I don’t mean mind games.  What I mean to ask on Tuesday was, what games do you play?  What media do they use?  Why be constrained to your console and TV, or Scrabble board?  What constitutes a game, and why is it really so hard to answer that question?

That’s actually a question asked with glee by Ludwig Wittgenstein.  And, to be honest, I don’t know what constitutes a game, because a game can have victory conditions, or it can be infinite; it can have a plot, or it can be an exploration; it can have one player, or many; it can have spatial boundaries, or it can be spatially undefined; it can be played with equipment or with nothing but the player or players; it can involve clearly-defined rules, or the game may be to discover the rules of the game.  And that’s just the start of it.  How can we use the word “game” to refer to a thing, when it so clearly identifies a vast and perhaps unquantifiable set of things?

Which is a question for another day.  A question for today is, what games did you play today?

Let me make a suggestion.  Echogenesis (tip o’ the hat to Bryan Alexander).

What’s the object of this game?  Is there an object?  Do you perceive a plot in your wandering through it?  Are there rules, after a fashion?  Make sure you don’t miss anything.  There are hidden goodies all over the place.

Now, what makes Echogenesis as much of a game as, say, Dice Wars?  Or Tribal Wars, the massively multiplayer medieval conquest game?

All three of these games rely on digital media, either on Flash programming or on PHP.  All rely on the Internet for their distribution, and in the case of Tribal Wars, for a critical component of gameplay — literally thousands of other players who you can ally with, fight with, and conquer.

These three games still fall into some kind of traditional game trope, though.  Dice Wars and Tribal Wars have their roots in long-term planning and strategy games, both for computers and for paper; Echogenesis has hints of Myst and its sequels, which was firmly rooted in its own digital life.  How about if I told you that this site and this site are games, too, or critical parts of games?  The most exciting part about them is that they cross over from your screen to your mailbox to the public pay telephone on the corner and back again.

The most stimulating gaming experience I ever had was surrounding the Silverladder site.  I met and became a part of a community of creative, intelligent people from all over the country.  And our gaming experience wasn’t like my gaming experience in Tribal Wars, in which I play on a team with 60 other people to take over villages.  There was more problem solving.  The story was open-ended.  We didn’t know where we were going until, sometimes, it was right under our noses.

And game players met characters from the game in their hometowns.  And others received packages in the mail from in-game entities.  And still others got text messages and phone calls.  All of us, no matter what interests we had in playing the game, got very invested in the characters, their stories, as well as each other and each other’s stories.

I don’t want to go so far as to say that the Alternate Reality/Chaotic Fiction genre of gaming is completely new and revolutionary (though I really want to).  It’s certainly only possible because we, as a culture, have adopted and integrated the Internet and information technologies into our daily lives (more on this later), and we are becoming so invested in our online lives it’s okay for those online lives to ooze over into our “real” lives.  ARG and CF challenge the notion that our online lives and our “real” lives are clear, distinct and separate from one another.  And that’s why it’s so compelling.

Have a quick poke around ARGNet and you’ll see what I mean.  There’s already a community of people all over the world who are deeply committed to this new genre — I would daresay art form.  And more and more people are learning about it by word of mouth and through high-profile games like the recently completed Search for the Lost Ring, run as a promotion for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

CF Part II will come to a blog near you tomorrow.  Or something very like tomorrow.

As a note to any regular readers out there: I’m beginning to do work for a course I’m taking at the University of Michigan on this blog.  These entries will be in the “Limited Fork” category as well as other appropriate categories.  Hopefully you’ll find the class as interesting as I will.

And a note to class members, and Prof. Moss: you might enjoy reading backward a bit in this blog.  I’ve had it for a damn long time and I like to imagine it’s kind of worthwhile as a stand-alone blog.