Fundamental, Parallel, Synthetic

There is an ongoing struggle in how we want to talk about games when it comes time to talk about their complexity or accessibility. And even there, in that sentence I’ve already kinda fouled up, because there’s an assumption there about what makes games accessible.

There’s this term we use a little bit called gateway games, which tends to get used to describe games that are reasonably approachable, often in a small box, and don’t tend to need a lot of emotional or narrative investment. These games tend to be abstract, though aren’t always – you may see Coup or Resistance referred to this way, as well as other games like Werewolf.

Now, the term ‘gateway’ isn’t honestly very nice: it’s primarily used to evoke the phrase gateway drug, which is itself, a dumb term because it was used to try and demonise Marijuana, and that’s all fraught with the racism of the war on drugs. And games aren’t, despite what you may jokingly say, drugs. Drugs are drugs.

There have been some attempts to get different terminology for this kind of game. Introductory games is one common category, but that creates the impression that the games exist to get you into other, ‘better’ games – there’s an implied progression. I also have heard foundatoinal game, where the games serve as a solid foundation for understanding game mechanics. That’s not a terrible term, but it also has that implication of progression.

What I use now, when I talk about this to students, is the three terms of fundamental game, parallel games, and synthetic games.

A fundamental game is a game where there is, essentially, one system. Again, Codenames and Werewolf fit in this space. There’s a very limited amount of stuff a player can do. It doesn’t have to be simple – after all, games like Crokinole and Bowls are games of a single system, but anyone who plays them will tell you the enormous challenge represented by just getting better at the games. Most sport games are fundamental games: One major mechanic, with everything just in service of that.

Parallel games are where there are numerous systems but they don’t necessarily interact. A Parallel game may let you focus on a single element, like your victory point salad games. A parallel game may also be a game where those different systems are things you can learn and focus on in your own time – consider how in American football, there’s a distinct set of skills for defensive and offensive play. Those are two systems that work in parallel with one another. Still, you can check out a host of games where players can ignore systems to engage with what they like to see parallel games.

Finally, there’s synthetic games. A synthetic game is one where all these mechanical entities are working in synthesis, where it’s impossible to extract one from another – where each system is used to mark or relate to another system. Complex games like this tend to be hard to tease out for separation. Look at Minecraft, where any given system is being made to the demands of another system, or Agricola, where all the systems are constantly tugging against one another to meet needs or create new ones.

There you go. A simple little bit of game language.

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