Flash of Steel header image 2

Quote? Misquote? Cite?

July 7th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Blogs, Design, Industry

The best thing about the internet is that hyperlinking lets you direct readers to your sources.

The worst thing about the internet is that nobody bothers pointing out their print sources.

This came to mind when I finally got around to reading Chris Bateman’s critique of the Sid Meier bromide that a game is “a series of interesting choices.”

Bateman’s essay itself is fine. Many games we play involve few choices or decisions, but we still call them games. I doubt that Meier’s little epigram has had that much of an impact on game developers, or else we would have not seen the explosion of casual games that use time as the primary mechanic, and not decision trees. Bateman is certainly not the first to point out that the Meier quote is inadequate, so he won’t be the last, and people will keep using the Meier quotation for decades to come because:

a) It is short.
b) It is to the point.
c) It means something to the reader.

But the post sparks the researcher in me, because he refers to the quotation as a “misquote”. Then, in the comments, one reader says that Bateman gets it wrong because the phrase is “meaningful choices”; still inadequate for describing Snake and Ladders, but better for other games.

Bateman never says what his version is a misquote of, though he suspects that the original had “good game” in it as a qualifier. To his credit, he wants a proper attribution. And the commenter never gives a source for his version. Both versions, by the way are listed in the Google.

So, I decided to do my own detective work to track down this quotation. Where does it come from?

Most sources cite Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris’s Game Architecture and Design. And they accept the “interesting choices” version.

It’s likely older than that, since in July 1997, Usenet poster Darren Reid prints the full quotation as: “A good game is a series of interesting decisions. The decisions must be both frequent and meaningful.”

Another version has the quotation as a “great game” being “a series of interesting and meaningful choices made by the player in pursuit of a clear and compelling goal”. This version is tracked back to a Serious Game listserv post made by Noah Falstein in 2006, once again with no clear citation.

Even if this is the proper version, without a proper source it’s not clear when, where or in what context Meier made this statement.

There is always the possibility of multiple versions of the saying. Meier has been interviewed over and over again so the same thought has probably been expressed in many different ways. Given how long this quotation has been around, the observation is either original to a print interview or to an audience at a developers’ conference.

So let’s crack this nut. First person to track down, and post in the comments, the original quotation, with the correct context and source will win my gratitude and save gaming researchers a lot of time citing other secondary source guesses.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • GotGame.com

    I tried . . . but yeah, I never really noticed how often people do not cite their sources on the internet until I started looking for the origins of the Sid Meier misquote.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Why not call Firaxis and see if they can get a response from the man himself?

  • Troy

    It turns out that I did ask Mr. Meier this question a couple of years ago, and I forgot that I did.

    From the Civilization Chronicles book:

    Me: Did you ever actually say that “games are a series of interesting decisions”?

    Meier: I did say that once many, many years ago. I was giving a talk at GDC called “ten rules of game design” or “ten rules of gaming” and we had to come up with a definition of fun. What is fun? How do you define fun? And I came up with “a series of interesting decisions.” [SNIP]

    It’s just weird…it was not meant to be an all inclusive, standing the test of time definition. We just looked at the word “series” and said that pacing is important in game. We looked at the word “interesting” and said “what makes decisions interesting?”

    None of which helps answer what the original formulation was. But it looks like I already knew half of the answer.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    I found an article from the Weekly Standard (“‘Civilization’ and Its Contents; A video game for the ages. The Weekly Standard February 26, 2007”) that cites Bruce Shelley as being Present at the Creation:

    Shelley, who later helped design Age of Empires, a hit competitor to Civilization, looks back fondly on his time with Meier, which he likens to attending Game Design University. Meier, he recalls, came up with a basic definition of a game: a series of interesting decisions. “You have game play, you have competition, and then you have victory,” explains Shelley. “A true game would have all three of those elements. Something like SimCity has the decision making but it doesn’t have competition or victory. It’s a digital sandbox,” not a game.

  • Alan Au

    I know I had paraphrased the “interesting choices” bit as early as 2001, although I can’t remember where I first heard it.

    I haven’t dared to actually reproduce the saying as a direct “quote” from Sid, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he had uttered those words at some point, given that he probably gets asked about it a lot.

  • Patrick Hightower

    If anyone is near Stanford, the answer may be found in the Green Library, if it actually originated at GDC. Gamasutra’s archive only goes back to 2000, but the library at Stanford may have the proceedings further back:

    Conference Proceedings / Computer Game Developers Conference. Available from 1997 on in Green Library, some vols in print (GV1469.15 .C65), others on CD-ROM.

  • Press Fire to Start » No Spore to Stand the Test of Time

    […] that sentence, although he could have saved a lot of bandwidth/breath by just saying Guitar Hero. Troy Goodfellow tries to track the quote down but doesn’t fare much better than me. Guess there are things Google doesn’t know the […]

  • Daniel Klein

    So we know that he did say it at GDC, but we still don’t have the original context, do we? I mean the actual full sentence. Thanks for the heads up!

  • “Games” Versus “Experiences”

    […] anticipated my lack of enjoyment in this way. I believe it has something to do with the lack of meaningful choices that can be made – there’s really nothing novel to which I can look forward on my own […]