hc10: Jesper Juul, Goals and Life Itself

A short theory of goals: You are playing a card game with some friends. A few rounds into the game the group begins arguing. One player claims that the goal of the game is to gain as many tricks as possible; another claims that the goal is to avoid getting any tricks.

This is simple enough: The goal of a game determines what it takes to win the game, what the players should work towards. However, this does not cover traditional arcade games. They can rarely be won, as success in the game is always met with a new, harder level. In this case, it becomes worthwhile to distinguish between several different aspects of goals: A goal generally implies that some of the outcomes of the game are better than the other, that the player exerts effort in order to work towards the goal, and that the player should feel emotional attachment to the outcome of the game (Juul 2005, chapter 2). The arcade game does not have any single outcome that ends the game in a win, but only indicates that a higher score is better than lower scores. In addition, persistent games such as World of Warcraft tend to have neither a single clear goal nor a final outcome, so the goal of such a game is not an evaluation of a game outcome, but a continuous evaluation of the player’s performance. Two caveats: Not all players agree about the goal of such games, and neither do all players actually play towards such goals. Additionally, some players explore the landscape, some do work towards the goal, and other just hang out with some friends.

It is tempting to describe the players that do not follow the game goal as “creative” or “subversive” players, but there is a deeper history behind this: The traditional arcade game forced players to work towards the goal under strong time pressure, while the original exploratory adventure games such as Adventure and Nethack and the later MUDs let players play without time pressures and often with the option of doing all sorts of activities that were not implied in any goal of the game. The arcade model of strictly enforced goals under time pressure followed directly from their economic model of having players play as many games as possible, but the more open-ended game genres had their origin in board games and non-commercial projects on university mainframe computers where no time pressure was necessary. It is only after videogames become dominantly home games, that we find commercially successful videogames with no goals (Sims 2) or optional goals (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). (For a more detailed discussion of this, see Juul 2006). Different games have different goals, or none at all, and some games give players the choice of not working towards the game goal.

Player Goals, Designer Goals

The last few years I have had the experience that whenever this type of theory was presented, somebody would invariably object that such a theory of goals was equivalent to ignoring player experiences or game playing practices, as well as to privileging designer goals over player goals. I think this type of criticism comes from two sources. One is a simple issue about what goals are, the second is a more complex issue about how to research games.

The first, simple issue is that a goal is not a property of a physical object, but a property of an activity. It is quite easy to demonstrate if we return to card games: If I claim that the goal of Poker is to win as many tokens as possible, this is not a privileging the goals of a designer over the goals of a player. Rather, to play “Poker” without a goal of accumulating as many resources/tokens as possible would not be playing “Poker”. “Poker” does not refer to the cards used, but to an activity with a specific goal. Likewise, to say that Sims 2 does not have a goal is to say that Sims 2 does not refer to any specific goal-oriented activity. It means that the Sims 2 prescribes no single measure of the player’s performance. Rather Sims 2 allows players to set their own goals. In this way, a theory of goals can give the tools to examine a wide range of games and game playing practices, including potential tensions between designer goals and player goals.

The real thing

The second issue is more fundamental. One of the recurrent events the past few years has been the researcher who questions “formalist” theories of games in favor of “in-context” or “situated” methods. This is a special position, where the speaker argues that other researchers are forcing rigid theories upon a complex world, while the speaker asserts that he or she is studying actual game playing. If the mock picture of early game studies was the researcher who had only watched his/her children playing games but never played him or herself, the standard criticism today is against those who play themselves rather than study others play.

In a provocative essay, The Danish intellectual Frederik Stjernfelt has written a history of philosophical vitalism or lebensphilosophie (Stjernfelt 2005). Vitalism is the position or ideology that emphasizes life itself, over any other theory, perspective, or idea. In this way of thinking, any generalizing theory or aesthetic is necessarily a negative reduction of the actual flow of life itself. The vitalist moment is the rejection of other perspectives as cold and stale, compared to the warmth of actual life. Historically, vitalism stems from the romanticism of the 19th century, begins the 20th century as a right-wing philosophy, and during the 20th century becomes a left-wing philosophy as well, and is now incorporated into general culture, into a situation where everybody can claim that while others are promoting lifeless theories, the person who speaks knows about the real thing, life itself.

This type of assertion is constantly repeated in video game studies: Most obviously in an occasional skepticism towards general theories of games in favor of localized studies, but it is also present when the game developer claims to have a perfect understanding of actual games, as opposed to the researchers locked in their ivory towers, away from the real world. The outlines of the stance can be seen when researchers reject theories from other fields in favor of their own brand new theories of games, or when yet other researchers claim to emphasize the warmth of the story compared to the coldness of the rules. The problem is that this never ends – anybody can reject other theories as cold, stale, and rigid, while declaring their own to be the real thing, a true reflection of what games are really like, of actual game playing.

An overly strong vitalist position can lead to the problematic assumption that any rules or regulations are necessarily oppressive and should be challenged. It also risks feeding a general skepticism towards game design. The game designer tries to create a game in order to give players certain experiences, yet a strong vitalist stance may see this as problematic: After all, isn’t a game design a lifeless artifact, unimportant in face of the living complexity of actual game playing?

A New Hope

This constant rejection of other theories followed by claims of focusing on game playing itself is not productive. I would like to think that we can make progress, that we can become wiser. How did such discussions play out in other fields? I think a good example is the theory of genres (such as in storytelling and film), which by broad generalization has followed a history that we could emulate:

  1. First, researchers work hard on the construction of genre divisions.
  2. Then other researchers realize that there is no set of immutable, perfect genres “out there”, but that they are historical constructs. This predictably leads to a consensus that discussion of genre should be avoided.
  3. Finally, it is realized that genres do play a large role in the production and consumptions of all types of cultural products. Filmmakers consciously make an action movie, and the movie audience consciously watches an action movie with certain conventions and formula. Therefore, genres are not just cold abstractions that a theorist enforces upon the world, but actual parts of culture that should not be ignored. No genre division is “perfect”, but neither can genre be ignored when discussing cultural products or user experiences and practices.

Going back to games, the convention of goals does play a role in the creation and play of games. Players use the term “game”; argue about game genres, and so on. That is, avoiding simple questions like “what is a game” or “what is a goal” can, paradoxically, block out important aspects of actual game playing.

My personal interest lies in connecting these things: Understanding how different players use and experience a specific game, and how a specific game affords certain kinds of usages and experiences. Because this is what game playing really is: A connection between a game artifact and a game player, between conventions, expectations, and game design. This is what video game research should be all about.


  • Blizzard Entertainment: World of Warcraft. Blizzard Entertainment 2004. (PC)
  • Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press 2005.
  • Juul, Jesper. “Without a goal”. In Tanya Krzywinska and Barry Atkins (eds): Videogame/Player/Text. Manchester: Manchester University Press 2006 (in press).
  • Maxis. The Sims 2. Electronic Arts, 2004. (PC)
  • Rockstar Games North. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Take-Two Interactive, 2005. (PC)
  • Stjernfelt, Frederik. “Livet self – Livsfilosofi og konservatisme.” [Life itself - Life philosophy and conservatism]. In Frederik Stjernfelt & Søren Ulrik Thomsen: Kritik af den Negative Opbyggelighed. Copenhagen: Vindrose 2005. 54-75.


Author contact:

Jesper Juul
IT University of Copenhagen
Rued Langgaards Vej 7
2300 Copenhagen S

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