22 A Game to the Core: A “Go Fish” Analysis

Lydia Finch

The name of the game I am going to analyze is “Go Fish.” This game was designed for anyone who wants to pass time with a simple card game. It also requires two or more players. The people playing this game would likely need to be able to read numbers. Because of this, the typical “Go Fish” game suggests players should be at least four years old. A regular, or “standard,” deck of playing cards is used. “Go Fish” is a turn-based game, meaning each player has a set turn. The typical turn starts with the player asking any other player if they have a specific card. The player who asks for a card must also have this card before asking. If that player does have the card, then they will hand it over and the original player gets to ask for more cards (either to that same person or a different person). This goes on until the other player does not have the card the original player asks for. Once this happens the player is told to “Go Fish” and they need to draw a card from the deck.

Clark C. Abt’s definition of a game reads “A game is an activity involving player decisions, seeking objectives within a ‘limiting context’” In “Go Fish,” the “player decisions” would be the players figuring out who to ask for a card or who to listen to. They also need to decide what cards in their hand they should ask for and when they should ask for each of them. The “objectives” that the players seek would be obtain a book of cards with the same rank from the cards they own. For example, if the player has four cards with a three on them, then they would want to put them together on the table. They’d want to obtain books of all their cards before the other players manage to. The “limiting context” that Abt’s definition refers to is simply what we know as rules. In “Go Fish” there are a small handful of simple rules. Each player is dealt five cards unless there are only two players, in which case they are dealt seven. The rest of the deck is placed in the center so everyone can draw from it. The player who’s turn it is will ask for cards from other players only if they themselves have that card. Players can’t look at other player’s cards. When a player gets a book (four cards of the same rank), they must put those cards face up in front of them. When a player gets rid of all their cards in books, they win. “Go Fish” contains every element of this particular definition.

The definition from the book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman reads as follows. Games are a “system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” At first glance, it seems as though “Go Fish” doesn’t fall into this definition, but English is an interesting language, making it so “Go Fish” actually fits perfectly into this definition. The game itself, governed by rules and turns, is a “system.” The “artificial conflict” in this case would be the competition between the players to get the most books. Even simpler, the “conflict” could simply be trying to empty one’s hand as fast as possible while still following the rules. Speaking of which, “Go Fish” is defined by a small handful of rules. Each player is dealt five cards if there are more than two players and seven if there are only two players. Players aren’t allowed to look at other’s cards or lie about the cards they have. They must ask another player for cards on their turn only if they themselves have said card number. When a player gets a book, they must put it on the table, face-up, in front of them. A player must “go fish” (draw a card from the deck) when the other player doesn’t have the same card they do. A player wins when their hand is empty and all their cards are in books. The quantifiable outcome would be the cards that the player puts in books. There is a quantifiable amount of cards they can do this with.

Games are a “form of art” in which players – the people participating in the game –  “make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” This is Greg Costikyan’s definition. This is a seemingly simple definition that applies to any game we can think of, however, we see that the definition is more complicated when we give it a closer look. In order to figure out if a game is a “form of art,” we first need to define what art is. “Art” is something that can take many forms – physical or non-physical – in which the purpose is to provoke an emotion from the viewer. This emotion can be negative, positive, or neutral. Typically, I say that the artist needed to have the intention that what they were making was art, however, we will rarely ever know if the author of a game intended for it to be art. Therefore, I’m disregarding this part. If we use this definition of art, then “Go Fish”, is, in fact, a “form of art” because one of the game’s purposes is to elicit joy or fun from it. The next part of this definition is “decision making.” There are many decisions to be made by players whilst playing this game. The players must decide what cards to ask for, when to ask for them, and whether or not they will listen to the other players asking for numbers (this delves into strategy relating to this game). Game tokens are something that represents the player’s status within a given game. The “game tokens” in the case of “Go Fish” are the cards the player owns. This includes cards in the player’s hand as well as any cards they put together to create books. These things are considered game tokens because they indicate how well the player is doing in the game. The “resources” would be the shared deck of cards in the middle and other players’ cards. There are three goals of “Go Fish.” The first goal is to create books (groups of four) of cards with the same number. The second goal is to clear your hand of cards by doing the former. The third goal is to meet goals one and two before the other players do. Knowing this, we can see that “Go Fish” is a game under Costikyan’s definition.

Going through all of these definitions and comparing them with “Go Fish” has made me realize that “Go Fish” will probably hold up against any viable definition of a game. No matter how one looks at it, “Go Fish” will always be considered a game. I feel as though one would be hard-pressed to prove it’s not a game. This has also made me wonder how many games can be considered games when being compared to a definition. Going off of this, is a game still a game if it doesn’t completely fit the definition?


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Creating Games by Lydia Finch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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