Archive for the 'What is a game?' Category

Time To Make a Start – Welcome to Interactive Media and Game Design

[The Digital Worlds uncourse blog experiment was an experiment in authoring an online Open University course in public. A lot of the material in the Digital Worlds blog found it’s way into the Open University course T151 Digital Worlds – designing games, creating alternative realities, which next runs in May 2010. But you can also read it here… for free…]

Have you ever played a computer game – or watched someone playing a computer game, and wondered how the game works, whether from a technical point of view, or at a more psychological level? Why is one game fun to play, for example, when another is not?

Or maybe you’ve noticed an increasing number of television adverts for computer games, many of them looking like big budget Hollywood movie trailers, and asked yourself just how big an industry is computer gaming?

This blogged-course aims to give you a greater understanding of how interactive media in general, and computer games in particular, work. From the technical basics, through the development process, to marketing and distribution; from the simplest 2 dimensional computer arcade games like Pacman and Space Invaders, to immersive three dimensional virtual worlds populated by thousands of other people, you’ll see how the media landscape is changing, and how game technology is helping to drive that change.

First of all, let’s have some ground rules:

  1. this “course” is not a course about learning how to play computer games better; that said, one of the best ways of learning about game design is to look at – and play – some of the games that are already out there. I’ll direct you to some of these games at appropriate points, as well as providing you with opportunities to explore some virtual worlds, but don’t spend too long playing with them! If you already are a gameplayer, we’ll hopefully provide you with new ways of looking at, and thinking about, the games you play.
  2. this “course” is not really a course (although it might come to be…). I like to think of it more as a learning diary of my own journey into the world of computer games and interactive media design. I have a map, of a sort, in the form of this interactive mindmap (click through to see it…), which includes topics I’ve been told are worth looking at, but as with all the best journeys, I may stray from the original path I had in mind at times!
  3. I like weblinks; in fact, I love weblinks. So you may find many of the posts include links to other stories and resources, such as this story I saw yesterday: It’s official: games revenues overtake music at retail (here’s the original press release from the Entertainment Retailers’ Association). Please feel free to follow the links and check out the stories, bookmark/favourite them, or open them in another tab in your browser so you can read them later.
    Some links – like the tabbed browsing link – I’ll add ‘in passing’, a bit like links to a glossary in a book (so if the term, concept, or idea is new to you, click through to learn more…:-).
    If time is pressing though, you shouldn’t miss out on too much by not following the links….

Along the way, I’ll be exploring how to design and build computer games, as well as exploring some of the digital worlds that are starting to appear all over the web. Each week, I’ll post a mini-tutorial on game development using the Game Maker package (at least at first). You can download Game Maker for free from the YoYo Games website.

What I’d link to think is that the tutorials I’ll post will encourage you take up the challenge of creating your own games – and maybe share them back with me, and other readers of this blog, via various social websites (but we’ll come to those in a later post!)

So are you ready to begin? We’ll start for real, tomorrow, with a look at look at what games are and how they’ve evolved over several hundred years.

In the meantime, why not write down the names of three of your favourite games, and then ask yourself what they have in common.

Once you’ve done that, try to write down your own definition of what a game is

If you want to share your answers as comments to this post, please do so :-)


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?

Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1’

For what it’s worth, here are the take home messages I got from the first episode of the Understanding Games tutorial on Kongregate.

– Rules of the game define the possible actions of the players.
– No game can be played without the interaction of the player.
– The outcome of the game has to be uncertain, otherwise it loses its appeal.
– Computer games simulate or change properties and processes of the real world.
– Rules and representation of a game are not independent but interact with each other.

Linking this back to So What is a Game?, I’d suggest that rules are seen as being crucial in the definition of a game. Although goals are not explicitly mentioned, an uncertain outcome is seen as being important. So too is the interaction of the player, and in particular the way in which the player’s actions might affect the outcome of the game. For me, the goal is a desired outcome, specified within the context of the rules and something that I must try to achieve through interacting with the game components within (or in spite of!) the rules. Components are not explicitly mentioned, although they do help define the representation of the game.

