Saturday, April 14, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 4 and 5: Effort and Attachment

Jesper Juul (2003) gives a definition of games based on six elements or criteria that can be used to define a game. My initial thoughts on Juul's paper can be found here, a discussion of element 1 here, and discussion of elements 2 and 3 here.

Element 4: Player Effort

In order for a game to be a game, players need to put forth some effort. This seems fairly obvious, and Juul doesn't spend much time describing this element, even though it's arguably the most relevant trait (Chris Crawford, whose On Game Design I'm currently reading, lists this as the final definitive difference between games and other types of play such as toys and puzzles, for example). Here's what Juul has to say in its entirety:

Player effort is another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict, or that games are "interactive". It is a part of the rules of most games (expect* games of pure chance) that the players' actions can influence the game state and game outcome. The investment of player effort tends to lead to an attachment of the player to the outcome since the investment of energy into the game makes the player (partly) responsible for the outcome. (p. 7)
*He obviously means except here, emphasis added.

This seems hard to argue against. If games imply challenge. Win or lose. They also imply interactivity, even though there are solitary games. However, this rules out 'games of pure chance' doesn't it? In a game of pure chance: Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, not to mention many kinds of gambling, does the player put in any effort? Is there any challenge in the game? Or is it just luck?

Later, Juul's graphic taxonomy of games, borderline games, and non-games places these games of pure chance in the borderline category. Even though the player's actions do not affect the outcome (aside from cheating), there is an illusion of agency created by Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome. I'm sure we've all been in a situation where we were playing a pure chance game and thought, If I roll the dice just right... and then hoped for that exact number we needed to win (or at least achieve some specific result within the game). And every now and then we're going to roll that number by chance, and our false belief that holding the dice a certain way, or blowing on them before the roll, or tossing them hard or soft actually caused the wanted result to appear. Juul doesn't say any of this, it's just me speculating.

Juul does discuss some activities that fall completely outside of the game definition for violating this element. For one, he lists movies/storytelling as not having a variable outcome (element 2), not requiring player effort (element 4, which we're looking at now), and player attachment to the outcome (element 5, which is discussed below). Now, obviously a movie or story has a set ending. And it doesn't require any effort by the audience other than to devote their time. Nothing the audience does will influence the outcome, it's simply a question of whether you're willing to put in the effort to reach the end of the story or drop it. I'd say many forms of fiction do inspire player attachment to the outcome if it's well crafted. But it's not a requirement. A crappy book or movie still will play out to the end, even if you the audience no longer care about how it ends. But we'll discuss this more below. Fiction, Juul proposes, is NOT a game in any sense. And I would agree, because the outcome is fixed and not dependent on any input from the audience.

Now, looking at RPGs, I'd say that player effort is the whole POINT of the game. We play RPGs because they challenge us. They challenge us with rule mechanics (can we beat the orcs or will they beat us?). They challenge us with puzzles (can we avoid the trap to get to the treasure safely?) and resource management (do we take all the copper coins or leave them because they slow us down?). They challenge us with in-game interpersonal conflict (should we kill the sleeping goblins or just tie them up?). They challenge us with out-of-game interpersonal conflict (do we play without Jim's wizard this week, or put the game off until next week so he can join us?). They challenge us to be creative (how can I make this character interesting and fun for everyone at the table?) and more empathetic (how can my assassin work together with Sarah's paladin?).

Story (Narrativist) games, as opposed to regular fiction, do have a strong element of player effort. The story game tends to give you some guidelines about what the story should be "about" but the story is not there yet. It takes player effort to flesh out the story, and the whole point of those games is to be able to narrate the story your way.

Again, this is my speculation, but it may be that Juul gives RPGs a borderline status despite them not adhering to Element 1: Fixed Rules because of the above. Juul seems to place a heavy emphasis on games having fixed rules which RPGs violate, but because they are exercises in player effort, they pass muster. RPGs crank the dial up to 11 on this one, where games of pure chance dial it down to the minimum effort/decision point of play/don't play.

Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome

This is one element of Juul's definition that I'm not sure is 100% necessary. It basically is just a further elaboration of both Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome and Element 4: Player Effort. And Juul seems to realize this, as he himself states that this is a purely psychological aspect dependent on the player having the correct attitude, and stems from player effort.

And it does make sense. We tend to put value on things for which we put in effort. If we did not, then why expend the effort? And if certain outcomes are preferable to other outcomes (valorization), then it is only natural that we feel attached to achieving one of the positive outcomes rather than a negative one. And for a game of pure chance like Candy Land or craps, the fact that the outcome is valorized and there is a competitive aspect to the game (and in the case of gambling games like craps there is a real world consequence at stake), we get attached to the outcome.

Juul discusses the social contract of games here. He mentions poor sports who either refuse to enjoy victory or feel bad about defeat - which is not really something we can lay at the feet of the game, can we? If a game fails to inspire attachment to the outcome THIS TIME we play, is it not a game? In a way, it may not be, but that's not a useful criterion for deciding what is a game and what isn't.

Personally, if I were to revise this definition, I'd roll the various aspects of this element into #3 and #4. Social contract and player attachment are important, but agreeing to the social contract is a form of effort (#4) while attachment to the outcome is an extension/consequence of valorization of outcomes (#3).

Looking at RPGs, whether traditional or story games, I would say that player attachment is an important aspect of play. But it's not completely necessary to have a good time. I've played in one-shot games before, with pregen characters. And in these kinds of games, players tend to have little attachment to the outcomes of their PCs. Yet they still have fun.

Thinking of games like Call of Cthulhu, or D&D modules like The Tomb of Horrors, though, I would consider them to be an inversion of the valorization of outcomes. In CoC, the ideal outcome may in fact be the death or insanity of your PC. When playing Tomb of Horrors, the idea may be to see in what humorous/grotesque/idiotic way your PC dies. That may be the prized outcome of the game. Looking at the one-shot game through this lens, it may simply be a flipped valorization scenario, in which case players are in fact attached to the outcome of their character - it's just that the outcome they are attached to is the one they normally try to avoid in standard play.


  1. A game is a game. There is no almost-a-game. If the definitions you are using to describe games do not apply to all games, then that is not a definition for a game. Which is why I said earlier that the only true way to define whether or not something is a game, is whether folks interact with it, alone or with others.

    Craps is a game. You pick up the dice, you throw them and yes, the way you throw them affects the outcome, regardless of whether that is conscious control or not. Also, betting is about playing the averages, and knowing the odds will allow the experienced gambler to win more often than lose (as in Blackjack, where a deep enough pocket and a good sense of what to bet, when and what to hit on, mitigates the randomness of the draw to an extent).

    Puzzles are not games. Like books, the outcome is certain, and placing pieces, no matter what order you do them in, always heads towards a set result, no matter what you do. The only challenge with a puzzle is in how many pieces it has to sort through, and how long it takes to put them together, but by that definition, a book would be a game (how many pages, how long to read it).

    Granted, you could make a game out of reading or puzzling, but then the game (how fast can I do this) is separate from the technology used to implement it (the puzzle, the book, the number of apples picked, etc.). This falls into the realm of gamification, however, and that's another academic can of worms...

  2. I'm continuing this whether you agree or not with it, because I'm using it to organize my thoughts and see if I think Juul's idea is a good one to work from. I'm happy to hear your input, but you seem to be making a mistake in either not giving a clear definition of a game that you're working with (which is needed for academic discourse to keep us from arguing apples and oranges) or as you implied in your previous comment just dispensing with definitions altogether and assuming everyone agrees on what is and isn't a game (which isn't true).

    You say "the only true way to define whether or not something is a game, is whether folks interact with it, alone or with others." But there are lots of things that people interact with that we don't consider games. Juul mentions road traffic and rules of war as activities that behave in many ways like games but aren't. There must be more to the definition than just interaction and a heuristic judgment.