July 22nd, 2008


What is a game?

What is a game? What is the difference between a game and a past-time or between a game and a toy?

Having wondered these things before, I've come up with my own definition:

A game is a challenge with a definite goal or set of goals which is undertaken for the purpose of recreation or fun.

Now, to break this down:
  • A game involves some sort of challenge.

  • Success must not be trivial. It might require skill, physical prowess, luck, or some other trait or combination of traits. Flipping a coin and trying to get "heads" would be a (rather boring) game; simply dropping a coin on the floor generally wouldn't. For something to be a game, there must be a chance of failure — or at least greater and lesser degrees of success.

  • A game must have one or more definite goals. A game must have one or more definite and measurable goals.

  • This is what I consider the difference between "playing" and "playing a game". A toy might encourage you to score as many points as you can, but that's a very vague goal: at what point are you finished? A definite goal might be to score more 100 points, to score more points than someone else, or to score as many points as you can in ten minutes. A game's goals can also change as you play: completing one goal might open up a new one.

  • A game is undertaken for recreation or fun. The purpose of a game is recreation or fun.

  • Work usually involves a challenge and has definite goals, but it also usually has some purpose other than just "fun". Of course, some people play games for work (e.g. professional athletes), and others only play for the sake of the other players (e.g. parents, sometimes). But I think that just because someone isn't treating a game as a game doesn't automatically make it stop being one. Baseball itself is still a game, even if not everyone plays it for fun.

One interesting side effect of this definition is that a puzzle would be considered a kind of game. But I think that's perfectly valid.