Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 January, 2006

What is a game?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:55 PM

Raph’s recent presentation at PARC got me thinking about what games are. I figured some of you might find the topic interesting as well.

I begin with the question, “what is a game?”

Thinking about it, my simplest definition of a game would be, “something done for fun.” But, that begs the question: “What is fun?” Using the simplest definition again, I would say, “something done not just for the purpose of survival.” Interestingly enough, this is also a definition of “art” I’ve heard many times. However, as we’ll see below, even this definition of fun as it relates to games isn’t 100% accurate.

Of course, these simple definitions have many, many caveats. Games are considered part of “play”, only with more formal rules. People sometimes claim that play has no rules, but Raph pointed out in his talk that there are an awful lot of rules in something as simple as playing “tea party.” Part of playing tea party is figuring out the complex social rules between participants, even if they appear to be stuffed animals sitting in a chair! But, I think the notion of formal rules is a useful enough distinction because games tend to have at least a basic set of established rules, even if they can be changed as part of gameplay.

So, the definition is currently, “Something done for fun, or done not just for the purpose of survival, with formal rules.” Perhaps not airtight, but reasonable as far as definitions in this field goes. This does cover a wide variety of games, from board games to video games to sports. Of course, this could cover a lot of things we don’t necessarily consider as games, such as composing or performing music.

So, what distinguishes games from other types of fun or artistic activities, from other media? The usual answer is interactivity. Raph disagreed with this in his talk at PARC, but I think he was too quick to dismiss it. His argument was that all media is interactive since you have to actively decode most works of art. For example, we spend years learning how to read in order to enjoy literature. But, I think this qualification only makes most media active; in order to be truly interactive you need to have a complete communication loop and provide feedback. The difference between strumming a guitar and playing the Guitar Hero game is that the game provides feedback to tell you how well you are doing in terms of the rules of the game. The regular guitar does not provide the same type of feedback, although a player could judge the quality of their own playing. Once you have rules and start making measurements, then the activity becomes more like the game. Now the definition becomes “Something interactive done for fun, or done not just for the purpose of survival, with formal rules and feedback.”

Well, let’s ask a more interesting question, “Why do we play games?” This is where we start seeing “corner cases” in the definition I have above. Professional game (or sports) players play the game arguably for survival; this is their income that lets them provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. We even have professional leagues for playing games, most notably in Korea. Most people reading this probably know how famous RTS game champions are in Korea. So, is it important to consider this specific aspect of gaming?

Related to this is the question, “What do we get from playing games?” As Raph argues in his excellent book, games are about learning. If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably find that easy to accept. Unfortunately, this does mean the “not done for the express purpose of survival” part of my definition isn’t 100% accurate (as I said above) since learning is an important part of survival. On the other hand, perhaps including the qualifier “for the express purpose” might be enough of a qualifier to keep the definition accurate; few people play games thinking, “hey, this is helping me survive better!”

So, now we see why defining games is so hard: it’s a few steps forward, and a couple possible steps back for me at this point. I think my definition is still a good one, but we need to recognize that there are corner cases and exceptions. Part of the price for not defining things that are easily described by mathematics.

So, why bother defining games? Why struggle to come up with a definition when it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as it might seem initially? Why get into discussions splitting hairs over definitions? For me, the most obvious reason is that game developers need to know what games are in order to develop them. We need to know what a game is in order to accurate learn from the history of gaming. We need to know the expectations of our audience when designing games for the future. We also need to think about the corner cases and recognize that this might be part of the game; does the fact that people might play my game professionally (or just for money) affect my design?

Okay, enough being academic for one day. :) My final, but potentially flawed, definition is: “Something interactive done for fun, or done not just for the purpose of survival, with formal rules and feedback.”

What’s your definition of a game? What aspects do you think are the most important?

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  1. I think the egg came first.

    “What is a game?” is definitely one of those chicken/egg questions. I would love ot find more developers empowered to ask this question and seek their own answers through design — artists often produce their greatest works in the pursuit of their ‘muse’ even if they never truly capture in reality what they seek in their minds.

    The payoff to the consumer (be it those playing a game or those viewing the art) is that we are exposed to diversity through new creative modes of expression. I don’t think we are going to see this in the top level of the market save for accidents of the system, but I do think we can find it in the indy environment. Once the race for hardware slows to the point where anyone can produce a ‘top level’ game (graphics, audio, physics, etc.) cheaply through the commoditization of top tier tools.

    What is a game? I couldn’t begin to make an authorative statement on that one. Even getting subjective I find myself running in circles and exposing exceptions and flaws in the answer. I suggest that you look inside to find the answer and build games as your external expression of it.

    Comment by Grimwell — 29 January, 2006 @ 4:18 PM

  2. What is a game should be thought about everytime a developer considers putting out a new game. Casual game downloads may differ from what a hardcore game may be.

    Comment by Darius Young — 29 January, 2006 @ 7:31 PM

  3. I agree somewhat, Grimwell. I think people can make excellent games without considering the academic side of this question. On the other hand, I think considering the question could open up some possibilities, especially if you take a closer look at the corner cases I talk about.

    For example, there’s some games we don’t necessarily play because they’re outrageously fun. A great example of this is solitaire. Few people play this because they truly enjoy the experience. On the other hand, it is a handy way to pass the time with a little game you can start and stop on a whim. So, not every game has to be “new” and “cutting edge” to be important.

    I’ll write a bit more about how this relates to online games in my next post to be published probably tomorrow.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 January, 2006 @ 8:21 PM

  4. Applying “What is a game?” to online games

    Building upon my previous post, “What is a game?”, let’s now focus on what we can learn about online games from this line of reasoning. How does thinking in academic terms help us with “real” game design?
    Get ready for more thinking!

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 30 January, 2006 @ 3:35 AM

  5. I recall an insert in the original SimCity that made a distinction between a toy and a game. You can win a game. A toy is just an open set of possibilities with on object in mind. For example, you can’t win at “Ball”. You can win at dodgeball. Maxis (and probably Will Wright) classified SimCity as a toy. It’s not a game til you give yourself a goal (0 to Metropolis in 50 years).

    So to add to PC’s definition, I’d say a game would have to be some contest between 2 or more entities that is not necessary for survival. The computer can be one of the entities, but the goals of the entities must always be in conflict.

    I’ll be the first to admit this is a bit awkward for puzzles and single player sports games. I’ll just have to resort to saying that the game doesn’t want to be solved :)

    Comment by Ben Craig — 1 February, 2006 @ 9:31 PM

  6. In that case… an MMO would be a toy (like a ball) which you use to play lots of games. Can I kill you? Can we finish this instance? Can I out smacktalk this other idiot?

    For your puzzle game reference, I think the definition you put forth would be more accurate if you pit the player versus the puzzle creator and not the computer running the application. For 1player sports titles either the creators or the computer would work. I think the definition is getting pretty solid.

    A contest (implies a goal) between 2 or more entities that has formal rules and is not necessary for survival.

    Comment by Norin — 2 February, 2006 @ 2:42 PM

  7. Richard Bartle’s definition of a game…

    The exceptionally brilliant Dr. Bartle posted a bit over on his blog about “What’s in a Game?” ( As some of my loyal readers know, did something similar a while ago (http://www.psychochild….

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 18 October, 2006 @ 12:50 PM

  8. What’s a Game

    [...] You can read his article here: [...]

    Pingback by Rusty Parks’ Blog — 24 October, 2006 @ 12:42 AM

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