Simon Dor

Simon Dor, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in videogames studies at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT). His research mainly focuses on strategy games, whether it is from a gameplay or representational point-of-view, with a competitive or narrative lens, or using a cognitive, philosophical or historical approach. His teaching and research also led him to work on e-sports, immersion, ethics, emulators, and game design.

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Strategy in Games or Strategy Games: Dictionary and Encyclopaedic Definitions for Game Studies

by Simon Dor


"Strategy" in videogames can bear a lot of meanings; so does "strategy games." The intuitive approach is to consider strategy games as descendants of wargames and, consequently, to define "strategy" as it is defined in the context of war. Nevertheless, when used in different contexts, such as games, war, politics, game theory, or business, "strategy" could almost be labelled as indefinable. Therefore, how could we make use of a concept such as "strategy" in videogames and game studies? I suggest that "strategy" can either be defined from a dictionary or an encyclopaedic perspective. I will show that, actually, definitions of "strategy" can basically be divided in three different categories, depending on what they take into account: iconic, formal, and experiential definitions. But the differences between these categories of definitions show that the rationale behind them are also very different. These different definitions all use the word "strategy" in order to underline different aspects of games or gameplay, from a faithful portrayal of war to a competitive experience. I will conclude by explaining how the plurality of strategy’s meanings does not clarify strategic gameplay.

Keywords: strategy, definitions, wargames, strategy games, gameplay, experience, genre

We need better terminology, of course, but as evolutionary as language is, you can't just impose it. For better or worse, the term RTS has come to mean "top down game in which you gather resources to build and control armies of little guys." Sometimes it makes sense to just defer to the popular understanding. (Goodfellow, 2008)
... language is neither an instrument nor a product — an ergon, as Humboldt termed it — but a ceaseless activity — an energeia. (Foucault, [1966] 1994, p. 289)

It seems intuitive to say that strategy games are games that mainly rely on strategy. When trying to define the strategy genre in his discussion of the concept of genre in videogames, Thomas Apperley states that games that are not strategy games "may still be played strategically" (2006, p. 13). For him, "playing strategically" is all about "a combination of knowing the various options available and being able to correctly value them within the game context" (p. 13). Strategy games would thus be strictly games emphasizing strategic play.

However, the concept of "strategy" in games does not necessarily overlap with the "strategy games" classification. In 1982, Chris Crawford ([1982] 1997) suggested dividing videogames in two broad categories: skill-and-action games and strategy games. This last category regrouped everything, to a certain extent, that involves cognitive abilities. Crawford divided it in six subcategories: adventures, Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax & Arneson, 1974) games, wargames, games of chance, educational and children's games, and interpersonal games. With the exception of a few D&D-inspired games — for example, Stronghold (Stormfront Studios, 1993) and Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard (Liquid Entertainment, 2005)— only the wargame category sounds like what we would define today as strategy games. This disparity indicates that the expression "strategy games" does not have the same meaning today as it had when Crawford wrote.

Back in November 2015, "Strategy" was one of the eight genres found in the Mobygames database and included 10,796 games. The top 10 strategy games according to critic score, which was recorded at the time, included World of Goo (2D Boy, 2008), Tetris (Bullet-Proof Software, 1989), Lemmings (DMA Design Limited, 1991), Peggle (PopCap Games, 2007), and Zen Bound (Secret Exit, 2009); they would all usually be classified as puzzle or problem-solving games. Sid Meier's Civilization II (MicroProse, 1996) and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (Blizzard Entertainment, 2010) are the only games that are similar to classical strategy videogames. The word "strategy" was used in this case to refer to any game that primarily needs cognitive skills.

But "strategy game," as Troy Goodfellow reminds us, is mostly used to describe a "top down game in which you gather resources to build and control armies of little guys" (2008). Moreover, when Dave Morris and Leo Hartas (2004, p. 9) state that wargames are the ancestors of strategy games, they do not specify if and how this kinship goes deeper than a mere similarity. As Arsenault explains quite clearly, games do not have "ancestors" per se, in the sense that they do not reproduce as species do (Arsenault, 2009, pp. 159–160). Yet, there are certain "forms of continuity" in videogame culture, to borrow Foucault's expression (1969, p. 35); game genres can be seen as a discursive mean to categorize games and draw historical relationships between them.

