Gaming Glossary: Game

The most basic concepts can be the most difficult to pin down, and I have had a hard time establishing a good definition for a game. I’ve done a lot of research, and read a lot from masters of the craft.

Sid Meier [creator of the Civilization line of video games] provided one of the most frequently cited definitions of a game as a series of interesting choices. However, this is sometimes considered as being only the measure of a “good” game or even just applying to “strategy games” and not a blanket definition. Lewis Pulsipher identifies the series of choices as just one part of the game experience. Viewing a game as both the choices and as the experience are necessary to truly understand a game. [Ed. note: Revised based on Dr. Pulsipher’s discussion in the comments]

Not every series of choices produces a game. People make thousands of interesting choices a day with all sorts of interesting results, but tit’s not a game until the designer has provided a specific experience. And simply providing an experience for a player isn’t enough, either. Movies and books do this well enough. What sets games apart is the ability to require the player to decide how things unfold. A game provides a fun experience with interesting choices.

This is a nice succinct definition, if not entirely useful. A proper definition is not just a formal description, but it also provides a means for identification. There are some basic elements inherent to all games, that help to define what a game is, not just what it does.

First, and most obviously, a game is a set of rules. There is a specific set of things which define how to do the activity correctly or incorrectly. This is in contrast to most artistic pursuits or activities that can be done well or poorly. The rules are an artificial set of limitations imposed on the activity. This also implies some method of determining what is a legal or illegal play.

The rules act on some set of objects. I am trying to define the concept of a game at a basic level, so I won’t go into various classes of “game” yet. But whether the components are just people, wooden bits, or pictures of pieces on a screen, there is a limited scope that defines what the game rules apply to. While this may seem like an obvious and pointless stipulation, it is important because it means that a game is a little world in and of itself. Everything covered in the rules is part of the game. Everything not covered by the rules is not part of the game. (And even things like social convention or prior relationships become part of the game, when they begin to interact with things covered explicitly by the game rules. But that’s an entire other discussion)

Rules alone don’t create a game. Players must, at some point, be given control of the game. Without the aspect of choice, the rules are simply instructions that players execute. And a key point is that the choice to continue or stop is not sufficient. The choices must actually have an effect on what happens in a game. There is another important distinction to make that true choices must be able to actually affect the outcome of the game, but that, too, is another post about “true” and “false” choices.

And against the argument that children’s games like tag don’t include discrete series of choices, I respond that these games include a series of instantaneous decisions by the player to go left or right, fast or slow, etc. There are still choices, just not choices based in rigorous logic and math.

The rules present a world to the player, and choices let the player control it. But in order to make the choices into an interesting experience, a game needs a goal. And this goal, or a way to set a goal, must be provided as part of the game rules. This is an important distinction because it marks a discrete boundary between the game and the real world.

Players sometimes bring their own goals to the game — to have fun, to waste time, or even to push the limits of and try to break parts of the game. But purely player-supplied goals are not sufficient to make an activity a game, because they don’t necessitate the existence of game rules. However, players can impose their own goals on a game by creating new rules. This is sometimes how variants and even brand new games are created, by applying a new goals and rules to an established system.

These three features — rules, choices, and goals — are how we can identify games. Rules are the framework, the choices create the experience, and goals make the experience interesting. To formalize the definition,

Games are systems defined by rules that provide an opportunity to make meaningful choices in order to create an experience for the player.

I’m not here to establish this as the end-all be-all definition of a game, but simply to present my own thoughts and criteria, so let me know in the comments if I’ve missed something important. With the basic definition out of the way, I can dig even deeper into some fundamental classifications of games.


[Ed: This section added 7/1]

After a lot of discussion here and on BoardGameGeek, I see a need to revisit the definition. There is a good motivation for having my use of the term “game” line-up with common usage. And when trying to tackle the definition of a boardgame, I run into the problem of trying to be inclusive of the larger set of game-like activities. I need to introduce an additional term, then. True game, or Orthogame (ortho- meaning true or right) is a better term for the strict definition. Richard Garfield promoted the term Orthogame with a different meaning but similar purpose, to have a strict technical definition. To take the amendment from my Game-like Playable Activities article, I have my strict definition.

An orthogame is a system defined by rules that include a goal and provide an opportunity to make meaningful choices in order to create an experience for a player.

This still leaves a need for the broader definition of a game that matches common use. For now, I will use a hybrid of others definitions from the other article.

A game is a set of rules that create a playable activity with goals.

This still makes a game a self-contained world that only comes into existence by the rules, but maintains a purpose and a sense of structure. It is well worth revisiting in yet another article, but will suffice for now.



