Game-like Playable Activities

My definition of Game from last week generated some good ideas in the comments. It’s difficult to encompass the entirety of what defines a game in the space of a single article. Today, I want to do a more in-depth study of what sort of things fit in my definition, what doesn’t fit in, and see if my definition can be more robust.First, I’ll restate the overall definition I used, for reference. I defined games as systems defined by rules that provide an opportunity to make meaningful choices in order to create an experience for the player.

One of the points I left out of the definition is how goals fit into the concept of a game. Although they don’t explicitly appear in the definition above, in the article I mention that the goals must be provided as part of the rules. Almost any computer software could fit a definition like the one above, but the goal is a crucial part of what makes a game a game. With software (design or use) the goal is provided solely by the user. But a game provides its own goals, or at least a framework for goals.

Goals and Strategies

A goal in a game is at the intersection of rules and choices. A goal is just a rule that enlightens the outcome of a choice as being good or bad. Without a goal, all choices become equivalent. From another angle, this also brings the idea of a strategy, a method of making choices to find your way to the goal. If you have no way of determining how your choices fit into your strategy, they don’t carry meaning, making them effectively random. There must be some way of evaluating whether you have met the criteria for the goal, in other words, you must also be able to win and lose a game. Without both possibilities, the other loses meaning. Consider that an unwinnable “game” continues until you give up, while an unlosable “game” continues unless you give up. In both cases, the only meaningful choice is to continue playing or not. That does not constitute a game.

While the idea of a goal is implicitly included in the rules and meaningful choices part of the definition, I can perhaps amend the definition to “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.”

Voluntary Participation

The concept of voluntary participation is another common element. This raises a question of whether you are playing a game that you didn’t agree to play. This seems to be outside the definition of a game, on a more metaphysical level. The difference is that if I don’t know I’m playing, my choices (which may impact the game for others) aren’t meaningful to me. There is a game (Called, “The Game”, if I remember) in which you lose if you remember you’re playing it. For those of you who just lost, sorry. I stopped playing years ago, so I can’t remember I’m playing it. Not only does this “game” remove all meaningful choice, it is also unwinnable and is, therefore, not a game.

Voluntary participation also ties into the possibility of creating your own rules and goals for a game. When you agree to play a game, you must agree to the goal set forth in the rules. Establishing your own goal within the bounds of the rules can be a part of that process. This provides a lot of room to accept Role Playing Games under my definition. If not all players have agreed that something is a rule, then it’s not a rule in the game. A more technical way stating this is that the rules of a game (including goals) require mutual consent by all players. Again, this is more of a metaphysical restriction, in that without your consent your choices are not free and should not be considered real choices. This is a deeply philosophical debate and will have to be the subject of its own article at a later date.

The larger question is what to call these things that aren’t games by my definition. There is a need for a hierarchy of concepts, and “Activities” is the next higher level. All games are activities, not all activities are games. Common use of the term “game” has evolved to include nearly any activity we can play at. But this is too vague a description to be useful in a technical discussion, and a more restrictive definition is needed. That said, a lot of game design techniques can still be applied to non-game activities, though it does not make them games.

So what are these other things that don’t quite meet the criteria for a game?

Puzzles and Pseudogames

Puzzles are frequently considered as a type of game, but I draw a sharp distinction. A puzzle has only one distinct outcome, while a game has many. A puzzle is either won or left uncompleted. There may be choices in a puzzle (like choosing a direction when solving a maze) but the choices reduce to an information processing problem. By this, I mean that in a puzzle, each choice has a determinable correct and incorrect option that a player could figure out given enough time and mental power. Whereas in a game, a choice might eventually be revealed as correct or incorrect, but it is not possible to determine it outright.