Genre categorization can use different criteria depending on which elements the classifier deemed relevant. Mark J.P. Wolf (2001) divided videogame genres in two categories. Iconographic genres use representation as the main way to regroup games whereas interactivity genres use interactivity as the main tool for classification (Wolf, 2001, p. 115). Following Apperley (2006, p. 8), Carr et al. (2006, p. 16) and Arsenault (2009, p. 171) among others, to regroup games in genres, one would (or should) consider interactivity or gameplay experience as the most important factor.

The "strategy game" classification corresponds to what Todorov called "historical genres," that is the genre categorizations as they are historically used (Todorov, 1978, p. 49). If Andrew Tudor states that one method of using a genre is to rely on the "common cultural consensus" around it (1974, p. 138), it is nevertheless quite difficult to find any consensus around the concept of strategy. As we will see throughout this paper, there is not an agreed-upon definition for "strategy", even within the videogames field. It can refer to a lot of experiences and styles of play that are not necessarily shared by a common gaming community. Moreover, the experience can prove quite different even within the same game. How, therefore, would a concept such as "strategy" could be useful for gaming scholars?

The aim of this paper is not to describe the tradition from which strategy games have emerged, nor to explain how strategy games as a genre has emerged; that would require separate and thorough investigations. The aim is rather to show to which extent "strategy" is a polysemous word in the videogame context and why it should not be the only basis for studying a strategy game, or any game at all. Hence, for game studies in general, this reflection is useful to remind ourselves that similarities in representation or in form do not necessarily imply similarities in experience.

The first step in most humanities' research consists of defining concepts. But defining concepts can be undertaken using two approaches, as I will show in the first part of this essay: stating how a word should be used or stating how it is already used in existing literature. In a case like "strategy" in games, it seems useful to understand the historical usage of the word. Since there are still a lot of misunderstandings and debates on how to define strategy and on when a game can be labelled as strategic, the focus here will be to underline the various ways the word "strategy" is used. I will show how it is defined in the context of videogames to underline the potential confusion it implies. This confusion often reveals certain ideals about how strategy games should be — and these ideals are mostly related to portraying strategy more or less faithfully in the context of war. I will divide definitions of strategy into three categories: iconic, formal, and experiential. These different types of definition all rely on the word "strategy" in order to underline different aspects of a game or gameplay. I will conclude by showing that, because strategy has a plurality of meanings, defining the word might not directly clarify strategic gameplay.

About Definitions

Umberto Eco, in Le signe [The sign], makes a fundamental distinction between two methods for defining a term: a dictionary definition or an encyclopaedic definition (1988, pp. 144–154). The former consists of a linguistic act, while the latter takes into account our knowledge of the world (p. 144). In a dictionary definition, "the properties of a word belong to it according to its own definition, and these properties are not verified nor falsified by any factual truth" (p. 146, my translation). If I say that a real-time strategy game (RTS) is a game that implies strategy and real time, I include, by definition, every game that possesses both these characteristics in the RTS category. Therefore, if someone replies that a specific RTS does not fulfil these criteria, I can retort that the game we are talking about is simply not an RTS by (my) definition, rather than changing the definition itself. In order to have a functional definition in a linguistic context, a dictionary definition presupposes "semantic universals" (p. 146), that is, "primary" terms that do not need a definition since every speaker intuitively knows them. For example, for the RTS dictionary definition suggested here to work, "strategy" and "real-time" should be clear enough not to need any further definition.

The pragmatist philosopher Charles S. Peirce basically argues that philosophy should adopt dictionary definitions when he states that the discipline should abandon its usual habits in order to adopt a rigorous lexicon, as natural sciences already have ([1904] 1991, p. 246). His idea would be to define a word and impose its definition when clarifying a concept, an idea, without the definition being itself the object of any discussion. However, since humanities are interested in the formation of discourses themselves, it is quite unproductive and counterintuitive to use a terminology that does not acknowledge the imprecision inherent to common usage.

Moreover, if we want to stay true to the historical usage, two problems emerge. Paul Ricœur exposes one: analyzing historical sources will reveal the complexity of the terms themselves — defining terms such as "tyranny, serfdom, feudalism, State" ([1955] 1967, p. 35, my translation) would be quite a puzzle, since their usage will highly vary with the socio-historical context. Ricœur rightfully notes that "never a historian will find themselves in the position of the mathematician who names, and who, by naming, delimit the notion itself" ([1955] 1967, p. 35, my translation). The lexicon used by historians — and by gaming scholars, we could add — is always unclear, since its need for clarity is essentially the reason historians have to describe historical events in the first place: to compensate for the space and time gap between their readers and the events depicted.

