A Game by Any Other Name

During the podcast about skill, luck, and social elements in games (Episode 6), we very briefly talked about whether certain activities could be classified as games or not. Those couple of sentences have spawned multiple discussions about what truly makes something a game or not a game. The topic has come up a number of times with my fellow podcasters, with other folks in the game industry, and at the Penny Arcade Expo convention. Rather than trying to summarize all those discussions, however, let’s start with the absolute authority on everything – the internet. The first definition for “game” to pop up in my web search was that a game is “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Based on my discussions, one of the most common elements that some gamers want to infuse into the definition of a game is meaningful player choice. Personally, I want my games to have lots of meaningful player choice. If the outcome of the game feels completely random, it’s not a game I consider enjoyable. But we’re not trying to define a good game, simply a game, and it’s pretty hard to argue that Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders are not games. They don’t involve a single meaningful player choice, yet they’re among some of the top-selling board games of all time. A large portion of betting games similarly lack any way for the player to influence the outcome. There are, in fact, numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that the outcome remains completely random. We could claim these activities are not games, but the gaming commission will likely disagree. So I think we’ve got to concede that something can be a game even if it does NOT have meaningful player choice.

On the flip side, we could argue that a game must have an element of luck, but that’s a far more difficult position to defend. Numerous “classic board games” do NOT involve luck elements or randomization. If Chess and Go are not board games, I think we very quickly need to reassess our definition.

Another common element that some folks want in the definition is that a game has a winner. The definition noted that a game was a form of play or sport, “especially a competitive one,” implying that winners are at least common in gaming. Certainly, many games have winners, but entire genres of games do not have this particular element. The vast majority of role-playing games do not lead to a single player being declared the winner, plenty of video games past and present never reach a “You Win” ending, and numerous party games have arbitrary winners or no winner at all. It seems pretty clear that you do NOT need to have a winner to have a game.

It would sure be nice if we could say all games are fun. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have to think back too far to come up with an experience with a game that was NOT fun. Perhaps it was because of the behavior of another player at the table, perhaps it was because of some bad luck regarding the luck-based elements of the game, or perhaps the game itself is simply not one you would ever find enjoyable. But as noted earlier, we’re not trying to define a good game but simply a game, and we’re unlikely to find a game in all the world that every single player would agree is fun.

So we could say a game is something you play. It’s in the definition above, and no one can really claim that it’s wrong, but the word “play” isn’t quite as clear as it could be since we “play” music and movies and such. So what if we shift that just a bit and call a game an activity that has one or more players? It still isn’t a complete definition of a game, but I think  it includes a lot of game activities our previous criteria ruled out. Whether a game is player choice oriented or luck based, co-operative or competitive, fun or un-fun, a game DOES have one or more players.

And the last portion of the game definition the internet started us with is that a game has rules. This is another element that’s come up in conversation fairly frequently. One could potentially argue that the rules aren’t always codified or that they aren’t always clear, but there is always some form of rules underpinning a game. I think we could make the case that rules are what separate a randomized event from a game. A ball falling on a spinning plate with numbers and colors on it is not a game, but if you add in the betting rules of Roulette and add some players, I think most readers could agree we’ve got a game there. Again, we’re not defining a good game, just a game, and a game DOES have rules.

So that leads us to define a game as “an activity with one or more players performed in accordance with established rules.”

What do you think? Is that an accurate definition of a game? Are there activities we’ve accidentally included that are not games? Are there games we’ve excluded with our definition? Perhaps most importantly of all, how would you personally define a “game?”

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