One of game studies' fundamental gaps is the lack of a solid theory of meaning. That is, how games can mean, represent, signify, etc., anything at all. This problem is immediately apparent in Jane McGonigal's new book, "Reality is Broken." Early in the book McGonigal adopts Bernard Suits' definition of a game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." While I am only through the second chapter, so far the book has relied heavily on this definition. However, as this post aims to demonstrate, this definition of "game" is both fundamentally flawed and illustrates the kinds of problems that arise because we do not understand how games can mean.
McGonigal cites several examples of games that fit this definition, notably golf (which is one of Suits' examples). Indeed, sports seem to fit Suits' definition extremely well, as every sport I can think of is about adhering to arbitrary rules in order to accomplish some ordinary feat. In golf the unnecessary obstacles are the various rules that prevent us from merely walking to the green and dropping the ball into the hole. Similarly, ice hockey would be much easier if players could pick up the puck and throw it into the net. Everyone would be an expert player of darts if they were allowed to walk up to the board and simply push their darts into the sixty-point segment. In these cases it is true that players are choosing to try and overcome obstacles that seem quite unnecessary, if your goal really is to arrange particular objects in a particular state.
However, this definition does not make much sense when we apply it outside of sports. While McGonigal makes an effective argument for its application to Scrabble, I would like to apply Suits' definition to Monopoly. In Monopoly the goal is to be the last player in the game, which happens when you have money and your opponents do not. The necessary question that arises here is: what does it mean to "have money?" How does a Monopoly player have money, and what distinguishes her from the other players that do not have money? One answer might be location: players typically signify their possession of game money by placing paper slips in front of themselves. Seen through the lens of Suits' definition, one might argue that the goal of Monopoly is to place the paper money in front of yourself, while preventing others from doing so; the "unnecessary obstacle" in this case is the game itself, the processes one must undertake before being "allowed" to put the money in front of oneself.
I hope I am not alone in finding this phrasing deeply unsatisfying. When explaining Monopoly to a new player, would you ever tell them that the goal is to put the money in front of yourself? Rather, the goal is a particular configuration of the game state. The physical aspects of Monopoly--the board, pieces, money--are mnemonic devices that allow players to keep track of the state. To "have money" in Monopoly is not to position it in a certain way (like positioning a golf ball), but rather to perform a series of processes that then give meaning to the money and define its state. These processes create the meaning of the money. Without them, Monopoly money really is just slips of paper; its physical location is meaningless. Thus the game is the opposite of "unnecessary:" it is entirely necessary in creating the meaning required to satisfy the goal. Without the game the money has no meaning.
I would argue, then, that in this sense games are not obstacles at all. The OED defines an obstacle as "something that stands in the way or that obstructs progress; a hindrance, impediment, or obstruction." If your goal is to "have money," then the game is the opposite of an obstacle: it is the enabler of that progress, that goal. Without the game that goal does not exist and cannot be fulfilled. As an analogy, games can be thought of as modern, highly technical modes of transportation, such as a car. Cars, like games, are complex to operate and handle. They require some degree of learning before they can be used effectively. However, they are often necessary to reach our destination (goal). It makes little sense to refer to a car as an obstacle when we so often depend on it to reach an end state. The car, like the game, is needed to reach the goal.
If we think in terms of the goal, as both Suits and McGonigal do, then the game is the opposite of an unnecessary obstacle.