February 24, 2009

What Makes a Game: 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Discussion

Continuing along the same vein as my previous post, this week I chose a game not necessarily designed to be fun, but rather created to spark discussion. During the Nordic Game Jam, a twenty-four-hour competition to create an interactive experience based on a given prompt, Petri Purho produced an application that has so little interaction that it has prompted a conversation throughout the community about what even qualifies as a game. In 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, the player simply loads the program and watches a progress bar fill the screen (see image below). The object is to be the only person in the world playing at a given moment, and if she can hold onto that title for an entire 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she wins. Otherwise, the application closes without explanation. To supplement this experience, Jonathan Basseri created an online visulizer that lets the current leader watch her progress and gives recently ousted players an identity (a location and IP address) to blame for their downfall. After I heard about this game, I visited Purho’s blog, where he shares his insights about 4’33” of Uniqueness. I then followed and contributed to the heated thread of posts debating the merits of this experimental and controversial work. I later stumbled upon Offworld, where Brandon Boyer hints at what makes 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness a compelling system. Commenting on the blog, I expanded upon his idea, and offered a definition of my own. These two comments can be found on the respective sites, and I have also pasted them below.

"4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness"

4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is shining example of the continuing evolution of interactive media. Those that immediately dismiss it should consider parallels in music, art, and film. Naturally, the first work invoked is John Cage’s 4’33” (sheet music pictured on the left), the silent composition after which you named the game. Just as some of the previous commenters say that this game does not deserve any attention due to its minimal interactivity, those in the audience at the first performance of 4’33” were irritated and angry once they realized that no notes were going to be played. Cage’s inspiration, Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings also come to mind, and while the art community is more receptive to controversial pieces, many people still dispute that those plain white panels are art. In 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, you challenge the thoughtful player to define what makes a game. Some have posted here on your blog that because it is not fun, it is not a game. Firstly, I would argue that, especially coupled with Jonathan Basseri’s visualizer, you have created an astonishingly simple, yet still exciting and engaging mechanic. Secondly, I ask, does a film have to be entertaining for it to be a film? Does music have to sound good for it to be music? Can a painting be ugly and still be art? I think the bigger question is how interactive must an experience be before it qualifies as a game. Whatever the answer, with 4’33” of Uniqueness, you have borrowed this idea of self-definition that has been discussed in so many other mediums, and opened up a dialog in the gaming community, while at the same time bringing a little more credence to games as an art form.

While people are beginning to accept games as a form of artistic expression, most still have a narrow view of the possibilities of “art games.” They see the beauty of Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the game that follows the entire life of a man in five minutes, and they enjoy the sandbox play and child-like sensibility of your own Crayon Physics Deluxe, yet they cannot appreciate the reflective nature of 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. Art is not just about beauty; it also makes a statement and is a catalyst for contemplation and discussion.

"My 45 Seconds of Uniqueness, Vizualized"

When I first heard about 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, I was skeptical and did not think it could possibly qualify as a game. The only action, as commenter VoxExMachina points out, is “load the game,” which initially does not seem like a choice at all. However, since 4’33” challenges the player to define a game, I decided to give it a second chance. In my view (and I am paraphrasing this from the book Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton, Christopher Swain, and Steven Hoffman), a game is a system with predefined rules in which a player encounters some form of conflict and makes choices that result in an unequal outcome. My first observation is that Petri Purho has clearly detailed a set of rules that determine the play; in fact, there is only one: if the player is the only person in the world running the game for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she wins. Every other human being becomes the enemy, threatening to end her domination. As for unequal outcome, the application inelegantly shuts down with a loss, and the crudely drawn checkmark and exclamation points surrounding the winner’s IP address celebrate the elusive victory.

The only remaining qualification is choice. Is 4’33” interactive enough to be considered a game? When I played, I thought about how to use my only given ability in the most effective ways possible. I loaded at 1:30 AM Los Angeles time, when reasonable Americans slept and Europeans started waking up and going to work. I deduced few other cultures had been exposed to the game. Whenever someone ran the application, cutting my time short, I immediately re-opened my program to squash that Danish IP address’ morale. Finally, I used my “load the game” powerup as often as I could, and after only about fifteen minutes, the mundane status bar gave way to a pixilated checkmark; confirming my dominant uniqueness. I do not know if I won because of my strategy or because of blind luck, but the game made me feel like my choices caused the victory. I believe games can be designed about anything, from alien invasions to surfing Wikipedia (see WikiPaths), so while definitely not a run-of-the-mill shooter or a classic platformer, in my opinion, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds passes.


  1. Very interesting. I like that.

  2. "this is the entire game" lol

  3. First and foremost, I would like to applaud you on your last two posts for your truly interesting approach to the topic of your blog. These posts thankfully examine an overlooked, fundamental aspect of video games that is both intriguing, while broad enough so that the non-gamer can actively engage in the issues at hand. After playing Burn The Rope and 4 minutes and 33 seconds of Uniqueness, I found myself confused as to how games of their caliber could possibly be used as any form of study or discussion. However, upon reading your comments regarding both games, I now understand that both games are a part of a larger movement in which video games simply becomes a vehicle for art and expression in the 21st century. I will let you, as the expert, decide whether or not these games can actually be classified as “video games”. As a design professional, though, I can confidently assert myself in saying that they certainly make a statement equally effective as any other form of art. More importantly, they use a current mode of communication, via the internet, perhaps making the games even more successful. Although Burn The Rope is an especially refreshing escape from the ultra-complex games of today, I find 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness to be significantly more thought provoking in the world outside of gaming. It not only challenges the typical notion of video games but suggests larger issues of society as well. The most obvious to me is how people can get addicted to even the most mundane tasks. The game seems to be based around the sole belief that people enjoy being a part of the few, or elite. In this case, the ultimate prize is being the only person on the planet to watch a meter progress for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Although I do not see myself losing sleep over this game, I think we can all agree that once the hype has ended, we can certainly use it as a way to appreciate the more complex video games that are out there.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.