The second problem that could emerge is that, as Paul Veyne underlines, the theoretical usefulness of a definition is unclear. Veyne thinks that historians can resort to "types" in their historical descriptions: using a certain concept or model to clarify their description — in other words, dictionary definitions. The example put forth by Veyne to explain the problem of the type is the "enlightened absolutism." Saying that Frederic II ruled under an "enlightened absolutism" does not add anything to the description of its reign. The regime itself would need to be described in order to understand under which aspects and up to which point it can be considered an enlightened absolutism. Using a specific type is merely a way to abridge a description for a reader who already understands the term ([1971] 1996, p. 167). Therefore, a dictionary definition in the work of an historian can only make authority in terms of its usefulness for a description.

Encyclopaedic definition, on the other hand, consists of adding our own "knowledge of the world" in the definition itself (Eco 1988, p. 144, my translation). This form of definition is somehow more difficult to grasp since this "knowledge of the world" is always subject to discussion. As opposed to its dictionary counterpart, this type of definition aspires to a certain truth by refutability, since it is applied in a certain context in which it makes sense. Following our understanding of that said context, a definition could then be flagged as true or false. The encyclopaedic definition thus gives "a set of instructions in order to understand a word in contexts where, statistically, it is more frequent" (p. 149, my translation). For instance, the Total War series, while sometimes excluded from formal definitions of RTS because its single-player gameplay also has an important turn-based aspect, is still included in some encyclopaedic definitions of the RTS genre. The real-time aspect seems to be important enough for some to justify its attachment to RTS. Writing an encyclopaedic definition implies the undertaking of research on the actual and established usage — a pragmatic approach in linguistics [1].

Debates in game studies around the "ontology" of games usually concern the establishment of a dictionary definition: here is what games are fundamentally, without much awareness of the actual usage of the word or the genealogy of its emergence. Arjoranta calls this approach the "common core approach" of defining games: a "list of features that form the core of what games are" (2014). The term "ontology" is sometimes used in its philosophical sense, but most of the time, as Espen Aarseth notes, ontology is used in its computer science definition, that is, "a formal mapping of an empirical domain" (2014, p. 484).

These ontological debates are a way for scholars to frame what they want to explain or define while trying to gain a certain authority in the field. Aarseth (2003) suggested defining the object of game studies by using the expression "games in virtual environment" rather than "computer games" or "videogames" in order to include board games with a diegetic setting, but to exclude, say, poker and blackjack, electronic or not. Aarseth's work aims to bring forth theoretical tools that apply to the whole field, but any frame imposed as an a priori to the discipline necessarily limits its range and excludes the cultural context in which meaning emerges. Fourteen years later, Aarseth indirectly amends his statement and explains that Game Studies will now consider non-digital games, whether they have a diegetic setting or not (2017). When Eric Zimmerman wants to define the "four naughty concepts in need of discipline," narrative, interactivity, play and game, he does not seek to synthetize the different existing uses of these words, but rather to set limits for future disciplinary use. Hence, once his descriptive work is done, Zimmerman can still claim without problem that it is "difficult to understand exactly and precisely what a game is" ([2004] 2010). This difficulty refers, of course, to a certain will to be faithful to existing usages, but also, and mainly, to the complexity of arriving to a clear definition of the phenomenon.

Ontology endeavours in videogame studies share with philosophical analysis the development of conceptual relationships rather than the explanation of existing relations. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that establishing a definition in philosophical research "[does] not aim at stating explanatory relations, but rather at identifying and developing conceptual ones", as a dictionary definition would do (Brennan, [2003] 2012). The goal is not to explain why things are as they are nor the reasons that lead us to think that a thing is as it is; coherence and clarity are all that matter. It is not so different for Zimmerman or Aarseth: only the theoretical practicality of their definitions is relevant. A dictionary definition is not necessarily intended to be the reference for everyone in the field; a philosopher could, for example, provisory define a word only to clarify their own demonstration.

