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What is a game?

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A great deal of thought by many clever people has gone into answering this question. Since I disagree with most of the contents of the answers, I am going to attempt my own definition, foolhardy though the attempt may be.


A game is an activity performed within a closed formal system arising from at least one rule and performed by at least one player-character.


Player-characters are semantically distinct from players. For instance, chess is a game that requires two player-characters; that is, two distinct powers that compete with one another. A single player may play a game of chess by controlling both player-characters. Similarly, two players may cooperate to control a single player-character in a game, if they so choose.


Rules structure games. There are many ways to talk abut rules and many ways to divide them. I will be dividing them rather a lot in this article, as I believe that various divisions can teach us different things about the nature of rules. For instance, all rules fall into at least one of these three categories: descriptive, elective and prescriptive.

  • Descriptive rules offer no choices to the players, nor indicate who is winning. Rather, they do everything else: structure turns and rounds, describe what various game objects do, trigger the orders of events that occur when player-characters take actions, etc.
  • Elective rules offer choices to players, where the results of each choice is accounted for in the closed formal system.
  • Prescriptive rules determine what actions and/or events confer value upon a player-character, be that a win condition, victory points, drinks to give out, etc.

A number of previous definitions of games have included win and/or lose conditions. I believe that this is not only misguided (Minecraft has no win or lose condition, for instance), but redundant, since the inclusion of rules in a definition already allows for the possibility of win and lose conditions.



Although my definition does not include materials, the vast majority of games do require them. Depending on how materials is defined, it is arguable that materials are also essential to game playing. For instance, if hands are counted as a material object, Rock Paper Scissors requires materials to be played. However, even with the strictest definition of materials in place, the game known as The Game can still be played with only one rule and one player. The rule is ‘if you think about the game, you lose the game’. Arguing that a material- a mind- is required to play The Game, involves including players as materials. In this case, the only requirements for games are rules and materials. I prefer to distinguish players from materials.



Now that we’ve talked about what games and rules are, lets look at some more ways of dividing rules into types. I have categorized rules by function and employed established terms to do so. I’ve further categorized these functions temporally and meta-structurally.



I’ll now briefly elaborate on each rule category and provide an example from Uwe Rosenberg’s rules for Agricola.



Material: defines the types and numbers of materials that are required to play the game. Descriptive.

Example: Agricola requires a large flat surface and all of its board game components, including its board, cards and various cardboard and wood chits.


Player Capacity: describes the number of player-characters the game is intended to support. Descriptive.

Example: Agricola supports 2-5 player characters


Pre/Post-Round: describes all board preparations and material arrangements which occur between turns.Descriptive and/or prescriptive.

Example: Pre-round, Agricola requires certain board spaces to receive goods turns and for a new round card to be revealed. Post-round, players are to remove their meeples from the board, and when a harvest phase is occurring, exchange goods in a prescribed fashion.


Round: sets the bounds for turn structures within a round. Within each round, any elective rules will be contained within a turn structure. Any descriptive rules will be part of the Pre/Post-Round and/or Structural rules. It should be noted that, while I am drawing on frequently used game terminology, these definitions may be and often are distinct from in-game terminological uses. Descriptive, prescriptive and/or elective.

Example: In Agricola, rounds consist of players taking their turns in a circular order starting with the person in possession of the starting player marker until all players may no longer take a turn.


Player-Bounding: sets the bounds for what players can and cannot do (usually, but not always) during their turn.Elective and/or prescriptive.

Example: During a Agricola player’s turn they must place one of their workers on a revealed and non-occupied gameboard space.


Object-Bounding: sets the bounds for each non-player object in the game. Descriptive and/or prescriptive.

Example: A fireplace, if possessed by a player, may convert goods to food at a specified rate at any time when activated by said player.


End Condition: describes all in-game conditions that will end a game. Descriptive.

Example: Agricola ends after the 14th round.


Victory/Draw/Defeat Condition: assigns a victory/draw/defeat condition to all players for each possible end condition. End conditions may trigger victory/draw/defeat conditions, or vice versa. Prescriptive.

Example: At the end of the game, the winner of Agricola is the player with the most victory points.


Clarifying: resolve ambiguous situations that arise due to implications of other rules. Descriptive, prescriptive and/or elective.

