War–A Game-like Activity

I teach a class called Creating Games that fulfills the Creative Thought requirement within our general education program. The class is focused on game design principles that can be used in creating games of all kinds. Because of the limited availability of the technical tools required to create digital games, this class focuses on the design and development of non-digital games although I believe that there are plenty of principles that apply to games of all types.

The main challenge I have in teaching this class is to get students to understand that games can be studied and analyzed just as cultural artifacts such as novels and movies can be studied and analyzed. It seems that many students want to say whether a game is fun or not and leave their comments at that. So we go through a series of exercises in which we break a game apart and try to figure out how it works. In one of these exercises, I use Greg Costikyan’s article “I Have No Words and I Must Design” as the framework by which we will analyze the classic card game War.

Costikyan provides a definition of a game that includes six elements. The six elements are decision-making, goals, opposition, managing resources, game tokens and information. If an activity does not include each of these six elements, Costikyan argues that the activity cannot be considered a game. When the students apply this framework to War, students quickly find that Costikyan would not consider War to be a game, primarily because it requires no decision-making. You simply flip a card and hope that it beats your opponent’s card. Although most students are able to easily understand this lack of decision-making, they struggle with some of the other elements that Costikyan discusses, perhaps because Costikyan doesn’t make the relationships among the elements absolutely clear.

Students do not seem to have difficulty understanding what Costikyan means by goals but they do have some difficulty understanding the relationship between the player’s goals in War and the weaknesses of War. The player has one goal in War and that is to get all of the cards. (Some people play that the game is over when one player wins three wars–in that case, the goal is to win three wars but the argument remains the same.) This is a very clear goal and by itself, it does not constitute a weakness of the game. The problem is that there is nothing that the player can do to increase (or decrease) her likelihood that she will achieve her goal. And that’s because there is no decision-making within the game.

One element that students find particularly challenging to understand is opposition. Costikyan says, “In a two-player, head-to-head game, your opponent is the opposition, … .” So since War is a two-player, head-to-head game, the opponent is the opposition, right? But Costikyan makes a big deal about the word struggle when he talks about opposition. He says that when players don’t struggle to reach their goals, they won’t feel the thrill of victory because it was all too easy. He says that the game designer must make the players work to achieve their goals. But in War, there is no work to be done because there are no decisions to be made. There is no struggle. The player is left to face the forces of nature and hope that nature is kind. The player can do nothing to manipulate or change her destiny. The luck of the draw will determine who wins the game. In fact, as soon as the cards are dealt, the winner has been chosen and all the players can do is mechanically flip the cards to find out what nature already knows.

Costikyan then goes on to discuss managing resources. He argues that adding decision-making isn’t enough to make a game. The decisions must be meaningful decisions and they can only be meaningful if they involve the management of some kind of resource. War has a set of resources–the cards themselves. But because the game provides no decision-making at all that can be made in the game, by definition, there is no meaningful decision-making. So the weakness of the game isn’t that there aren’t enough resources to manage. In fact, lots of card games use only cards as resources and are outstanding games. No, the problem is that there is no way to manage the resources of the game because there is no decision-making in the game.

Students also seem to have difficulty with the distinction that Costikyan makes between resources and game tokens. He says, “A game token is any entity you may manipulate directly.” And the relationship between resources and game tokens? “Resources are things you must manage efficiently to achieve your goals; tokens are your means of managing them.” Part of the reason that students have difficulty with this concept, I think, is because in many games, there is a one-to-one correspondence between resources and game tokens. That’s true in War, for example. The cards act as both resources and game tokens. Just as it is not a weakness to have only cards as resources, it is also not a weakness to have only cards as game tokens. There are many fine card games that have no tokens other than cards. Once again, the problem is really that there is nothing the player can do with the game tokens to manage his resources in a way that increases (or decreases) his likelihood of winning the game.

The last element of a game that Costikyan discusses is information. Of the player, Costikyan says, “he must have enough information to be able to make a sensible decision.” In War, all information is hidden from the player. The player knows nothing about her opponent’s cards but she also knows nothing about her own cards. Students will sometimes address the lack of decision-making in War by dividing a player’s pile of cards into two piles. The player will then choose the pile, still without looking at the cards, from which her next card will come. Although there is now a decision to be made, it is not a meaningful decision because the player still has no information to help decide which pile will be best. So information is critical to meaningful decision-making. The player needs to have some information that will allow her to make a sensible decision, a decision that might help her get closer to her goal.

The main reason that people over the age of eight get bored with War is its lack of decision-making. The lack of information and the inability to manage resources are both related to the lack of decision-making. These things mean that War is not even a game if we are to use Costikyan’s definition. Students who remember fondly their hours of playing War are sometimes hostile to the idea that it isn’t a game. I would argue that War is game-like and serves two useful purposes for children who engage in the activity. First, kids learn the ranks of the cards. They learn which cards beat which other cards which will help them in learning to play many other games. Second, and perhaps most importantly, they learn how to engage in game activities. They learn that games have rules that must be followed, even when it means that you don’t win. They learn the patience that is required to engage in game activities–you can’t just jump to your goal without paying attention to the obstacles that have been placed in front of you in the name of the game. And they learn that everyone loses sometimes and sometimes that loss happens because of bad luck. Since game-playing is so important to humans, learning these lessons of games via a game-like activity is akin to learning to be human.

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