Encyclopaedic definitions are much more similar to Ludwig Wittgenstein's proposition, widely used in game studies and on which Jesper Juul reflected on his blog (2013). In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein ([1953] 1986, § 66–67) suggests that when someone uses a word like "game" in everyday life, they don't imply a given set of criteria that would cover every occurrence of the word. If I use the word "game" to talk about Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985), I don't have in mind a definition of the word that would correspond to each and every time I used the word "game." Rather than fixed and precise criteria, everything I regroup under the word "game" bears family resemblances.

Borrowing from the assessment offered by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper —that "games are indefinable"— Juul suggests that, for Wittgenstein, words can never have precise or definite meanings (2013). In fact, Wittgenstein in his Investigations suggests a distinction quite similar to Eco's insight. To clarify, when he writes about "number," he states:

For I can give the concept "number" rigid limits in this way, that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game." For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game.") (Wittgenstein, [1953] 1986, § 68, italics from the author)

Wittgenstein, as such, does not exclude the idea that a word can be precisely defined for a specific usage (a dictionary definition to be used in game studies, for example); he rather describes the way that the words "game" and "number" are pragmatically used in everyday life (i.e. encyclopaedic definition). Using the word "game" to talk alternatively about board games, card games, videogames, sports, TV quiz, reality TV, games of seduction, or games of power has never been a problem. Furthermore, nothing prevents the simultaneous use of a more precise and formal definition in an academic context. Dictionary and encyclopaedic definitions serve different goals; it is important to be aware of their differences, especially in the context of a cultural object that carries a history of definitions.

Strategy Games and Strategy in Games

These considerations should be taken into account when defining what is or could be "strategy" in games. In their book on strategy games, Dave Morris and Leo Hartas state that strategy games are distinct from puzzle games by their complexity and by their game-scale actions; but strategy as "the art of solving puzzles" (2004, p. 6) is present in both genres. Complexity means that the problems that the player will face are not inscribed in the rules of the game themselves, but emerge from the interaction between rules and players (p. 6). They imply, ultimately, that strategy is larger than strategy games, but that strategy games make their own, distinctive and specific, usage of the concept. That is, of course, a challenge when one is trying to understand strategy games and the experience they offer. How could we make use of a concept such as strategy in the context of strategy videogames?

In order to understand strategy games and to understand more precisely what is "strategy" in that context, I shall describe how strategy is used in the videogame context. We will see that every definition of the term refers implicitly or explicitly to playing habits that are not necessarily linked. We can find three main types of definitions for "strategy" in videogame culture: iconic definitions, formal definitions, and experiential definitions.

Iconic Definitions

Strategy games are by a vast majority tied to a specific "milieu," to borrow King and Krzywinska's expression (2002, pp. 26–27): they are games that use the setting of a war or an armed conflict (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al., 2008, p. 43). The comparison between real war and their computerized simulation is the starting point of a vast number of strategy games analyses (including Caldwell, 2000, 2004; Voorhees, 2008; Nohr, 2010; Ghys, 2012; Ford, 2016). It is therefore not surprising that military strategy has often been directly imported from the battlefield into the gaming context.

Iconic definitions of strategy in videogames are definitions based on the depiction of certain parts of a real war in the diegetic world of the game to establish if there is strategy or not, and to which extent. I use the "iconic" adjective to echo Peirce's definitions of icon (1991, p. 181): there is "strategy" when what is represented in the game is similar to what it is supposed to refer to in real-life — in other words, strategy in a real war.

Iconic definitions thus take a pre-existing concept of strategy and apply it to videogames. A game would be qualified as "strategic" depending on its iconography rather than its interactivity, to go back to Wolf's distinction. Unsurprisingly, these definitions of strategy are often constructed in opposition to tactics. Carl von Clausewitz, one of the most famous thinkers in the strategy field, made this distinction quite clear in 1832:

From this arises the totally different activities, that of the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves, and the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War. The first is called tactics, the other strategy. ([1832] 1984, p. 44, italics preserved)

More than 150 years later, Edward Luttwak (1987, pp. 69–71) explains, in a similar fashion, that there are five different levels (or scales) of war, ranging from the will and power of states and international organizations to the war material used by a single soldier: grand strategy, theatre strategies, operational, tactics, technical. He underlines, for example, that a technical or tactical superiority in a single combat would be useless if the opponents' defeat leads, at the grand strategy level, to a movement of sympathy that would push powerful nations to join their ranks.