Example: Agricola clarifies that animals can never exceed the pasture limit, but that animals may be immediately converted to food rather than discarded when the pasture limit is exceeded, if food conversion is possible.


Implied: rules that are not stated outright, yet heavily implied by the structure and materials of a game. Descriptive, prescriptive and/or elective.

Example: It is implied in Agricola but not stated that players cannot build on other player’s farm boards.


Adjunct: alters and/or adds rules to any of the previous rule categories not stated in the basic game rules.Descriptive, prescriptive and/or elective.

Example: Agricola’s Farmers of the Moor expansion adds a number of adjunct rules, as well as materials, to the basic game.


Structural: governs changes to larger scale events. Examples: alterations in materials, round structures, etc.Descriptive and/or prescriptive.

Example: The timing and rules governing Agricola’s Harvests, which trigger sporadically between rounds.


Temporal categorization parameters:

Establishing: define the basic parameters required to initiate a game.

Central: define the parameters through which a game is defined and played.

Concluding: define the descriptive and/or prescriptive rules associated with the end of the game.


Meta-structural categorization parameters:

Rules: govern interactions between the players and/or objects.

Meta-Rules: govern interactions between rules.




Did I miss something or does something not make sense? Let me know! If you want to read more, my game design analysis blog is here- http://www.zamagame.com)

Edited by jbadams
Reduced font size back to standard.

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I have spend a lot of my time researching what a game is, the following is a summary of that research.


The simple scientific definition of a game is: A set of rules that is played.


A game doesn't need a goal, winners, physical form or even players.

There are lots of sandbox games that can be played, these games tend not to have any goals and as such do not have any winners.

A game can exist without any actual physical properties, these games are known as mind games. The greatest example of a mind game is The Game "I just lost The Game".dry.png

Last is zero player games, these are games solved by non sentient beings. When a game is solved by a algorithm or by nature(Like a ball blown into a goal by the wind) it's considered a zero player game, that is a game without players.


There is much debate over whether a AI should be considered a player or a algorithm.


All sports are games but all games are not sports.

There is usually some kind of group who vote on what games are sports, not all of these groups agree with each other but the Olympic sports appear in most of them.


Playing doesn't make it a game, you can play with a toy with out it turning into a game.


Games do not need to be FUN!

The original purpose of games is for conditioning, so a game can be rewarding or punishing.

Games exist naturally in nature, played by animals for the purpose of learning. Games can be punishing like a small puppy attempting to play a bit of roughhousing with larger dogs.

Thanks to humans there are a lot of games that have other purposes than having fun.


The original idea that games have to be fun, isn't that far from the truth.

When you partake in a action that is important to your survival like eating, playing, having sex, surviving some thing dangers or just socializing it causes your brain to release a chemical as a reward.

This chemicals can be interpreted as joy or in large doses as fun, and is probably why people think games must be fun.


The worst game ever, isn't fun but it's still a game.

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One thing that I feel may be worth mentioning: the meanings of terms drift, and thus the meaning of the term "video game" need not be defined by the meaning of the term "game". It may be--that's something that might be worth examining--but, while the former (presumably) came from the latter, its meaning may have drifted from that origin.


By analogy, look at the "Adventure" genre (in the sense of "point-and-click" adventures, not action-adventure): that was named, I believe, for Colossal Cave Adventure--also known simply as "Adventure". But the genre broadened, and that comparison is no longer really the touchstone for what is or is not an "adventure" game, I believe.


For an example, is a work like Dear Esther a game in the broader sense? Some might argue that it isn't (although I note that under some of the definitions given here it may well be). But I do think that it is a part of the medium that we refer to as "video games".

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There's no universal definition for what a game is and you could quote tons of people on this. I'm too lazy to do that.

But I can give you 3 points that are important to me:


A game needs at least 1 player.

A game needs rules.

A game has to be played voluntarily.


Everything else just describes a certain type of game. 


Edit: About the player-character:

What matters is the experience of the player. and If there's a player there has to be a 'player-character'. But this 'player-character' is usually defined in the rules and thus a rule.

Edited by loyallaughter

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Is there a common source y'all are drawing on that proposes games not to require player-characters? I'd like to read it.


