So What is a Game?

Kate offers “Some sort of interactive activity on a computer – usually including some form of goal to achieve. Not a complete definition, but a start maybe?”, Loiuse reckons “participative goal-oriented entertainment” and Andy suggests “definitions can get in the way sometimes.” ;-)

So what is a game?

There have been many types of games across the centuries; the earliest recorded game play dates back over 5,000 years ago, and there are those who would argue that this demonstrates that game play is a definable characteristic of human beings. Whilst we all know that dogs can play happily for hours on end, fetching a stick that has been thrown for them in the apparent hope that it will be thrown again, is the dog actually playing a game with us? Or are we playing a game with it?!

I make no claims at all about my knowledge of “game studies”, so working under the assumption that this is a question that I’ll keep coming back as I learn more about the nature of gaming, I’m going to step back from the question for a moment and use the approach we took in a traditionally presented course I’m also involved with, T184 Robotics and the Meaning of Life, where we asked a similarly tricky question: what is a robot?.

In that case, we looked for a set of common properties that something appeared to need in order for us to class it as a robot. In this case, I’m going to start off by looking at a few games to see what they have in common, and also ask myself what it means to play a game Sims

To get in the mood, here are some slideshows of different sorts of games on flickr:

Those images suggest that activities as different as Hopscotch, The Sims, Yahtzee and Football might all be considered to be games, although they are very different types of game. At first glance, a childhood pavement game, digital “god” game (where the player is only loosely in charge of apparently independent characters within the game world), a traditional table game and an international sport seem very different activities indeed…

…but what do they have in common? Winning, or playing ? Entertainment, or pleasure? A set of rules or a defined play area? In order to think more deeply about the common characteristics of games, perhaps we should ask what is not a game? We are almost playing a game if we simply have a ‘kick about’ or throw the dice just to see what number turns up; that is, we are definitely playing at something, but there is a degree of aimlessness to our play. Is it a game?

Perhaps a good game must have an aim, objective or goal, as Kate hinted? Or can an aimless activity, even within a set of rules, motivate game play?

For example, the highway code provides a given set of rules and the UK road system and a car (or even just Google Maps!) provide a reasonable set of “playing pieces” but without a treasure hunt to provide a reason (albeit an arbitrary one) for an otherwise pointless journey, driving around the backraoads of deepest Norfolk probably would not be classed as a game.

Some sort of aim or objective seems to be a common feature of a game. Only when some aim is introduced do we feel fully engaged in game play. So, irrespective of the differences between childhood fun, computer media, gambling and sport there must be some commonalities in the structure of game play towards achieving an aim.

In his seminal (that is, thought of as important!) work, Homo Ludens (1938), (from the Latin, meaning ‘man as player’:-), Johan Huizinga defined the playing of games as follows:

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation, executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary” life.

Does this mean that to create limits or rules to achieving an aim creates amusement ? Or maybe a game provides a context within which arbitrary obstacles to performing an otherwise easily achievable task create the possibility of play rather than irritation.

In the game of football, this might mean having a goalkeeper obstructing the easy scoring of a goal, for example.

This obstacle or impairment is a limit, or boundary, and maybe another defining component of a game. Indeed, game playing was described as using ‘less selection of inefficient means’ to achieve a particular goal by Bernard Suits in the article ‘What Is A Game’, that appeared in issue 2 of volume 34 of the academic journal Philosophy of Science in 1967.

To give that reference more formally, using the rules of academic referencing:

Suits, B. ‘What Is A Game?’, Philosophy of Science 1967, Vol. 34(2), pp. 148-156. [Open University members can access it here directly; you might also be able to get access to this article through your own, local library’s electronic books and journals collection.]

To play any game, then, is actually to engage in a ‘directed’ activity towards achieving an aim or set of aims that are usually entirely arbitrary and only make sense within the context of the game. Directed activity is a process of set tasks with a specific set of aims. For example, in the games mentioned above, the directed activity was variously:

• to hop and jump without standing on the square with the stone on it (hopscotch)
• to develop a successful social scene (The Sims)
• to throw the desired score on the dice (Yahtzee)
• to kick more balls into the net than an opponent (football)

These aims, however, have to be achieved within the bounds of a set of specific rules to constitute game play.

For example, in “the Beautiful Game” (i.e. football, though I can’t stand it, personally!), without the constraints of the off side rule, scoring a goal would be much easier and perhaps less engaging. So it is true to say perhaps, that the rules constrain the activity in such a way as to create a dynamic possibility; the rules define the game play in pursuit of the aim.