These definitions were imported in the context of videogames and were quite common in the 1980s. When writing about Conflict in Vietnam (MicroProse, 1986) in Computer Gaming World, Evan M. Brooks clearly states that it is "not a strategic game; it is operational in scale" (Brooks, 1986, p. 15, my emphasis). Strategy here does not take into account gameplay, it uses the representation of war as a way to distinguish strategic and operational scales. For the same reasons, the Total War series is often seen as one that integrates tactics and strategy; the player has access to a tactical phase — controlling units during combat — and to a strategic phase — moving armies, managing territories, and so forth. But the fact that a videogame depicts a war does not mean that it implies the same skill set that war involves.

The problem with these definitions for a game scholar is that they mix up two things: the conflict created by the rules of the games and the conflict depicted in the fictional world. Strategy in the fictional world — how a fictional general would think — will thus be assimilated to strategy in the game — how a player would think. Morris and Hartas (2004, p. 10), for example, would distinguish tactics and strategy quite clearly by specifying that the latter is not only the battle itself, but also the war goals and doctrines. They refer to a war rather than a play context here: as they themselves make it clear, games in which the players decide their own goals (and philosophical stance on war) are extremely rare (Morris & Hartas, 2004, p. 11).

The same confusion is present in a Gamasutra article written by Nathan Toronto (2008) in which he notes that political stakes are often missing from RTS. For that reason, he will argue that they quickly become "real-time tactics" games — referring to Clausewitz's definition. In the same way, some first-person shooters are called tactical-shooters, because in the fictional context, the player deploys a tactical squad against terrorists. For instance, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (Red Storm Entertainment, 1998) is classified under "Action, First-Person, Shooter, Tactical" in a Gamespot review (Dunkin, 1998) without any precision on the "tactical" aspects in the core of the text, and a reedition of SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle (Sierra On-Line, 1999) in 2001 is subtitled "Tactical Game of the Year Edition." Paradox Development Studios' games, such as the Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series, will be called "grand strategy" games without being extremely different from a typical turn-based strategy game in terms of experience. If a lot of "tactical" and "strategy" games need a similar skill set, the aspect of war they represent will still justify a different classification for the tenants of an iconic definition. However, when what is analyzed is gameplay itself rather than genre, this classification becomes more problematic.

The wider definition of strategy suggested by Hedley Bull in a paper on strategic studies is much more useful for game studies: "Strategy in its most general sense is the art or science of shaping means so as to promote ends in any field of conflict" (1968, p. 593). André Beaufre, a French strategist, defines strategy as "the art of a dialectic of wills using force to resolve their conflicts" (in Luttwak, 1987, p. 241, my translation). Besides, Bull notes that strategy changed recently (i.e. in 1968) in the military context, partly because of the Cold War dynamic: strategy drifted from an element of warfare to a political instrument that includes the general threat of war. Traditionally restricted to the means deployed in order to achieve war objectives, the word became useful to designate everything that would be desirable for a country, including what could avoid war itself — which is especially true in the context of nuclear warfare. For the players of a strategy game set in a war context, the battle is usually their main objective, since peace time is often less interesting in terms of gameplay. Indeed, no player would have any desire to negotiate peace nor to surrender, considering no real lives are threatened and no risks are associated with warfare [2]. As Mark H. Walker puts it, "in strategy gaming there is nothing at stake but your pride" (2002, p. 1).

At some point in the end of the 1980s, "strategy games" coexisted with "wargames" as sections in Computer Gaming World, but the latter label was almost never used by the end of the 1990s. Games such as Populous (Bullfrog Productions, 1989) and Mega lo Mania (Sensible Software, 1991) were deemed strategic (CGW's, 1990, p. 74; Megalomania, 1992, p. 14) even if they were not "wargames" per se. Exploring different iconic definitions of strategy in games shows that a parallel with war cannot describe precisely the actions of a player. To use Apperley's expression when he writes about videogame genres in general, these definitions "emphasize representation over any notion of interactivity" (2006, p. 8). Yet, they still have served as inspirations for formal and experiential definitions of strategy.

