Good Game

Posted by jmaliksi on Thursday Feb 24, 2011 Under Alternative Game Movements

Winning isn’t everything.

—Old Saying

Games, above being entertainment, are an aesthetic experience. With the power of immersion and agency, a game can be as expressive of a medium as art and installations. And just as with traditional forms of art, game culture has undergone several movements that ‘break from the norm.’ These alternative game movements subvert and deconstruct many concepts, representations, and mechanics that many take for granted, be it to send a message or to simply explore the medium.

What makes a game?

Before we look at specific cases of alternate games, we must first examine what all “normal” games have in common. In Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Interactivity, Pearce (69) outlines six features that define games and distinguish them from other pursuits:

  • Parameterized play
  • Goal
  • Obstacles
  • Resources
  • Consequences
  • Information

Parameterized play simply refers to the fact that games have rules that players abide by. All games have an end goal, which is challenging to attain due to obstacles. Games also tend to have some kind of resource that the players must manage to some degree, eg. the ball in soccer or minerals in Starcraft. There are also abstracted consequences for various courses of action in a game in the form of rewards or penalties; for example beating monsters in an RPG is rewarded with experience, but egregious roughness in water polo results in the offender being ejected from play. Information also plays a large role in games, as hidden and known data dictate a player’s course of action.

With this definition laid out, we will now examine a few examples of alternate games.


Created in 1962, SpaceWar is often cited as the first digital game (Pearce, 72), and thus heralded perhaps the most important paradigm shifts in recent game history. It started as a hack; MIT students were simply looking to challenge themselves with programming and hardware engineering (Ibid), and as such was simply an exploration of the medium. It is interesting to note that the game evolved quickly according to the hacker ethos of adding features to a program rather than through careful design and playtesting (Spacewar).

By today’s standards, the game was very simple. Multiple players would control their own spaceship and fly around a space with Newtonian movement shooting torpedoes at the others. A star in the center of the map would attract them with gravity, and it could even destroy them if they got to close. The last player alive would win the round.

Obviously this did not work to subvert the pillars that define traditional games, but it still falls under the purview of alternate games, if not simply from instigating a digital revolution or from evolving from hackers overcoming a technical challenge. However, there is one more interesting thing to note: the game cemented parameterized play. A computer only knows and functions according to rules. With analog games, rules can be broken by human players at their whim; the only thing stopping them is the disdain of the other players. With digital games, provided there exist no glitches, it is completely impossible to break a rule.

Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set (1971)

The White Chess Set is a modified version of normal chess. Rather than black and white pieces, all pieces are white. Rather than a 8×8 grid of alternating black and white squares, the board is completely white. All in all, the game was completely unplayable.

Obviously, the game was not meant as a new way to play chess. Presumably, the rules of play were all the same; however, the goals were no longer relevant, and abiding by the movement rules was impossible due to the inability to count squares.

Instead, the white chess set was used to evoke an anti-war sentiment, specifically regarding the Vietnam War (Pearce, 80). As covered in my first blog post, chess has a long history rooted in ancient military strategy. By simply being repainted, this piece transforms from an iconic war game into a protesting message speaking about the futility of conflict and a suggesting for all sides to ‘stop playing the game.’

Rock Paper Scissors Tag

Rock-paper-scisssors tag is mostly self explanatory:

“In this game, two ‘teams’ face off across a line. On the count of three, each group shows rock, paper or scissors, having huddled beforehand to decide on a strategy. The team that shows the losing sign turns and runs to their home base, about 15 feet behind. The team that shows the winning sign gives chase. Any person tagged by the winning team transfers to that team for the next round of play.” (Fron et al)

The most interesting aspect of this game is how those who are tagged in each round are rotated onto the ‘winning’ team, so team members are always changing yet are forced to think as a cohesive whole when shooting their symbols. On top of that, there is another complication: while it is obvious that the goal is to win the game, at the end, everyone is a winner. Due to the inability to be a loser at end game, some players elect not to partake in the tag portion of the game. They stand still whether they win or lose, and simply get transferred or stay on the “winning” side.

There is also a fascinating dynamic regarding how the game automatically balances itself. While one would expect that a smaller team would be at a disadvantage, one would be wrong. Those who are not caught tend to be the faster runners, so they will continue evading capture. However, if they throw a winning symbol, they can tag many of the opposing team’s players and rebalance the numbers. This results in a sort of tug-of-war, and may even end in stalemate.


Brand, Stewart. “SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Rolling Stone, December 7, 2001.

Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2005). “Sustainable Play: Towards A New Games Movement for the Digital Age.” Digital Arts & Culture Conference Proceedings, Copenhagen, December 2005. Download here:

Pearce, Celia. “Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Interactivity.” Visible Language: Special Issue on Fluxus. January 2006.

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