The difference and similarities between games and toys, how they interrelate and how they holdup in digital formats is an issue, largely resolved, but still cause for much confusion. It has also been a source of substantial debate among my peers. Where after some time and barrage of textbook definitions we always come to the same ambiguously, unsettling conclusion that ‘there is no right answer’. A notion just as liberal as it is useless.
As primarily a game designer and then a game theorist, I try to refrain from ideas that do no credit to my game design practices. On 1st of January, 2020 in the very early hours of the morning with the new year’s celebration on its last legs; my peers and I, unsurprisingly, began philosophical discourse. And by the time it evolved into theoretical debate my sleep deprived brain was already analysing video games on the atomic scale.
I think it is safe to assume that almost everyone understands what I mean when I say game, toy or video game. But just in case; Super Mario Bros is a video game, that teddy bear you had as a child was a toy and anything from Football to Monopoly is a game. Going forward please keep in mind that I am neither a theoretical physicist or a reliable game theorist, so all mistakes are genuine and when realised be subjected to rectification.
With that out of the way here is my definition of a Game,
“ A Game is any entity capable of being both a game or a toy until the exact moment of interaction with the entity, which is then defined based solely on the nature of the interaction.”
In quantum mechanics, one of the fundamental principles is Quantum Superposition. Superposition is the ability of a quantum system to be in multiple states at the same time until it is measured. In computing, the concept of superposition has important implications for the way information will be processed and stored in the future. For example, today’s classical computers process information in bits of one or zero, similar to a light switch being turned on or off. The quantum supercomputers of tomorrow, however, will process information as ‘Qubits’ – one, zero or a superposition of the two states. This idea of superposition became the basis of my understanding of a game and its states.
Both games and toys engage the user in play. They are primarily distinguished by the presence or absence of set rules and intrinsic goals. Games always have specific set rules of play and one or more goals. A toy on the other hand is devoid of these, and engages the user in free play. Games are also comprised of one or more mechanics that can operate as a toy by itself.
Let us imagine that we are continuously tossing a coin which lands on either heads or tails each time. But, we make no note of these and are merely doing it for the sake of tossing a coin. This activity might be considered play and the coin a toy. Now consider we suddenly started to keep track of the two states of the coin. And decided that if we get more heads than tails over the following five coin flips we win or else we lose. The moment we specify the rules and goal/s, the activity is no longer a toy but a game.
Let us now work the other way i.e game to toy. We are in the middle of a quest in a role playing video-game when we suddenly decide to keep jumping in place just for the sake of it. This is still playful and is technically still taking place within a “game” but in the moment the activity is devoid of rules and goals and is hence a toy. But an RPG is most definitely a game, it has specific rules, goals, difficulty, narrative, music and possibly everything else that a game is comprised of. Here one can argue that regardless of the nature of your interaction it is still a game.
But, the one who argued in the previous sentence interacted with the entity in the context of a game and thus in that very moment defined it as a game. While we are interacting with the “game” as a toy and for us it is in-fact a toy. This is true for the example of the coin as well. And this right here is exactly why the entity (the RPG/ the Coin) is neither, just a game or just a toy but an entity capable of being both. Meaning, games are entities in a state of Superposition until the moment of interaction.