What is a game?

One of the things that I struggle with in my own projects is defining what a “game” means. To get a more official word on what a “game” is I decided to check out what Merriam-Webster had to say on the definition of a game. The relevant portion was short and sweet: “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement”. This description gives a broad range in what being a game means. I will break down what this definition means for me and for this site on what a “game” means.

The key word differentiating a game from other forms of entertainment is the activity portion. The following is a break down of the definition of activity:

  1. the quality or state of being active
  2. vigorous or energetic action : liveliness
  3. natural or normal function: as a: a process (as digestion) that an organism carries on or participates in by virtue of being alive b: a similar process actually or potentially involving mental function ; specifically : an educational procedure designed to stimulate learning by firsthand experience
  4. an active force
  5. a: a pursuit in which a person is active b: a form of organized, supervised, often extracurricular recreation
  6. an organizational unit for performing a specific function ; also : its function or duties
When looking up activity I didn’t think that it would really map well to the gaming space, but these definitions really do lead to some interesting question.
Lets start with the state of being active. The least active product that could potentially be called a game I can think of is Progress Quest. In Progress Quest you simply have to have the program active in order to participate, it does the rest. To me this tests the boundary of what it means to be “active” as a player. Is simply showing up enough to count as a game? For my belief in games, no this is not enough. However, progress quest does push the boundaries as the competitive aspect of keeping the client running can actually be seen as a contest. From my point of view running an application cannot be considered a game, the player must interact with a game on regular basis.
Vigorous or energetic action is usually what a game character is involved in, but there are some games like Wii Fit or Dance Dance Revolution that have the player involved in vigorous or energetic action. These types of games really get the player up and active, but that isn’t the type of game I want focus on. I believe a game should be a good game independent of its input system. DDR or Wii Fit could be played with an input system that isn’t as physically engaging and would still be games.
The third definition seems to map to games like The Sims or Serious Games. I think the simulation of reality is an interesting pursuit, but ultimately I like the definition of games being a diversion or amusement. This means the focus of games at this site will not be morality tales or simulations of realistic activities.

I don’t find the other definitions of activity map well to gaming. So the boundaries that we have defined so far is that you have to have frequent interaction with the game (strategy or email games like Laser Squad Nemesis would push the boundary of this). I’m not interested in the specific input to the game for activity as a game should stand on its own merits. And finally I am not interested in simply making a simulation of a known activity but I do believe that games can be educational.

After all that analysis, more has been eliminated than defined for what a game is. Rather than basing game on the broad English definition, next time I write on game design I will go with game definition through some of the history and evolution of video games.

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2 Responses to What is a game?

  1. Owen says:

    I found this post particularly interesting because I’m in the process of reading a book called “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals” by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. They devote the entirety of chapter 5 to attempting to come up with a definition for a “game”. They go through an interesting process of looking at 8 existing definitions provided by other writers on the subject of games or play and eventually develop their own definition:

    “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

    I really like their definition because it is very concise, but encompasses a lot of depth at the same time. For example, it states that a game needs to have players, be it one or more. The players are involved in a conflict that is artificial. That is, the conflict has no bearing on real world outcome; the game exists in its own reality, separate from the rest of the world. The conflict can be competitive or cooperative. It states that the game must have rules that govern the way players interact in the artificial reality of the game. And it states that there must be some measurable way in which the game ends (i.e. a goal). They argue that the quantifiable outcome is what distinguishes most games from other forms of play.

    Anyway, I thought it relevant to your discussion. 🙂

  2. jhuculak says:

    A very interesting description that I agree is very succinct. However, I’m starting to think that defining what a game is kind of pedantic in that it becomes overly general or hardly relevant for anything other than saying if something is a game or not.

    Where the challenge really exists is in finding WHY some games are fun and some games are not and attempting to map that to human play characteristics. I needed to start somewhere with the initial boundaries of what a game is and I hope to narrow in on an actual target for an experiment.

    I’m more interested in trying to find the “atoms of appeal” in a game experience and attempt to generalize the chords that they hit in the audience to see if they can be plucked in slightly different ways for a new game play melody.

    I have a few more entries to go before I will revisit this, but I will let your comment soak in and see if I need to revisit the game definition.

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