Most beautiful game vs. Best game

Yesterday night I had the very pleasant opportunity to join a dinner that was held by Archivio Italiano dei Giochi. A number of high profile experts on games were present, but a big absent was missing: Niek Neuwahl. He should have been the honor guest but health reasons prevented him from coming, so he sent us a message that was projected during the dinner. The message can be found here. Here I want to briefly comment on two questions he posed, and share the results of my rumination.

First he asked: what is the most beautiful game*? (original: qual è il gioco più bello?)

Then he asked: what is the best game? (original: qual è il gioco migliore?)

*: I’m not sure the best way to convey the original italian meaning is this translation, but I didn’t find a better alternative.

Both questions have probably been answered by every human being during childhood, me and you included, but answering those same questions in adulthood is completely different. My first reaction was to feel completely lost, since, being the scientifically-minded I am, I was looking for an objective way to define what “most beautiful” and “best” mean.

In looking for an objective metric, one should leave prizes, contests and ranks as the last resort, since ultimately they are made of subjective evaluations on an arbitrarily resctriced number of dimensions. Basically, they are the “voice of the people”, anything but objective. However, for them striving to become as objective as possible means:

  1. to use a number of dimensions as large as possible
  2. to give the correct load to each of these dimensions, where the word “correct” means matching the human feelings for most beautiful game and best game the most
  3. in turn, to have the human feelings for most beautiful game and best game clearly laid out and operationalized (which we don’t have)
  4. to have a VERY large pool of people participate in the assessment, with the clear possibility to generalize the results obtained by this pool to the entire humanity

While many of these points are possible in principle, I don’t know if there is or if there will ever be a way to satisfy the third point. Even if that was the case, having a VERY large pool of people participate in a very long and complicated assessment on many dimensions is not a recipe for success.

Another possibility would be to use some indirect way of data aggregation and analysis, such as using neural networks on selling data. This procedure could (and should) take into account that different kinds of games are sold differently, played differently, and that their target differ. Again, not an easy task.

So, an abstract reasoning, instead of a data-driven answer, could provide a mental path to follow when looking for the most beautiful and the best games. Is there any feature of a game that makes it more beautiful than another? Is there any feature of a game that makes it better than another? I quickly referred to concepts such as elegance in game design, simplicity of mechanics (in reality I was thinking of the absence of unnecessary cumbersomeness), depth, completeness and so on. However, the presence of none of them necessarily describe a more beautiful or better game. Furthermore, more beautiful and better have different meanings that can’t be conveyed by the same feature. As such, I looked at the differences between the two questions Niek posed: what makes a game more beautiful but not better than another, and viceversa?

More beautiful, but not better

In my mind, a game that is more beautiful but not better than another is a game that is liked more. Enter the realm of subjectiveness. We know that there are universal standards of beauty, like the golden ratio, but we know close to nothing** in the field of games. As such, the only way to have data about games beauty would be to test people with ad-hoc experimental procedures, such as giving two slightly different versions of a game, the difference being just one single variable, and making them play the games and assess…what? Do you think asking “which one is the game you like the most?” would give us useful knowledge? Maybe, but I guess a more fine and tricky question needs to be used, otherwise we could just ask people “what is the game you like the most?” and be done with it. At the dinner table, people adopted the fully subjective point of view of “beauty = what I like” and as such “most beautiful = the one I like the most”, and answers were given and discussed. As far as “beautiful, not betterness” is discussed, this was a workaround, but a workaround that almost worked. In fact, a workaround of the workaround was needed for most of the people: “the one I like the most” quickly became “the one I would bring to a desert island if I were shipwrecked and was limited to one game”.

**: nothing scientifically proven, at least

Better, but not more beautiful

Conversely, a game that is better, but not more beautiful is a game that has factual betterness but is not liked more. This poses more problems, since subjectivity needs to be taken out of the equation. As such, some quantifiable evidence needs to be used. I’mtalking about betterness rather than bestness because the comparison with not-best, and as such with worse, games needs to be explicited. Again, thinking at the process of game design was an area in which I tried to find inspiration, but two points struck me: a) I don’t know if a better game design process necessarily ends in a better game (on which dimension? can, for example, the game be not enjoyable if the game design process is perfect?) b) I’m not a game designer, and as such don’t know either a sufficient amount of theory + have a sufficient amount of practice or know the methodological nuances that put into relation the design process itself and the final product. While this remains a nice question that I would like to pass to my game designer friends, my main conclusion was that, if betterness is to be measured on game design metrics rather than on the end user (the player), then the question becomes so technical that it loses most of its appeal.


I know that many of you want to know the answers, but you SHOULD be disappointed, in that with this post I wanted to share a thought rather than an anecdote. However, you fine the answers in the addendum section at the end. What I would like to point out, instead, is that the questions Niek posed are interesting to take, since there is a possibility that adulthood and scholarly experience in the field of games brings some interesting insight. Indeed, here I’m convinced that both questions can foster a discussion about which are the dimensions we judge as beautiful and which ones we assume are part of the recipe for a better game. Most importantly, the degree of subjectivity needs to be change hugely between the questions, taking tha main role in the beauty question and being hypotetically absent in the betterness question. In other words, while we should accept that what is considered a beautiful game is NOT up for discussione since there is no need for agreement (except on statistical inquiries), we should as well accept that we assume (focus on “we assume”) that the recipe of a better game exists, and as such that we are defining the existence of objective betterness in games.


Addendum: answers at the table, and mine

So, what were the answers given at the table? The most beautiful games were usually considered those played traditionally in the family or the one with which one had been most hooked in the years. The better game was judged on the basis of some feature like strategic depth or some other metric that is evidenced by the human history of playing that game. Consider that these answers do NOT take into account my pondering, and as such are not necessarily in line with my thought.

Conversely, by following my logic, MY personal answers are:

  • the most beautiful game the game I like the most the game I would bring to a desert island if I were shipwrecked and was limited to one game is Dungeon and Dragons (or any role playing game system with a big deal of complexity). Of course this takes into account other players being there. My reasoning is that for any game, considered as a set of rules with a goal and a quantifiable outcome, I usually get bored as soon I get a grasp of the dinamics, the internal tension, the economic system and the strategies. My main enjoyment is “learning” a game after the other rather than becoming good at any. (“learning” as in what I just explained in the previous sentence). As such, a game that allows me to play indefinitely just by extending my imagination fits the best. Being a workaround of the workaround is not a satisfying answer to me, of course.
  • the best game is Magic, the Gathering. This was an easy one, since I (focus on “I”) got one factual evidence that this is the game I know that I appreciated the most in my life, the factual evidence being that I tried to quit after 12 years of playing, and as soon as the game got free to play (when Magic Arena lauched) I re-started playing after additional 6 years of pause. Additionally, I quit when I played mainly with strangers rather than with friends, but got into Magic again even if I play alone (strangers online rather than vis-a-vis play), a testament that I’m hooked to the mechanics and dynamics of the game rather than the social aspect.

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