  1. #1 by ingredientx on June 22, 2014 - 12:16 am

    There’s been a lot of thought on this issue already. Bernard Suits came up with a crackerjack definition: “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. It’s fantastic because “unnecessary obstacles” are at the heart of any game. You can’t win Puerto Rico by taking all the VP chips and piling them on your windrose: you must earn them by engaging in a series of activities that the game defines as shipping, but that are unnecessary compared to just outrightly taking them.

    “Voluntary” is a critical word here, too. All games are voluntary. If you’re forced to play a game, then it’s no fun.

    Jane McGonigal also has an excellent definition that closely matches yours: “all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” She also calls out voluntary participation, but she highlights a feedback system as part of the game. It’s a way of knowing how you’re doing relative to the game’s goal. It’s a critical part of most games, although I wonder how it would deal with freeform LARPs.

    Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman went through a bunch of definitions in their textbook Rules of Play, and ended with “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome”. To get to this definition, they summarize definitions from a bunch of designers and philosophers. The whole book is worth reading.

    • #2 by Oakleaf Games on June 22, 2014 - 7:50 am

      Great resources, thanks for such a well out together response! I will have to take a look at all of those. I went back and forth on whether to discuss conflict, and nearly included feedback as well. I’ve already written one article about the latter, and have some ideas for the former. So I think both are very implant elements of games. I’ll have to think about how they fit in. It’s good to see I’m at least on the right track, anyway.

  2. #3 by lewpuls on June 22, 2014 - 7:53 am

    Attempts at definition provide interest for many worth people. And thinking about definitions can make one more aware of what one is doing in game design. But no definition can fully succeed. So my view (quoted from my book “Game Design”) is:
    “One well-known book about games (Rules of Play) takes 80 pages to define what a game is. Rather than take a lot of space we’ll make a few points and then leave it to you to decide what a game is. Yes, it’s important to understand the characteristics of games as opposed to puzzles or toys, but if you call something a game and you want to design it then that’s probably good enough.”
    (It’s worth nothing that Rules of Play’s definition, by their own admission, fails to regard role-playing games as games, and cannot cope with puzzles.)
    Your definition so far also describes any application software. Perhaps one could add that what is achieved has no practical purpose, which leaves out application software, but then what about games as played in prize tournaments – then there’s a purpose. Though the designer may not have had that purpose in mind . . .
    Btw, I don’t divide games into choices and experience, the other side of choice is “wish fulfillment.” “An experience” and “wish fulfillment” are two often-quite-different things. For example, there’s an experience, of sorts, in an abstract game, but no wish fulfillment. An experience is usually somewhere in between the two extremes.
    Lew Pulsipher

    • #4 by Oakleaf Games on June 22, 2014 - 8:25 am

      Thanks, Lew. I will have to edit this to accurately represent your explanation of wish-fulfillment. It’s a worthwhile distinction, and I’m sorry I’ve misinterpreted it. And this definition (like all) is still a work in progress.
      My goal isn’t to capture everything called a game into one definition. I’ve got a followup to write about things we call games that don’t meet a rigorous definition. Maybe it seems like circular reasoning to create a definition that only includes things that meet my definition. But I think that’s exactly what makes a definition useful.
      I’ll have to refine it a bit to make sure the definition excludes software and general algorithms. And the distinction between designed purpose and added purpose is a good article in itself.
      Thanks for your contributions! They always lead me in several new directions.

      • #5 by lewpuls on June 22, 2014 - 9:21 am

        What people call “games” nowadays is very broad. It put me in mind of the following (which is from a book I may finish someday about the nature of games and game design):

        Sometimes we use the term “game” to mean “playing at something”. For example, several years ago I made a “game” out of thinking of phrases to represent a college-student friend, and my friend liked to try to guess from the acronym what the phrase was. (For example, “THG”–Tommy Hilfiger Girl, because she often wore that company’s clothes.) Was that actually a “game”? No, I think I was making up puzzles, which is a kind of puzzle in itself, and of course it was a puzzle for her, not a classic sort of game. There certainly was no significant element of game design in it. But many people would call it a game.

        Wii Music and Wii Fit are sometimes called games, though this is primarily from association with the Wii game console and the revered game designer S. Miyamoto (Donkey King, Mario, Legend of Zelda, etc.) As long as some people think an activity is a game, and there’s a strong element of game design in its origins, then it’s the subject of this book.

        It’s probably impossible to fully define all aspects of “games”.

        “In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein demonstrated that the elements of games, such as play, rules, and competition, all fail to adequately define what games are. Wittgenstein concluded that people apply the term game to a range of disparate human activities that bear to one another only what one might call family resemblances.”

        Most people include puzzles within the category games (and most single-player games are more puzzle than game). I originally wanted to define game so that puzzles were not included. I gave it up as too unlike common practice. Now I differentiate games with human opposition (or a good semblance of it) and those without. Which is the most fundamental divide in “games”, more fundamental than video versus tabletop.


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