Let's say you turn on your console, and as it starts up, you go to take a shower. Does whatever game was in the console cease to be a game while you're taking a shower? What if it auto starts you in the game world with logic running?


What if you're working on an AI routine for the game, and just observing it.

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Is there a common source y'all are drawing on that proposes games not to require player-characters? I'd like to read it.


Let's say you turn on your console, and as it starts up, you go to take a shower. Does whatever game was in the console cease to be a game while you're taking a shower? What if it auto starts you in the game world with logic running?


What if you're working on an AI routine for the game, and just observing it.



But you could play the game when you chose to; that's what makes it a game.  If it's non-interactive then it's just a presentation.

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Is there a common source y'all are drawing on that proposes games not to require player-characters? I'd like to read it.

A quick search on zero player games should give you this: http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/zeroplayergames/

Unfortunately I have never found a book focus just on zero player games, it doesn't mean thy don't exist though.


Usually zero player games topics can be found in AI books, there are also the studies on zero player games scattered over the internet.


A game has to be played voluntarily.

This is interesting. When scientist look at animals who can play games, the animals must play voluntarily.

So a snail who is raced against others isn't playing a game.

When humans are forced to play games it's still considered that thy are indeed playing, many horror movies are made about players being forced to play a game.


I am not a hundred percent sure of this but I think it's because when the snails are placed thy have no idea what is happening. Then if you did the same with people thy would never race unless thy have a motive. 

So you have to force them to play instead of making the game around them? Then what about the fish that played Pokemon, did he really play? 

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For rigor, you should perhaps try to pin down the larger question that motivates this terminological one.  Why is it important what English speakers call "games"?  Not all languages have this word, or they have a word that refers to a different set of phenomena.  Why does it matter what set of things English speakers pick out as games?  (And note that this changes over time.  Lots of people were hesitant to describe SimCity as a game when it was released; now, due in part to its success, people term that software category 'games' without hesitation.)


(Have you ever sat around and debated, with a sufficiently large group of people, the necessary and sufficient condition for "mug", or "chair", or "jacket"?  Presumably you haven't --you should, it's weirdly contentious -- but you'd probably agree that it doesn't actually matter what set of drinking utensils counts as "mug".  We will continue to manufacture and drink out of drinking vessels regardless of whether anyone agrees what "mug" is.)


I note this because competing definitions aren't always trying to do this -- when they say "A game has win conditions", they don't mean "Everything that people currently describe as a 'game' has win conditions"; ascribing that to the authors violates the principle of charity, as if you think they're not seeing obvious counterexamples.  Rather, they're saying "The development of the field needs technical definitions, and we're better off calling a narrower set of phenomena 'game' than what ordinary people call 'game'."  (In part this is so that we can communicate technically without spending all of our time in "mug" arguments.)  So if you want to shift the terms of the debate back to usage, you should be clear that you want to do this and why it's important, and if your goal is something else than characterizing usage, you should be clear about that, too, so that readers can judge whether your proposed definition fulfills your goals in proposing it.  You throw out words like "misguided" but you don't characterize what guides their definitions OR yours.


As a different note (and many definitions of games face this), you define a game in terms of ideas that themselves assume a definition of game already.  I like your distinction between player and player-character, but when you use these, and "rule", you already mean "of the sort we find in games", but you then define "game" in terms of these.  You can do this, of course, if your goal is to do something else than define "games" -- for example, if you really just want to make a typology of rules, do go ahead -- but it is mis-framing the debate again to say that other definitions are "redundant" and can be reduced to yours if your definition is circular.

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Is a definition of what a game is actually useful?


A recent post by Daniel Cook suggests that you may just be wasting time with this discussion that you could otherwise be investing in to the actual creation of a game:

Source: Daniel Cook's Lost Garden: "Top 5 design debates I ignored in 2014".

I've seen a metric ton of definitions for game over the years and have dabbled in crafting them myself. Not a single one has been useful to me in my daily practice of making great games.


Personally, I would tend to agree with the above, and I shared this so that you might save your time or try investigating one of Dan's suggested "alternative discussions" if it turns out you agree with his assessment.  This is a discussion that occurs quite regularly, rarely ends in an agreed upon term, and never seems to actually help anyone to make better games.


If you'd rather simply continue the search for an accurate definition you're welcome to it and I'll bow out! :)

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