Richard Garfield wrote a great article in which he differentiates games from puzzles [scroll down to “A Game by Any Other Name”]. Under his definition, true games require competition between players, so solitaire and cooperative games would be puzzles. This distinction is important when we consider cooperative or solo games. In multi-player competitive games, the other players can provide the unknowns. (And this is why “games” with a deterministic path from the start to the end are considered “solved” just like a puzzle is solved.)  And so it would appear that uncertainty is all that is needed to turn a puzzle into a game. But this doesn’t guarantee a valid meaningful choice, because the randomness can completely obscure the information processing. In this sense, either extreme is bad. One leaves only information processing, and the other removes information completely.

All of these activities which include many game-like elements but are missing some part of my definition are grouped together as “pseudogames”.  To adapt a phrase from food writer Michael Pollan, pseudogames are “Playable Game-like Activities”. And the current trend of “gamification”, especially in marketing, greatly broadens the range of activities what fall under this category.

Love Letter and Hanabi

Finally, I want to look at two “games” I played recently that approach the boundary of pseudogames. First, Love Letter. In many games, the game doesn’t give you enough choices to change the outcome. Your card draws are random often leaving you with no choice on your turn, and you can only be knocked out of the game by other players’ actions. It really just serves to provide a social experience.  To me, Love Letter seems cleverly designed so that the other players appear to be in control of their actions, even when you have no choices. Nevertheless, the game gives you a few choices, especially as you get several rounds in. As Anna puts it, there is a game there, but luck decides whether you’ll actually get to play it or not.

The second game I was unsure about was Hanabi, winner of the 2013 Spiel des Jahres. It reminds me of Pandemic, because both are cooperative card-driven games. I see a lot of strategic choices in Pandemic, arising from uncertainty in the draw pile. Hanabi also has players drawing unknown cards, but where it falls short for me is that you can always complete the game. Choosing to discard instead of risking a loss lowers your score, but is always an option that avoids a “losing” condition. So the competition aspect must be provided externally by comparing your score to other games. Without the internally provided goal, the fun and an interesting mechanic doesn’t meet my criteria for a game. As soon as your group sets a score to beat, it becomes a game again.


Wikipedia gives several competing (or at least independent) definitions of a game. Bernard Suits has an excellent general formulation:

“To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.”

But I like Kevin J Maroney’s definition for its simplicity: “A game is a form of play with goals and structure.” Both are good definitions that incorporate just about anything considered a game. But I think both fall short by not providing for an element of choice. The card game War has a goal (get all the cards) and structure (rules for playing and collecting cards and settling ties), but it falls short of what I consider a game.  So I return to my amended definition.

A game 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.

I believe this definition is broad enough to cover the activities I see as games, but still provides enough room to differentiate between activities that are games and those that are just game-like. And it is this definition that I will be moving forward with, as I study even more game terms.


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  1. #1 by Drew Hicks on June 29, 2014 - 12:01 pm

    What is the purpose of defining “game”? Is it just to take an exclusionary viewpoint so things like War (which are commonly called games) can be excluded because they aren’t “good” games? I think these definitions all too often impose some standard of quality, and people in both the board gaming and video gaming communities are all too fond of saying “that’s not even a game!” as criticism of games they don’t particularly like. I don’t know if these types of definitions are really advancing discussion at all, and may only serve to exclude “non-gamers” from the discussion by eliminating a good number of the most commonly known games from consideration.
    I was going to bring up the Wittgenstein/Family Resemblance thing, but I see that it was already mentioned on the previous article so I’ll shut up now. 😛

    • #2 by Oakleaf Games on June 30, 2014 - 10:40 am

      Drew, Thanks for the comments. I saw you posted a longer response over on BoardGameGeek, so I responsed over there. A lot of good points were raised in that discussion, so I tried to respond. My goal isn’t to exclude non-gamers, but to show them that there is a deeper way of thinking about games, and hopefully encourage them to become more interested.

  2. #3 by Paul Owen on June 29, 2014 - 1:33 pm

    Interesting exploration, and I like where you are going with this. Lewis Pulsipher has a pretty strict definition of games as distinguished from puzzles. Here’s one of his articles on the topic; he has a number of others, and when he gives talks on game design, the topic often comes up.

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