What is a Game?

To answer this question, we must begin with an understanding of work and play.

Work is any activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result; mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment; to be engaged in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result, especially in one’s job.

To play is to engage in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose; it is an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.

Work has certain necessary elements. There is an effort, which might be easy or strenuous, that represents a deliberate attempt to perform the activity. There is often income or employment involved; a person works at the behest of and compensation from others. And there is a purpose or desired result. We work toward an end, whatever it may be.

When these elements are lacking in an activity, it’s play instead of work. The line separating the two is difficult to define: if I actively perform a task for a purpose but I’m not compensated for that effort, am I working or playing? By the definition above, it can’t be play, but the lack of monetary awards (or a similar compensation) makes it less like work in a traditional sense.

I propose that we consider each term in their entirety. Thus, for work to be work, it must conform to the proper definition. The same with play. This leaves us with many activities in a gray area ~ neither work nor play, but certainly something worth pursuing and understanding.

Games fall in this gray area between work and play. They have goals or a purpose ~ an end toward which the player strives ~ and they may or may not involve actual effort. They certainly don’t reward players with money, employment or similar compensation; instead, they reward players with a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction at having completed the goal. They are activities of enjoyment, but they are more than play because they have a purpose beyond simple recreation.

Others have attempted to define games. I do not claim to be an expert, so let us defer to some experts to gain some insight:

  • “An interactive, goal-oriented activity made for money, with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other.” (Chris Crawford)
  • “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)
  • “A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” (Greg Costikyan) According to this definition, some “games” that do not involve choices, such as Chutes and LaddersCandy Land, and War are not technically games any more than a slot machine is.
  • “A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context. (Clark C. Abt)
  • “At its most elementary level then we can define game as an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome.” (Elliot Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith)
  • “A game is a form of play with goals and structure.” (Kevin J. Maroney)
  • “to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.” (Bernard Suits)
  • “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” (Jane McGonigal)

The emphasis is mine.

I cannot offer a better definition than those already provided, except to paraphrase them: a game is a form of play with goals; rules or structure; a system of conflict or opposition; and active, voluntary participants.

As an aside, I believe we can accurately say that games with little or no player agency are still games. They are not the same as games with player agency ~ personally, I find them unworthy of my time ~ but I cannot go to the level of excluding them entirely. Clearly, then, more precise definitions are required in order to delineate certain broad categories of games.

EDIT: I should add that there is another definition for play, one I consider far more useful for our understanding of games: that play is free movement within a more rigid structure. In this sense, one can experience play in every aspect of life, especially work, making the two terms not mutually exclusive. This does not interfere with the definitions I’ve offered, but with the manner in which I present them. Please keep that in mind as you read through this blog: I shall be as consistent as possible, but ultimately, this is a process that will yield new discoveries and understandings.


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