get lost, or run out of fuel) so it has variable quantifiable outcomes, and drivers and passengers are definitely invested in arriving at their destination. It takes effort to drive a vehicle. Again, is driving a game? Juul says no, because again the consequences of crashing your vehicle are always potentially deadly.

So, Juul needs to address professional sports again in the realm of safety now, and he does. Some sports carry the risk of injury or even death, even if played just for fun. And professional sports have, over the years, continued to evolve their rules and safety precautions in order to minimize injury and death from the sport. We don't have Roman style gladiator contests anymore, we have things like Sasuke and pro-wrestling which minimize injury and death. We make sure the cars used in auto races are as safe as can reasonably be expected. We are constantly seeing advances in sports gear to protect players from injury in a wide range of sports. The ideal is that games should be consequence free, but in reality they often do have serious consequences...but players know this going in and agree to accept the consequences of play.

Gambling, again, is another example of negotiating consequences. I used to play poker with my siblings as a kid. We never wagered any money, though, it was just for fun (and bragging rights). But walk into a casino. In that location, you can't play any sort of poker, craps, roulette, or other games of chance without wagering money on them. The gambling in a casino has mandatory consequences, but it is a choice on the part of the player to engage in it or not. The activities can be and are sometimes played without consequences just for fun.

Finally, Juul notes that there are some non-negotiable consequences of play, and they are often not consciously considered. Games take time to play. The valorization/attachment to outcomes require mental and emotional investment in the game, and can cause hurt. He again mentions sore losers as people who violate the social contract because of their reaction to these unavoidable consequences.

That's a lot of words by me (for a lot of words by Juul), but it can be boiled down to this: games are activities that can be played without any real world consequences other than the time and effort needed to engage in the activity, and the fact that they sometimes have more serious consequences attached to them does not invalidate the activities as games (although people are free to exclude the instances of game play which involve consequences if they like).


To wrap up the series, I want to re-iterate that this has been mostly a thought exercise for me. I looked at how Juul defines games, and what I see as a missing implication (that most of the elements in the definition are not binaries, but rather sliding scales).

Commenter Mr. T suggested that trying to define games is a pointless task, as no definition will be satisfactory. I think he's right that no definition will ever be satisfactory. But then my academic field, language education/applied linguistics, also has terms that people can't agree on how to define. Yet people DO propose definitions, and other researchers use those definitions (or modify them) in their own work to use as a common baseline for other academics to understand the position of the writer, and to test the ideas presented. The important thing is to spell out your definitions openly so people know where you're coming from.

If I write a paper using a Connectivist Model of Learning, it's fair to critique it using Connectivist definitions. It may be useful for someone else to use a Behaviorist Model and discuss how that would possibly interpret the data and conclusions I present differently, but it's not actually saying I'm wrong because it's using a completely different conceptual framework. It's just saying their framework is different from mine. Any real critique of my work needs to be done first from within the conceptual framework I've chosen, and once the flaws are pointed out in that conceptual framework, THEN another framework can be argued to better explain the data.

Juul's definition of games is a decent conceptual framework to base further ponderings of RPGs and what makes them games but somehow different from other games. Other conceptual frameworks surely work well, too. I'm not opposed to taking what I've written here (or will write in the future) and examining it from another conceptual framework. But academics need to spell out what conceptual frameworks they're working with, so the idea that games "can't adequately be defined" is really not helpful. They can be defined, and while no definition is perfect, the definition can be good enough to work with going forward. I think Juul's definition is definitely in that category.

In the future (I've been reading more on game design theory, as well as Games Theory which both is and isn't related to games), I'm going to be looking at RPGs and design using this model of what a game is, and probably also evaluating them from a few other models or definitions as well.

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