The definition of games, despite scholars’ best efforts, changes almost constantly. Even the definitions from leading game studies scholars are critiqued and challenged. Rather than forming a separate definition, Jesper Juul attempts to pinpoint the qualities of games that most everyone can agree on:
A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.
Juul’s definition, while still open to interpretation, provides good criteria to decide what does and doesn’t qualify as a game.
So let’s take a look at David O’Reilly’s “Mountain” to test Juul’s criteria.
A little background first: “Mountain” has been highly debated on its status as a game. Game critics say yes, but the average Steam player says no. At first glance, it does seem like the Steam players have it right. The system offers no rules or interaction. The system just displays a mountain, changing without player input, and the player can only sit back and watch. But where the Steam player sees passivity, critics see something more.
Let’s apply Juul’s definition to see if we can see it for ourselves.
“A game is a rule-based system…”: At face-value, “Mountain” has no rules. The mouse allows you to draw in some boxes at the beginning, and to move the camera. But that’s it, right? Mechanically, the mouse’s interaction with the box prompts and the camera are set-up rules. There is also an implicit rule in play: the longer the system is left open, the more the mountain changes. In order to fulfill that rule, you may end up establishing rules for yourself.
“…with a variable and quantifiable outcome…”: The variation in the outcomes is possible, as evidenced by the various playthroughs we see uploaded on YouTube. While the player cannot affect those outcomes, the system charts the outcome itself. In addition to the outcomes provided by the system, various outcomes are in the form of players’ reactions to the game itself.
“…different outcomes are assigned different values…”: Following the assumption previously mentioned, the value of the outcome you receive will be different from how you value someone else’s outcome, or in this case, someone else’s opinion. The game itself produces value by the changes it makes, and by the endings that inevitably come.
“…the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome…”: Just because you are not interacting directly with the game doesn’t mean you are not exerting effort. If you made a rule to see how long you can last in one sitting, you have to exert patience and figure out what details to give your attention so you stick around longer. If you want to read every thought the mountain has, you have to have discipline to not be distracted by something else in your real-life environment.
“…the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome…”: The common player may not have any emotional attachment to “Mountain”. They expect the game to provide the rules and goals, and upon finding none, are halted from moving further in the act of playing. The player who makes their own rules, however, puts more activity into the game, receiving more results. Since the activity happens with self-control, or curiosity, or some other internal quality, attachment inevitably comes. As the mountain changes, players may feel that they are changing right along with it. Every thought the mountain has is relatable. Every little moment is magnified, and the player can’t help but feel it.
“…the consequences of the activity are negotiable.”: This one is the hardest to see. You don’t negotiate to be changed. You don’t negotiate to sit there and watch the game change without your input. Are you even negotiating with the game? Juul makes a point of stating this negotiation is the connection the game’s outcome will have to real life. The real life outcomes from “Mountain” all lie within our reactions, our discussions and debates.
Ultimately, that’s the whole point of “Mountain”. It’s a game that, by turning the player into a game, challenges what we think of games, what we think of play, and the implications that has on our real life. So as we continue to argue if this is a game, art, both or neither, it’s important that we decide what we’re willing to allow a game to turn into… and what we’re willing to give up to keep our definition of games.