Vanitas … Is it even a game?

What makes a game a game? Does it have to be fun?… because Vanitas was not fun to play.

Vanitas by Harmen Steenwijck


Vanitas is a category of symbolic works of art, usually associated with still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders and the Netherlands.This artistic style is seen portrayed in the game Tale of Tales developed early in 2010, called Vanitas.  Tale of Tales’ Vanitas, is classified as a videogame but is it really a game? According to Roger Caillois, a twentieth century French writer and philosopher, play is defined as, “a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement,” meaning that play is subjective and at the discretion of the individual’s idea of fun. A game, however, could be divided and classified using, “the [game’s] role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo” (Caillois). This definition, or requirements, for a game divides the different categories: the role of competition means that there are games played against others and ones that do not require interaction, the role of chance allows for the possibility of outcomes, simulation games have components that interact with the players, and the role of vertigo is in regards to the sensation of movement.

Image of Tale of Tales, Vanitas

In Vanitas, the individual slides open a box and there are three objects in the box. The individual can move the objects around and view the composition of the contents. When the individual is finished viewing the contents you then slide close the box and three new objects are placed in the box and if three of the same objects appear the individual earns a star. After every third viewing, new objects are introduced to the contents. The objects range and include things such as: nails, bells, tarot/playing cards, snails, lady bugs, cherries, skulls, crystal stars, and so on.  Quotes and poems also appear on the lid of the box when the objects are being reloaded. As for the additional aesthetics of Vanitas, there is little to do with music just an occasional melody but there are the noises that correlate to the objects, like the sound of a bell jingling or the contents sliding in the wooden box. Although the viewing is artistically appealing, there is not much to entertain the viewer and it become repetitive despite the changing contents.

In regards to Caillois’s ideas on play and games, Vanitas can be called a game. Since one category a game falls under is chance, meaning that there are a number of outcomes possible, and the major aspect of Vanitas is the different possibilities of the box’s contents, it then falls within the parameters of the definition. Even though it could technically be called a game, it may not engage an individual in play, which is more subjective and depends upon the individuals enjoyment and participation. For me, the game was repetitive and I continued to feel that I was missing some objective. Vanitas may have the components of a game but it did not have the fun required to play.

Caillois, Roger. "The Definition of Play and The Classification of Games" The 
	Game Design Reader. The MIT Press (2006:Cambridge, MA.).

8 thoughts on “Vanitas … Is it even a game?

  1. I liked your post about Vanitas. It seems very interesting. I used the Juul reading for my post, and from what I’ve read in your post I don’t think Juul would consider this a game. One criteria to be a game is that the player must be attached to the outcome. You seemed more confused and bored about the game than anything, so Juul probably wouldn’t consider this a game. It’s interesting that one scholar would classify this as a game but another wouldn’t.


    • I completely agree with you about Juul. As I started to write about Vanitas using Caillois, I had considered rewriting using Juul because I had agreed more with that point of view but I also found it interesting that Vanitas could be considered a game.


  2. I enjoyed reading your blog. I enjoyed that you included the music, some other people do not mention the music and how it can affect the ability of play of the game. Good music in games is definitely a plus. I have played this game before and had not enjoyed it at all simply because it was too simple. I am happy to know that you felt the same way. Could you think of anything that could be improved in the game to make the experience a much better one and keep the player playing?


  3. Good job following up with some research on the word “vanitas,” but you need to follow it up by really trying to understand what the “category of symbolic works of art” do. It’s an important step for understanding this “game.” Otherwise, your push toward Caillois’ alea is interesting since that element of the game (the stars and trying to ‘get’ 3 of the same) is both the only game element within the “game” and the least “vanitas” element within it.


  4. It seems like Vanitas’ purpose is to show the meaninglessness of life (from the wiki) and as such it would defeat its own purpose if the player was attached to outcomes, which would imply some kind of personal meaning assigned to them. So perhaps it qualifies as art, and uses the technology behind videogames, but because of the messages it tries to convey cannot really be a game at the same time, or at least not an entertaining one.


      • No. I think he is saying that because the message of meaninglessness of life detaches you from the outcome it cannot be a game, instead of video games with messages in general not being able to be games. This specific app like the other commenters have said may quantify as art to some people, although it fails to do either in my opinion. gpanakkal would you agree?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s