1 Some Game Definitions

Ian Schreiber (the author of the course that much of this text is based on) says that his preferred definition of a game is a play activity with rules that involves conflict. But the question “what is a game?” is actually more complicated than that:

  • For one thing, that’s Schreiber’s definition. Sure, it was adopted by the IGDA Education SIG (mostly because no one argued with him about it). There are many other definitions that disagree with his. Many of those other definitions were proposed by people with more game design experience than him. So, you can’t take this definition (or anything else) for granted, just because Ian Says So.
  • For another, that definition tells us nothing about how to design games, so we will be talking about what a game is in terms of its component parts: rules, resources, actions, story, and so on. We will call these things “formal elements” of games, for reasons that will be discussed later.

Schreiber goes on to say that the concept of a game is very difficult to define, at least in a way that doesn’t either leave things out that are obviously games (so the definition is too narrow), or accept things that are clearly not games (making the definition too broad)… or sometimes both.

Here are some definitions from various sources:

  • A game has “ends and means”: an objective, an outcome, and a set of rules to get there. (David Parlett)
  • A game is an activity involving player decisions, seeking objectives within a “limiting context” [i.e. rules]. (Clark C. Abt)
  • A game has six properties: it is “free” (playing is optional and not obligatory), “separate” (fixed in space and time, in advance), has an uncertain outcome, is “unproductive” (in the sense of creating neither goods nor wealth — note that wagering transfers wealth between players but does not create it), is governed by rules, and is “make believe” (accompanied by an awareness that the game is not Real Life, but is some kind of shared separate “reality”). (Roger Callois)
  • A game is a “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” This definition sounds a bit different, but includes a lot of concepts of former definitions: it is voluntary, it has goals and rules. The bit about “unnecessary obstacles” implies an inefficiency caused by the rules on purpose — for example, if the object of Tic Tac Toe is to get three symbols across, down or diagonally, the easiest way to do that is to simply write three symbols in a row on your first turn while keeping the paper away from your opponent. But you don’t do that, because the rules get in the way… and it is from those rules that the play emerges. (Bernard Suits)
  • Games have four properties. They are a “closed, formal system” (this is a fancy way of saying that they have rules; “formal” in this case means that it can be defined, not that it involves wearing a suit and tie); they involve interaction; they involve conflict; and they offer safety… at least compared to what they represent (for example, American Football is certainly not what one would call perfectly safe — injuries are common — but as a game it is an abstract representation of warfare, and it is certainly more safe than being a soldier in the middle of combat). (Chris Crawford)
  • Games are a “form of art in which the participants, termed Players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” This definition includes a number of concepts not seen in earlier definitions: games are art, they involve decisions and resource management, and they have “tokens” (objects within the game). There is also the familiar concept of goals. (Greg Costikyan)
  • Games are a “system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (“quantifiable” here just means, for example, that there is a concept of “winning” and “losing”). This definition is from the book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. That book also lists the other definitions given above, and we should thank the authors for putting them all in one place for easy reference.

By examining these definitions, we now have a starting point for discussing games. Some of the elements mentioned that seem to be common to many (if not all) games include:

  • Games are an activity.
  • Games have rules.
  • Games have conflict.
  • Games have goals.
  • Games involve decision making.
  • Games are artificial, they are safe, and they are outside ordinary life. This is sometimes referred to as the players stepping into the “Magic Circle” or sharing a “lusory attitude”.
  • Games involve no material gain on the part of the players.
  • Games are voluntary. If you are held at gunpoint and forced into an activity that would normally be considered a game, some would say that it is no longer a game for you. (Something to think about: if you accept this, then an activity that is voluntary for some players and compulsory for others may or may not be a game… depending on whose point of view you are looking at.)
  • Games have an uncertain outcome.
  • Games are a representation or simulation of something real, but they are themselves make believe.
  • Games are inefficient. The rules impose obstacles that prevent the player from reaching their goal through the most efficient means.
  • Games have systems. Usually, it is a closed system, meaning that resources and information do not flow between the game and the outside world.
  • Games are a form of art.

This chapter was adapted from Level 1 of Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts course.


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Creating Games by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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