Formal Definitions

The basis of most formal definitions of strategy is a transposition, from the level of war to the level of game rules. For instance, when Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define strategy and tactics, they establish the difference by considering the level of each player's decision, and their main example is not even taken from a game depicting war. A formal definition of strategy defines the concept from a certain interaction with a game, tied to a division in levels inspired by iconic definitions; in a game experience, strategy is isolated by analogy with strategy in a war setting. The board game Go is their example:

The tactics of Go concern the tooth-and-nail battles for individual sectors of the board, as individual pieces and small groups expand across territory, bumping up against each other in conflict and capture. The strategy of the game is the larger picture, the overall shape of the board that will ultimately determine the winner. (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 61)

Here, tactics and strategy correspond to a decision's impact on a micro-scale — the effect on the game is short-lived — and the impact on the macro-scale of the game — a longer-term effect. For them, tactics are decisions that have a short-term impact, while strategy has an impact on the whole game. In formal definitions, the distinction is similar to what happens in a war context, even if the game has nothing to do with war itself. It is a matter of scale within the game rather than a matter of scale of a fictional war.

The terms "micro" and "macro" (shorts for "micromanagement" and "macromanagement") in StarCraft competitive communities are somewhat similar, but do not exactly refer to the same thing. "Micro" actions are those that involve unit control, while "macro" actions concern production — the latter being, of course, usually important in the long term (TeamLiquid, 2012). But if, say, a small squad must be "microed" in order to succeed in stopping their opponent's production, it results in a long-term gain but is still called micro.

Formal definitions of strategy imply that "long-term" and "short-term" impact can be clearly isolated, which is rarely the case. Choosing to specialize as a pickpocket in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) is not necessarily more similar to choosing to develop military technologies in Sid Meier's Civilization II than to cast an ice spell against a specific enemy in Final Fantasy V (Square, 1992). The experience offered by each of these games is so different from one to another that a long-term decision in one case does not require the same skills as a long-term decision in another one. Moreover, the scale of gameplay in a certain game does not necessarily have anything in common with the scale of another game, except if they are played extremely similarly — which, arguably, could be the case within the same genre. What "long-term" refers to is also very variable: it can be 45 minutes in shorter games such as DOTA 2 (Valve Corporation, 2013) or 45 hours in longer games like Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix, 2016). Yet, the latter will still be less often qualified as "strategic" than the former.

A comparison between the Total War and Civilization series can be highly enlightening. Following Salen & Zimmerman, the choice of moving an army to a specific tile in Civilization II would be a tactic, since there is no shorter-range decision. But in Empire: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2009), where each encounter between two armies activates a real-time mode where they have to fight, the same move of an army would instead be considered a strategy. In the game as a whole, each army movement is inscribed in the macro-scale, since the player can control every fight individually — on the micro-scale. Yet, as an experience, both army movements are quite similar and involve similar skills and thought processes. The concepts of micro-scale and macro-scale function well to describe the gameplay of a single game; they cannot easily, however, be integrated in a common lexicon, even in the case of very similar games.

Strategy, in this kind of definition, does not describe a player's experience specifically; it is rather used to describe different formal gaming components. If we were to follow these formal definitions, a similarity in the actions taken in two different games would not matter to identify them as strategic or tactical: we would only rely on their scale in their respective game. Showing the relationships between different scales of decision in Total War or Skyrim is relevant; yet it has nothing to do with the decisions taken in Civilization II or Command & Conquer (Westwood Studios, 1995). That is why experiential definitions of strategy are necessary in order to understand a corpus with a common history such as strategy games.

Experiential Definitions

Rather than considering strategy only through its relatedness to war or to a formal system such as the rules of a game, experiential definitions of strategy seek to describe it through what we experience as players. Of course, the experience of strategy in a videogame context has some common grounds with the experience of strategy in a military context, as iconic definitions would underline. Most experiential definitions of strategy will also share some experiential characteristics with macro-scale decisions, as formal definitions would underline. But experiential definitions mainly attempt to describe and understand the experience of strategy in order to integrate our knowledge into the definition itself.

Experiential definitions will often be inspired by less rigid uses of the word. Writing on competitive strategy in a business context, Michael E. Porter sees it as a "broad formula for how a business is going to compete" (1980, p. xvi), insisting on the inclusion of goals and business politics. To apply the expression in the learning sciences, Jacques Tardif will add a single word to the very wide Multidictionnaire definition: "the planning and coordination of a set of operations in order to effectively reach a goal" ([1992] 1997, p. 23, my translation). For Tardif, "strategies are knowledge," for "in long-term memory, every theoretical knowledge must be associated with strategies to treat and functionally re-use this knowledge" (1997, p. 43, my translation).

