I found this book both different and delightful. When it was first published, in 1978, it was probably a bit ahead of its time. Republished in 2013, it is more timely, relevant, and enlightening than ever. The author explores the concept of a game and what it means to play a game well. But, unlike earlier classics [1,2,3], in this case, the author does not set out to argue a point or conduct a scholarly analysis. Instead, he uses the Socratic approach of exploring concepts. He draws the reader into a guided joint venture to explore various aspects of “the well-played game.”
The book begins with definitions of the terms “game,” “play,” and “well played.” The author defines a game as “something that provides us with a common goal, the achievement of which has no bearing on anything that is outside the game.” Play is “the enactment of anything that is not for real,” and a well-played game is one “that becomes excellent because of the way [it is] played.” After these preliminaries, the author switches from an analytical mode to one of mutual discovery. He takes the reader on a conceptual journey through the nuances of a well-played game.
When playing poker, why is it okay to declare twos, tens, and one-eyed jacks to be wild, but it isn’t okay to change the wild cards in the middle of a hand? Why is it not okay to play poker with somebody who does not know the rules, but it is okay to play games where the rules are so complicated that most players don’t fully understand them and game officials are needed to sort things out?
I could go on and on with these questions. Why do World of Warcraft players feel betrayed when the game changes in a significant way? Why is Second Life not a game? Why is a Ponzi scheme a game that is not played? And so on.
The answers to these questions are quite simple. In the cases where something is okay, the game has the potential to be well played; in the cases where something is not okay, it would be difficult to have a well-played game. What is a well-played game? Well, the definition was provided already, but the subtleties of the well-played game are explored in patient detail as the reader participates in this journey through the nuances of the concept. The benefit of this approach is that you not only finish with an understanding of a well-played game, but, unlike the classic approaches, you also get a feeling for it.
While the classics mentioned earlier are must-reads for academics who study games, this book is a must-read for game designers and game players who may wish to tweak the games they play to make playing more rewarding. I would go even further. Because it is so delightful to read, I recommend it to anyone who likes a thought-provoking, intellectual journal. The writing style is deceptively simple. As you read, you wonder to yourself, “Can it really be this easy?” But don’t kid yourself; this is a book that can be read again and again for new insights each time.
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