What exactly is a game?

Posted by (twitter: @strong99)
February 28th, 2015 7:00 am

We all know games, everyone plays games, but do we really know what defines a game? Before we can create a good game we need some sort of definition of it. So what is it? Sure, everything with rules can be defined as a sort of game. But let’s define it a bit better than that. So let’s try!

What would be the most simplistic game you can think of? The first game that comes to my mind is the child’s game “Tagging”. It has two very basic rules: One player is “it” and if you’re being tagged by “it”, you become it. Remembering my years on the primary school’s playground the game had different additional rules all the time. An often used additional rule was “You can’t tag the old “it” back”. Although these were set by us, additional constants where there too. For example the teachers didn’t allow you to leave the playground or trip others. Not a rule set by us, the players, but by our superiors.

The summary of the game? There’s conflict, no-one wants to be “it”. It would be boring if someone wanted to be “it” because of the lack of conflict. The rules define boundaries in the game. The outcome of the game was clear too, the child being “it” at the moment of the school bell lost the game. Katie Salen, a veteran game developer, her description of a game comes to my mind:

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome” (Katie Salen, Game Design Fundamentals, page 80)

If I apply this logic to one of my previous Ludum Dare games, for example, “You only get one” we could describe it like this:

Conflict: the player wants to get home without being eaten while the dragon keeps advancing.

Rules: the player is constraint in a 2D world, there’s gravity, the game is lost when touching the dragon, his fire or falling out of the screen.

Outcome: the player wins when he enters his house (time constraint).

Ludum Dare 28 - The dragon's journey

That is quite clear, but how does this apply to popular games like Minecraft? Is it a real game? Let’s try:

Conflict: the player needs to stay alive (retain its hearts)

Rules: the player loses hearts when hungry, the player receives damage from mobs, the game is lost when its hearts are depleted, the player can eat food, can create weapons and armor etc.

Outcome: is there any? What about defeating the ender dragon?

Is the ender dragon really a quantifiable outcome? After defeating the dragon the conflict itself remains, nothing is resolved. The main conflict centers around staying alive, not on the dragon roaming a different realm. Thus, I wouldn’t describe it as an outcome or a game, but more of a sandbox or toy. Though open world games like Oblivion feature some kind of the same freedom as Minecraft, in the end you resolve the main conflict, defeat the bad guy and establishes peace. That’s a clear quantifiable outcome with rules and conflicts.

This is my first of a series of blogs on “What makes a good game”.

What’s your take on the definition? Does it fit mine?

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6 Responses to “What exactly is a game?”

  1. Asado says:

    I disagree. Simply because a game does not have a certain outcome does not make it a toy. You could even go as far as to argue that GTA is not a game because when you complete the missions, you can still just cruise around and play in races. You could go even further and declare every MMORPG out there to be a “toy” simply because those games were designed for infinite playing. Players do not play a game to see the final sequence, they play it because the ACT of playing it is supposed to be fun. I believe that what makes a game a game is a goal of sorts. If the player was put into a huge city and he could just walk and drive around, that would be a toy, but when he knows that he has to do something, even if at no point is he declared the “winner,” I believe that to be a full fledged game.

    • strong99 says:

      There’s indeed truth in what you say. A lot of games would probably not be games using this definition. Though I don’t think that should be an issue. Those games could be described with stronger words. Think about “interactive experiences”, “toys”, “interactive stories” and clearer ones. People interact with them for fun and the act of playing regardless. While a game has many boundaries a toy can do without much of them and give the player freedom to do what he wants. Though not classifying it as a game would make it invisible to most players.
      Thanks, I’ll keep your comment in mind writing my next blog.

  2. klianc09 says:

    Whetever you call minecraft a game or a sandbox… it’s still a heckload of fun.
    I know you probably want to define a game by having some sort of achievements or accomplishments you can work towards. But that’s just because those games are not so much (long) fun on it’s own, when you don’t have anything you can work towards to. But “playing” around in Minecraft is fun in itself, you don’t need a specific goal.
    Either you set yourself personal goals, like “climb that mountain”, “build that castle” or “defeat the enderdragon” OR you just enjoy the moments and exciting situations you experience while travelling the worlds and playing the game.

    But tetris wouldn’t be fun if you had no goal. If it just were an endless plain field were you could drop blocks until you are fed up with it… actually that would be an interesting experiment…

    brb creating infini-tetris

    • strong99 says:

      Truth, whether they fit my definition or not, they’re still for our entertainment and play. I regularly play Minecraft. In my opinion, if I make my own rules, I’m playing my own game, not the “Minecraft game”.

      I think Tetris would turn into a program of art if it were endless. The whole reason why I enjoyed World Of Sand for example. But I would definitely give it a try.

  3. eemmbbeerr says:

    With rather immense experience behind me in playing all sorts and genres and all kinds of qualities a game can have… I’d rather go for a much broader definition like:
    “A game is something that the people who take part in it typically enjoy and responds to the player’s input in some way.”
    I would even call this a game (http://www.kongregate.com/games/jordanmagnuson/loneliness – Loneliness) even though it does not fit many definitions as well as yours. Still, the player is engaged in thinking, and it is interactive in its own, thought provoking way therefore it qualifies as one.

    • strong99 says:

      That definition would fit in my vision for a toy. The game you linked I wouldn’t describe as a toy but rather as “An interactive experience”. I think this fits the experience and way of play more clearly. Though not classifying it as a game would make it invisible to most players.

      Thanks, I’ll keep an eye on your comment writing my next blog.

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