The earliest videogame qualified as "real-time strategy" that I found — or, more precisely, "real-time strategy football game" — was called so in a game catalogue (Compleat Computer Catalogue, 1980, p. 174). It was a two-player offline American football game called Computer Quarterback, designed by Danielle Bunten Berry (credited as Bunten, 1981), where strategy means planning on the long term and anticipating the opponent's move. Strategy is, of course, necessary in football, but the videogame is called strategic not for its comparison with the sport, but for the skills involved — otherwise, "football game" would be sufficient.

Michel de Certeau's definition of strategy can also be thought in terms of experience. Essentially, de Certeau's work underlines that every political power uses strategy when it establishes fixed rules, when it has the force to impose its plan as a place where individuals will have to negotiate their own paths. The counter-powers of the citizens are called tactics, which are characterized by having no dedicated place, no pre-defined elements to work, while allowing to seize opportunities, to use ruse, diversion, and appropriation (de Certeau, [1980] 1990, p. 63). The strength of this distinction is to show that the difference between the actions of an institutional power and the actions of a single user is a distinct relation with space. Strategy, in this sense, is the establishment of a space, the institutionalization of clear and stable rules that can more or less determine behaviours, while tactics divert this power by creating their own space.

Game theory, which models situations where multiple decisions are to be taken according to the interests of various agents, also defines strategy as an experience. In their classical Theory of games and economic behavior, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern define strategy as "the general principles governing [the player's] choices" ([1944] 1947, p. 49) in a system where choices are made either by players or by chance. Their book, however, covers games of strategy (and not strategy games), that is, "a series of events, each of which may have a finite number of distinct results" (Leonard, 2010, p. 63). When Von Neumann defined game theory in 1928, he defined strategy as a fixed set of choices that determines every single move in every possible circumstance in a game [3]. A strategy would thus be the actions of one player in a position where there are clear, precise and fixed choices and where the results are more or less predictable.

Definitions of strategy as precise as in game theory are rare in game studies. Around 150 pages after their formal definitions of strategy, Salen & Zimmerman note that there is a more common definition, which seems more adapted to a player's experience:

A common understanding of a strategy in Starcraft might be: "If you're playing the Zergs, create a lot of Zerglings at the beginning of the game and rush your opponent's central structures before they have time to build power." A strategy in this casual sense is a set of general heuristics or rules of thumb that will help guide you as you play. (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 236)

Rather than the long- or short-term impact of a choice in a game, strategy here is a guide or a hypothesis that helps a player make decisions. In the same way, the definition of strategy as an "actional modality" by Bernard Perron, Dominic Arsenault, Martin Picard & Carl Therrien is experiential in the sense that it describes strategy as the deployment of cognitive skills in a middle- or long-term emergent sequence of actions. As in a formal definition, Perron et al. specify that strategy usually involves a longer scale than the resolution of puzzles (2008, pp. 248–249), but it is mostly emergence that distinguishes strategy. For them, indeed, the actions a player performs are "strategic" if they emerge from their cognitive skills and from the player's interaction with the rules, rather than merely from a prescribed sequence of actions.

What seems seems to underlie the multiple uses of "strategy" in the context of strategy games is not so much long-term thinking, since each game has its own temporal scale, as described earlier. Rather, it is the potential for a lot of choices. It is quite rare that a videogame requiring a single strategy would be defined as strategic, even if this single choice affects the whole game. In most strategy games, strategies are what makes play meaningful, in Salen & Zimmerman's sense (2004, p. 34).

When a role-playing game let the player choose their class as in Baldur's Gate (BioWare, 1998) or the composition of their party as in Final Fantasy (Square, 1987), it is a strategic choice that can have a huge impact in terms of difficulty and gaming experience. But Final Fantasy and Baldur's Gate are almost never identified as strategy games, probably in part because the player chooses their party or their class only once. In the same way, playing a more "stealthy" or more "aggressive" style in an action-adventure game is often called a strategy, but since most action-adventure game let both strategies be as efficient when it comes to the issue of the game, it is mostly a question of preference rather than a meaningful part of the game. Strategy games, on the other hands, will often involve multiple choices on the player's side so that different and more or less predictable game states emerge, while others have to be left behind. Most strategy games multiply situations offering choices where the player can know (with various degrees of precision) the repercussions of these choices on the game.

