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 7/1/14]
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.