In recent years, lots of people have tried to define what a game is. None of these definitions is perfect but each has its strengths and weaknesses. One of the first definition attempts came from Greg Costikyan in 1994. He wrote the influential article “I Have No Words and I Must Design” for Interactive Fantasy #2, a British journal about role-playing games. I have summarized Costikyan’s article before because it represents an early attempt to define a game and because it is relatively easy to understand.
Costikyan says an activity must have six elements in order to be considered a game. If it is missing any of the six elements, it is something other than a game, perhaps some other kind of play, but not a game. His six elements are: tokens, goal(s), opposition, decision-making, information and managing resources.
A game must have game tokens. He means that there must be something within the game that represents the player and the player’s status within the game. In Monopoly, for example, the player’s piece (top hat, race car, horse, and so on) is a game token because it represents the player. But the cards with the various properties that the player owns (Broadway, Marvin Garden, Illinois Ave, and so on) are also game tokens because they also represent the player’s status within the game. In addition, the fake money that a player has represent how wealthy or poor the player is and, therefore, are game tokens. In some games, like basketball, the player’s body is one of the game tokens.
A game must have a goal, something the player is striving for. In Monopoly, for example, the goal is to be the last player with money or, in other words, to bankrupt all the other players. in War, the goal is to obtain all of the cards in the deck. This is an element that makes some activities that we normally consider to be games not games in Costikyan’s point of view. For example, SimCity and The Sims are not games according to Costikyan because they don’t have goals that are set by the game. The player can create a goal to strive for but the game doesn’t impose that on the player.
A game must have opposition, something that gets in the way of the player reaching their goal. In a later version of his article, Costikyan renames this as struggle. That is, the player must have an obstacle they must struggle to overcome in order to achieve their goal. This is a simple, yet profound, statement. By entering into the realm of the game, the player agrees to try to reach the goal of the game in a kind of circuitous manner. The participant in the game of War will not just grab all of the cards in the deck but will instead abide by the rules of the game and attempt to overcome the obstacles that the rules place in their way. The opposition in a game typically comes from the rules of the game as well as any opponents who are trying to achieve the same goal. In Monopoly, for example, the opposing players are part of the opposition, one of the obstacles that gets in the way of a player reaching their goal. But competition is only one way to add opposition to a game. The rule that player can only move their piece when they roll the dice on their turn is also part of the opposition as is the rule that the player can only buy a property that they land on and that is not already owned by another player. In fact, all of the rules of game are part of the opposition. The card game Solitaire is a good example of a game that has no opposing players, no competition, but still has opposition in the form of rules that force the player to struggle to achieve their goal.
A game must also have decision-making. This is perhaps the most important characteristic of a game. A player must be presented with a series of choices, each of which impacts on their chances of reaching the goal before their opponent. In fact, Costikyan would not consider the card game War a game because there is no decision-making. In War, a player simply flips an unknown card at random from his/her deck and hopes for the best. Decision-making allows the player to control their destiny (to an extent). Through decision-making, the player expresses a personality, a strategy for how to win the game.
In order to make good decisions, a player must be presented with some information on which to base those decisions. To understand this concept, think about the game of War (which, again, Costikyan would not consider a game). The player in this game is not presented with any decision-making opportunities. The player simply flips a card and hopes for the best. Many students, when asked to add decision-making to the game, suggest that the player’s deck of cards be split into two decks and the player must decide the deck from which to flip a card. If the cards are all faced down, no actual decision has been added to the game because the player is given no information about the contents of each deck. The information about what card is at the top of each deck exists but it is hidden from the player. In fact, all of the information in the game is hidden from the player. The player must make a random choice about which deck to pull a card from. This random choice does not represent a meaningful choice. The player is just guessing. So in order to have a meaningful decision to make, the player must be presented with at least SOME information. In Chess, the player is presented with perfect information, that is, no information is hidden from the player. In a game like Texas Hold ‘Em, on the other hand, the player is presented with imperfect information. That is, some of the information is known to the player while some is unknown. This is also sometimes called mixed information.
Finally, the player must be given the opportunity to manage resources. A resource is something the player uses in order to achieve the goal of the game. For example, in Monopoly, one of the player’s resources is the space they land on. If the space has not already been purchased, the player can use the information they have about who owns what, the price of each property, whether they will make a monopoly by purchasing the property, and so on, to determine whether to purchase this property or not. The relationship between decision-making, information and the management of resources is an intimate one, one that is difficult to pull apart.
This chapter was adapted from my June 2, 2010 blog post “The Post in Which I Get Philosophical.”