Following one of our experiential definitions, it could be tempting to state that strategy games should be games where there is "strategy." However, even if they are visually very similar, strategy games often give quite a different experience when played in multiplayer or in single-player modes. I previously suggested a distinction between two paradigms in strategy games: decryption and prediction (Dor, 2014). Single-player games tend to be all about decryption: the player has to outsmart the artificial intelligence by decrypting their tendencies. As Thomas Apperley argues, the "player's eventual success or failure at the game is determined by their skill at integrating and contextualizing the various activities involved within the physical rules of the simulation" (Apperley, 2006, p. 14). As soon as you know that an attack will result in a counter-strike in an RTS game, you will wait to have your defences ready before sending troops out to the enemy's base. But multiplayer games — and a few single-player games — would generally fall under the paradigm of prediction. The goal is not to decrypt the tendencies of a machine, but rather to outsmart a human being. To this end, the game is designed as predictable; just as I know that there are only four kings in a normal poker game, I know that it is impossible for a player to attack with Battlecruisers at the fourth minute of a StarCraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998). These two paradigms show why strategy games cannot be reduced to a single "strategy" definition.


"Strategy," as a genre that would include every game that displays a certain strategic component, regardless of what this component could be or if it can be defined at all, is not an efficient classification. It would not have any historical basis or theoretical interest except if it is clearly stated in which sense and up to which point the component is "strategic." There is a clear distinction between strategy in games and strategy games: only the latter refers to a genre. A dictionary definition can define strategy using whichever criteria it needs, but it will not be enough to understand the complexity of the historical and cultural phenomenon that led to complex grand strategy games, tower defense, 4X, and e-sports. An encyclopaedic definition of strategy games in their cultural context would therefore be any game belonging to a certain tradition that goes back to wargames, that involves more strategy than the usual videogame, that includes certain gameplay conventions and that is inscribed in certain communities' manifestations.

Debates surrounding the adjective "strategy" affixed to a game usually arise because the definition of strategy is blurry, but understanding strategy in games might almost be unnecessary in order to understand what strategy games are. The complexity of these definitions ironically opposes the relatively fixed forms that strategy games have taken over their history, a history that needs to (and will) be written more extensively [4]. Strategy has been defined in numerous ways here, but it is still unclear as to which of these definitions are crucial in order to understand strategy games, and in what manner.

I do think that a history of gameplay rather than a history of games as objects, as suggested by more than one scholar (see Lowood 2004, Consalvo 2007, p. 2), is a necessary approach to map the cultural phenomenon that videogames are. With that goal in mind, the next step would be to survey encyclopaedic definitions of strategy games, wargames, and games with family resemblances in order to see how the classification is done in practice. Using discourse analysis following the tradition of Michel Foucault, we should analyze how strategy games are defined in discourses on videogames, why players perceive that strategy games are parts of the same continuity in history, how strategy as an experience appeared in gameplay, and so forth.

Although war is clearly predominant in strategy games and questioning this presence is important, gameplay is more than representation. To quote Pascal Garandel in a brilliant essay on space and videogames: "videogame space is a map that does not refer to any real space" (2012, p. 142, my translation). We have to go beyond what we see to understand what we play. Rethinking the history of strategy gameplay would allow the inclusion of other histories where war is not prominent. I do think that "civilian" games such as SimCity (Maxis, 1989) played a significant role for strategy games, and that another perspective on the genre could help acknowledge the work of early pioneers such as Danielle Bunten Berry with her non-lethal management game M.U.L.E. (Ozark Softscape, 1983), among other influential games.



[1]The distinction that Jonne Arjoranta (2014) makes between nominal and real definitions is somehow related to the one Eco describes here, but, according to him, nominal definitions are related to forms of discourses and usage of words while real definitions are related to a certain essence of things defined. This distinction should not be confused with the one Eco draws.

[2]It is not to say that games where politics do not imply fighting are uninteresting. Balance of Power (Crawford, 1985), for instance, is a game in the context of the Cold War where the goal is to make sure there is no direct confrontation.

[3]The text was published in 1928 in German and in French as "Calcul des probabilités — Sur la théorie des jeux." Robert Leonard gives a more detailed explanation of the term that I could do and I would suggest his book for those interested in the subject (2010, pp. 62–70).

[4]This history is still in progress but a large part was included in my PhD thesis in French (Dor, 2015).



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