Frasca defines “play” and “game”; I get all jumbled

by ~hellfire~

Frasca’s definition of play:

 Play is to somebody an engaging activity in which the player believes to have active participation and interprets it as constraining her immediate future to a set of probable scenarios, all of which she is willing to tolerate.(50)

Important regarding Frasca’s definition:

1) Play is subjective:  “Every activity could potentially be play. However, this does not mean that every activity is play. Play, then, is an activity accompanied by a particular state of mind.”(51)

2) Play is engaging: “it is a source of pleasure” (which need not necessarily be understood as fun)  And, “play holds the player’s attention. In other words, the player is focused on the activity and cares about it.” (51) I have some issues with this; more on it later.

3) Player’s believe in their active participation. (52)

4) Players are willing tolerate all the probable consequences. (53) A single session of play can shift between consequences a player does not tolerate and ones she does. When she does not tolerate the consequences, she is not playing (as in the case of fear for one’s bodily health, or economic security); the degree in consequences can be so high as to be not be tolerated by the player.

For example, I couldn’t find my way out of the first room in Planescape: Torment, despite having the key. I searched for fifteen minutes for a door. Finally, I could no longer tolerate the situation: I stopped playing and looked for direction online. 

5) The player’s immediate future within a play session is constrained by the play. (53)

And built off these aspects of play, Frasca’s definition of games:

A game is a form of play where players agree on a system of rules that assigns socialstatus to their quantified performance.

It is also possible to integrate the previous definition of play, in order to provide an expanded definition of game:

A game is to somebody an engaging activity in which players believe to have active participation and where they agree on a system of rules that assigns social status to their quantified performance. The activity constrains playersʼ immediate future to a set of probable scenarios, all of which they are willing to tolerate.”(70)

Important parts of this definition are:

 1) Games are play activities and object

 2) Games have rules—these rules valorize certain performances.

3) Player performance is measured and valued. This value correlated to a certain social status. (even in single player games)

4) Players believe they actively participate in games

5) Game consequences are not optional. The player can’t decide to not have a game affect her.”


I think these are really compelling definitions. Frasca stresses the subjectivity of play: this is the sort of way I’m interested in studying games.

Frasca also stresses that games affect people. Consequences are never optional. Like Consalvo, he thinks games are not separate from our lives.

I do have a few issues with point 2 of the play definition. Frasca writes that play is “a source of pleasure”. This gives rise to problems.

A couple weeks ago, at the insistence of a friend, I began playing the popular online DoTA-alike “League of Legends”. After many hours of participation and little pleasure derived, I stopped playing the game. The whole time I was expecting it to start being pleasurable; it never was. I was engaged in the activity because of my expectation, but that expectation was not met. In a way, this is a case of point 4: I ceased to tolerate what I saw as the consequences of my play, that is, me not having a pleasurable experience. But I still tolerated it for a while. Just not indefinitely. Was I never playing the game, hence making it not a game for me?

To take a situation like this into account—where a person participates in a “game” not extracting pleasure in from it, but continues participating because pleasure is at some point expected—Frasca can do one of three things:

One is to say that if there is no pleasure here-and-now for a player, including the pleasure of anticipation, then what is being participated in is not a game for that player. This player participates (and is engaged actively) in a game-like structure without finding the game’s consequences intolerable while playing, but also without experiencing any form of pleasure. Because there is no pleasure, the person isn’t playing. So for the person, the game is not actually a game, since part of Frasca’s definition of a game includes play. But I don’t know if Frasca wants to go this far in emphasizing subjectivity; he wants to balance subjectivity with the system of the game, and this would make the system of the game totally irrelevant.

Another is to shift Frasca’s definition of playing to exclude pleasure—which I think would be a mistake, considering the spirit of play.

The third is to modify the importance of pleasure to being expected. I’ll explain why I think this third choice is a good one.

There are plenty of games we try because we expect pleasure from them. That’s why we play them; we’re looking for something we like. In some cases, it might take us a while to realize when we are not going to derive pleasure from a game. But I don’t think this means we aren’t playing. Instead, finding something we like in games is a condition we expect games to meet which sometimes isn’t met; as long as we expect these conditions, we are still playing.

Another example is that I might trudge through a game’s boring exposition because I expect it to become exciting and interesting. If that excitement and interest never comes, or does not come soon enough, it does not mean that I was never playing the game. It just means that I didn’t forsee consequences that would become intolerable to me.

Someone might counter this argument by saying that anticipation is its own pleasure. Thus, the game is pleasurable. I can only work anecdotally, but I can think of instances where this hasn’t been the case for me. So in the end, I think it’s more realistic to have the pleasure part be “pleasure or an expectation of pleasure”.

Then again, I’m not sure if this line of thought compromises the central tenant of Frasca’s theory: player subjectivity having a big role what makes a game. It also might not jive with the 4th point in Frasca’s definition of play (tolerable consequences). I’ll have to think about it more.

[Frasca’s PhD Dissertation, “Play the Message”, is available here]