The motivation of the player, and their expectations about the game, are also identified – if the outcome is predictable, the player will lose interest (motivation); and the rules and the representation of the game are seen as interacting – this was demonstrated by the different expectations of the player when the representation – or depiction – of the components were taken out of the abstract ‘pong’ world, and replaced by a ‘real-world’ table tennis view.

Finally, games are defined here in the context of real world correlates – table tennis, squash, table football. These can be seen as shorthand ways of explaining the game – or setting up expectations about the game, its goals, and how it might be played – in terms of things we are already familiar with or likely to understand.

One thing I particularly liked about the use of the medium was the way the abstract representation of pong changed to a table tennis representation as I played, both visually and audibly (as the sound of the ping pong ball bouncing became more realistic). I felt this communicated in a very powerful way the role of representation in the game. The stop/start nature of the interactive also allowed me to control the pace as I took notes along the way. Playing the games were fun, too, and offered me a playful reward at several points, which kept me engaged.

Stepping back even further, I asked myself whether playing a game to learn something affected the way I perceived the authority of the information, coming as it did from the Kongregate website, rather than it being a course from a recognised UK or US university, for example.

Here’s my original impression: “At first sight, I thought the Kongregate website looked a bit like YouTube, but for games; I thought the chat window was intrusive and the discussion going on there made me think the game would be pointless, and just that – a quick, throwaway game. Although the graphics weren’t great, and the music was a bit intrusive, the points the game made seem okay; none of them were referenced, though, so maybe they were just the opinion of the game’s creator?”

That last point is telling – “none of [the points made by the game] were referenced, though, so maybe they were just the opinion of the game’s creator?”.

Even so, by reflecting on those points, and analysing them in the context of my own three point model (rules, games, and interaction), I was able to explore my own understanding of just what it is that makes a game.

So for now at least, I think I’m going to use the following definition…

A game is a directed activity played for entertainment that consists of an aim or set of objectives, which are achieved using specific components by means of a set of rules.

Or maybe someone else would like to offer an alternative? (If you’re really keen, we could maybe even collect a few other definitions in the comments, and then chat around them?)

Whose Rules?

Something I didn’t really touch on in considering So What Is a Game? is the number of players that may be involved – one player, two-player or multiplayer. Having two or more players does not necessarily make a game competitive, although it is likely to make the outcome of the game increasingly uncertain.

In their book, Game Design and Development: Fundamentals of Game Design, Ernest Adams and Andre Rollings describe the following possible combinations (pp.16-17)

• two player competitive (“you versus me”)
• multiplayer competitive (“everyone for themselves”)
• multiplayer cooperative (“‘all of us together’)
• team based (“us versus them”)
• single player (solitaire, ”me versus the situation”)

For each of the above game types, can you think of an example game, from both the world of computer games as well as ‘real world’ games?

In terms of how a game is played, why do you think two player games are singled out, rather than just being considered a class of multiplayer game? Is this distinction a good one to make?

One thing that particularly intrigues me about multiplayer games is the fact that the rules may be different for each of the players.

In other words: are my rules the same as your rules?

In a symmetric game, the same rules, starting conditions and goals apply to all players. But in an asymmetric game, different rules may apply to different players, and these players may then in turn have different aims.

(Turn based games are asymmetric in the sense that one player starts first, but we’d probably let that difference slip through if they were symmetric in all other respects!)

One of my favourite asymmetric board games is hnefatafl – Viking Chess.

hnefatafl board

In this two player game, the white ‘defender’ must move their king from the centre of the board to one of the corners, guarded by their ‘army’ of pawns. The black ‘attacker’, whose pieces are all the same, and start around the edge of the board, seeks to capture the king.

As the above diagram shows, even the initial configuration of the board can differ under different variations of the game.