This first attempt at a “model” of what we need to make a game identifies an aim (or goal – literally or figuratively speaking!) and some arbitrary obstacle as important characterstics, as well as a play area in many cases. Rules also seem to be relevant…

Anyway, I’ve rambled on for far too long today, so if you’ve made it this far, here’s something a little more light-hearted…

Watch the first part of the interactive tutorial on “Understanding Games” at

As you do so, try to spot what the character identifies as the key features a game must have. Watching Myself: I was just fooling around with a CD, when I noticed how my hand looked holding it. The painting in the background is “The Return” by Magritte. It’s hard to describe the moment. I actually wanted to take a pretty picture of myself, and it ended up like this. Little Lushie

If you’re feeling really with it, try to watch yourself watching the animation and ask yourself: how is the publishing medium itself (i.e. the animation) is being used to communicate the message it contains?

16 Responses to “So What is a Game?”

  1. 1 Rebecca March 5, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Perhaps a game needs to be time-bounded in some way? I go geocaching, which involves a directed activity and a set of fairly arbitrary aims. Yet I wouldn’t say I was going out for a game of geocaching, because it’s an ongoing activity.
    I think games are also voluntary activities, and that calling PE lessons ‘games’ is a misnomer. Is a game of football still a game if you’re a paid professional? I’m not sure.

  2. 2 Juliette White March 5, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    How did you resist mentioning Wittgenstein? :)

    By the way, on this topic, I love the little table showing which elements of a game definition feature in varions definitions of a game from the literature that’s given in Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.

  3. 3 Kate March 6, 2008 at 8:31 am

    An interesting one!! This episode reminded me about the discussion on the MU-puzzle and formal systems in Hofstadter’s book “Godel, Escher, Bach”.
    Of course that also contains the idea that intelligence is needed to jump out of the system. I wonder what that says about gamers?

    PS The interactive tutorial was fun! I’m still no good at pong – last time I played that was here:

  4. 4 Tony Hirst March 6, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Juliette –

    If you’re really interested in the philosophy, Doug posted a link to an blog that appears to take quite a philosophical stance to game studies:

    If Giselle is reading, she may have something to say about this too!

    Thanks for reminding me about the chart in Salen and Zimmerman (ISBN: 9780262240451, page 79) that summarises the elements of various different definitions of games given by game studies academics.

    I managed to find a preview of it on Microsoft Live book search:

    Once you’re there, search for – salen zimmerman rules play – and then search within the book for “grid of common elements” (you’ll need to log in with a Windows Live ID to see the actual book page). Here’s a screenshot – )

    I’m going to post something along the lines of a ‘game definition comparison chart’ in a day or two, hopefully…

  5. 5 Andy Mee March 6, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I drive around the backroads of deepest Norfolk each day and wouldn’t class it as a game either. Others pretend it’s a Colin McRae rally game though.

  6. 6 Giselle Ferreira March 6, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Giselle is reading but only slowly catching up – can I have an extension, pleeeease? :-)

  7. 7 Tony Hirst March 6, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    “Perhaps a game needs to be time-bounded in some way?”

    I’m not sure that’s *necessarily* true?

    Persistent worlds like World of Warcraft are claimed to be games, I think, though admittedly the ‘game status’ of Second Life is moot…

  8. 8 Juliette March 7, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Oh, I’m not interested in the philosophy. It’s just the first thing that poppped into my head when you were talking about defining a game was Wittgenstein! :)

  9. 9 Matthew May 3, 2010 at 10:59 am

    I think TO-PLAY is a voluntary activity of entertainment that leads to a goal.
    Were as a game is a task set for you to play on you emotions and change the way you think, for example:

    Left for dead – is a game that gives you the feeling of no way out unless you think tactically, it plays on your fear and adrenalin. You experience panic when you hear the horde of zombies or when 3 of you team mates are down, desperation to survive just a little bit longer, relief when you make it to the safe house, happy when you find the ammo stash.

    When you play a well designed game your submerged in it, its the only thing you focus on.

    • 10 Deanobags October 1, 2010 at 11:42 pm

      World of warcraft is deffinately a second life to most people. I myself “lost” time to this game. I do refer to it as a game because the aim is to become or at least be part of the hero you have created. The aspect of roleplaying in this game i do not personally enjoy unless its in my head as part of the team i am with killing a boss (which by the way are some of the hardest i have encountered).

      A games paramiters do make the game, altho i do believe that the personal interest of the player does contribute to the activity being an actual source of enjoyment or a task simply to be completed. The player does have to want to patricipate in order for the activities to be called a game.

      By the way, Left 4 dead is one of the most enjoyable survival horror games EVER!

  10. 11 Kester October 3, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I would challenge your idea that a game needs an aim, and prove myself wrong:

    Using your example on driving a car around, that can be fun for some people – if they had just learnt to drive, or bought a new Ferrari.

    Then the goal would simply be to have enjoy oneself.

    But then that makes everything subjective as to what a game is…

  1. 1 Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1′ « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on March 7, 2008 at 3:20 pm
  2. 2 Whose Rules? « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on March 10, 2008 at 6:53 pm
  3. 3 Getting Philosophical About Games « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on March 11, 2008 at 6:06 pm
  4. 4 “Oscilloscopy” « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on March 21, 2008 at 7:57 pm
  5. 5 The World of Serious Games « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on April 22, 2008 at 6:35 pm

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