Blurry lines

October 5, 2008

The creators of Magic the Gathering, a fantasy card game, have a scale known as the Melvin-Vorthos axis. Magic is set in a universe of epic fantasy. Game cards have painted illustrations, quotes and identities that fit into a storyline. This story material is referred to as “flavor” and has no actual impact on gameplay, which involves complex strategy with a heavy mathematical component.

Melvin and Vorthos are demographic profiles given to describe the player-base for marketing purposes. Melvin thinks of the game as a straight mathematical exercise in pure abstraction; his play would be unchanged if the cards contained no illustrations or story element at all. Vorthos plays the game for the pretend epic-fantasy elements; he would enjoy the cards without the game rules and statistics. Most players fall somewhere in between these extremes and enjoy both to greater or lesser degrees. What is interesting (and frustrating) is that occasionally, players on opposite ends of the spectrum play each other and have a miscommunication because it turns out they are playing two completely different games… together.

Rahr! My cards eats you!

Rahr! My cards eats you!

All of play falls onto the Melvin-Vorthos axis. Some games reflect reality and some are pure abstraction, with levels of gradation in between. Also, some games cover more of the spectrum than others. Magic covers a wide swath of the abstraction spectrum, while games such as cops-and-robbers or roulette take up a much narrower sliver.



Let’s start with the first game most people ever play. Here are the “rules” to Peek-a-boo: When it is my “turn” I go away (not far) and then return abruptly in order to startle the other player. Players make eye contact, the startled player realizes (either immediately or after a short delay, depending on how experienced a player he or she is) there is no danger, and laughs and laughs. Occasionally turns alternate players. Repeat until the oldest player is completely sick of it. At first, the startle/laugh indicates “my survival reflexes thought I was in danger, but I’m not.” (This is the foundation of pretty much all comedy, right there.) Later, it becomes about the anticipation of being surprised and the social connection of two people making each other laugh.

One of the earliest games that toddlers play, Chase-me-around, is simple, and based on a real premise–someone is going to get someone else who doesn’t want to be gotten. Whether we live in a dangerous environment or not, running away from danger is a pretty deep-rooted, lizard-brain instinct. This, then, is another game reflecting reality.

In House, the rules of the game are based on roles that exist in reality. Someone goes to work, someone cooks dinner, someone puts the baby to bed, etc. You do what people in your role do in real life. (I’m hoping that these days, there is some gender equality in these roles). Roles define rules.

In fantasy pretend play, things are based on a speculative reality. People can fly, one can breathe in space, turtles can mutate and be trained as ninja masters, etc. The game is just like House, except for how much the mental image resembles actual reality. There are still roles and behaviors associated with those roles. Being able to adjust behavior to reflect new roles in other realities with different rules is a critical developmental skill. (I’ll come back to this in a future post).

Chase-me-around with a fantasy element becomes Cops-and-Robbers, or Ninjas-and-Pirates, or whatever. The roles still define the rules.

Candy Land

Candy Land

Candy Land has a fantasy universe of a world made of candy, an abstract game of counting, and score is kept in the counting game with the metaphor of a footrace from a start to a finish line. Grounded in reality (a footrace), in a hypothetical fantasy setting, but here the rules are based on something more structured and abstract. The fantasy component has no effect on gameplay behavior.



Tag is Chase-me-around but with specific, abstract rules for how the chase occurs. No longer do the chaser and chasee switch roles based on whim or based on roles in some imaginary scenario, but in response to a specific condition, mutually agreed to by the participants. (We’ll get to this mutual agreement process in a future post because this, too, is a critical developmental skill).

Rugby is just Kill-the-Guy-with-the-Ball or Keepaway (our name for Team-KtGwtB) with more abstract rules attached. The key structure of the game is “gimme that,” which is quite grounded in a real-life activity.

Baseball is even more abstract. The basic gameplay (evolved from the simpler game of Hitting-rocks-with-sticks) is rather unintuitive and doesn’t really resemble anything in the real world.

Monopoly, Battleship, Chess are highly structured games where the rules reflect some fantasy/reality component. You can play them pretending to be a real estate tycoon, WWII admiral, or medieval king at war, but you don’t have to. The game doesn’t change one way or another. Even Cribbage, a game of pure mathematical abstraction, uses the metaphor of a horse race to score. It could just as easily be scored on paper like Rummy. Just as Candy Land could be played on a numbered grid and ordinary Parcheesi pawns. Would anyone play it like that? Probably not; it’s the pretend element that makes it worth playing.

Roulette, Poker, Gin Rummy… all games of pure abstraction with no narrative or reality element at all. Yahtzee is an interesting abstract game in that it is a metaphor for Poker, which itself references nothing in the real world.

Without knowing it, the Magic the Gathering designers have rediscovered Piaget’s hierarchy of play behaviors. House and Cops-and-Robbers are pure Vorthos games. Poker and Roulette is a pure Melvin game. Most children’s games fall somewhere between these extremes. Adults are increasingly more likely to play purely abstract, rule-based games and eschew pretend. (Something to think about: How much grief adults get from other adults for playing Dungeons and Dragons or Magic the Gathering… yet how little social stigma is attached to Fantasy Football and Stratomatic Baseball… and how increasingly realistic simulation e.g. Guitar Hero, Metal Gear Solid is changing society’s attitudes toward the role of pretend in adult play.)

In a future post I’ll discuss how this interacts with the blurry line between play and reality and why it is so difficult to create an operational definition of play.


3 Responses to “Blurry lines”

  1. adambowker Says:

    Just an unrelated note: If you Google Image Search “peek-a-boo” the results are not what you’d expect.

  2. […] Peek-a-boo has rules. It’s not much of a game to you now, but that turn taking (I do something, you react, I react […]

  3. […] idea of a Life-Game axis is very like the Melvin-Vorthos axis from Magic the Gathering, or the Role-based-play vs. Rule-based-play of Piaget. She’s added a second axis that I […]

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