You can find an online version of hnefatfl, along with a description of the rules, at

If you find a version of the game that can be played over the web, post a link and we could maybe have a game? ;-)

In the meantime, can you think of any particularly good examples of symmetric and asymmetric games, in respect of: a) different starting positions, but otherwise the same rules?, b) the same starting positions but different rules, and c) different starting positions and different rules?

Getting Philosophical About Games

I intend to make this the last post on the question of what is a game, at least for a little while, so I thought I’d bring another book to your attention: Jesper Juul‘s “Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds”, 2003, ISBN 0262101106 (“official” book website, read the first chapter, or via Amazon or Google books).

Juul defines a game as follows:

A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.

Compare this to the definition I gave in Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1′: A game is a directed activity played for entertainment that consists of an aim or set of objectives, which are achieved using specific components by means of a set of rules.

The major difference between the two lies in the notion of components, which I didn’t really justify when I originally gave the definition. At their most obvious level, components might correspond to playing pieces in a board game – or even the board itself. In a computer game, the components might correspond to the instances of objects that are defined by the game rules.

Of more significance is a six point model that elaborates in more – and graphical – detail the attributes that characterise a game. The model was originally described in “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness“, which is well worth a read if you have half an hour to spare.

Before you read on any further, can you spot six characteristics of a game in Juul’s definition?

Using the new ‘create a form‘ feature on Google spreadsheets, I created a form for you to record your answers (or you can post a comment): Juul: “Six characteristics of a game” definition quiz. I’ll make the (anonymised) results (if any!) public in a day or two…

As well as reviewing several classic definitions of a game (see also Salen and Zimmerman’s definition comparison chart referred to in a comment to an earlier post; if you have your own blog, you may like to write a post about these definitions, and how they differ…) Juul offers this diagram that captures in raw form the model he develops more completely in his book:

Appears in: Juul, J., “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”

The six defining characteristic features of a game, that provide the basis for his definition of a game, are shown in the inner wheel of the diagram.

Several examples of “not games” are given in the outer wheel of the circle. Can you think of any further examples of “not games” that feature different subsets of Juul’s six defining characteristics of a game?

Using graphical techniques like this is one powerful way of clarifying a definition. If you did come up with a definition of a game of your own, can you describe it in a graphical way?

(If you want to try drawing your definition, is an online drawing package that allows you to easily share your drawings with other people – as well as collaborating with them on the production of the image…)

If you’d like to hear from the man himself, here’s a video recording of a lecture Juul gave at MIT in December, 2006: Half-Real: A Video Game in the Hands of a Player.

Inside the Magic Circle

To wrap up this topic (for now!), I like to briefly return to the notion of “play”, the psychological stance we often (always?) take towards a game…

Yin/yang symbol on a go board
“Yin and Yang on the Go board”, by Kakadu (click through the image for full attribution).

The act of play itself has been the focus of much serious philosophical study. Johann Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, likened the act of playing to ritual (Formally speaking…).

Drawing on Huizinga’s original idea of a “play-ground”, a hallowed area “within which special rules obtain” and within which “an absolute and peculiar order obtains”, Salen and Zimmerman popularised the phrase “magic circle” to describe “the boundary that defines the game in time and space”. (See the quote in context here: What is going on in these examples…)

The idea of the “magic circle” holds popular sway for many people, and is often thought of as a bubble of ‘altered reality’ within which the game world exists. The “magic circle” is experienced by the game player when they are immersed in a game. This may be a purely psychological space, or it may extend into the real world, as for example in a board game, or a sports pitch.

When inside the magic circle, the game becomes, to a large extent, ‘reality’, although it is possible to step outside the circle, pause the game, and pop the kettle on…

…which is exactly what I’m going to do now :-)

Here’s something I’ll be pondering as I do so: what is the relationship between “games” and “play”? Can I do anything with a game other than play it? (except make it, of course! ;-)