When I posted my entry for the Ludum Dare competition, Heart, I received mostly positive comments, though many of them were appended with something close to this sentence: “But it is not a game.” I was not too surprised. Indeed, when I talk to people about games, they normally think of them in terms of gameplay, interaction, challenge, fun, goals. Which is not wrong, as most video games can be accurately described with these words, but it is unnecessarily restrictive to categorize the whole art within these boundaries—doing so is an exercise in exclusivity. This ties directly with my previous post about expanding the scope of video games. Do we really need to keep a short leash on what video games are or can be?

I came across a definition for game today, by Corvus Elrod. It is the most elegant and explicit that I’ve found so far. Here it is:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play.

Where play stands for “the self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space”, which is a definition I feel to be accurate. I believe that Corvus is forcefully nudging the ‘community’ element into the definition, though (where is the community if one person creates a game for himself alone to play?), so I would actually simplify it into this:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions which serve as a bounded space for play.

I can’t think of a single game that this definition does not embrace, including board games, sports, playground games, and, yes, video games. It also suggests that games can be entertaining or not, challenging or not, involve goals or not. By this definition, exquisite corpse is a game, which rings true to me.

The definition speaks nothing of the amount of interactivity that is to be expected of a game, but the mention of rules and conditions implies that choice needs to be present. In Heart, the player is required to explore, as the game does nothing without their input. They would discover that the right arrow key makes the character move in that direction. And the opposite key? It triggers a response in the avatar: he cannot go back. It is part of the process of discovery. In Heart, the player is the force that drives the character forward, for without their input, he would stay in place forever. Nothing would happen, the game would not be played, the character would not confront his fate. Is it not a meaningful choice that the player is making, then?

I didn’t mean this post to be in defense of my game, though it looks like it turned out that way. This subject is something that I consider to be relevant, as I don’t see enough game makers thinking about where to lead video games, so I feel the need to touch upon it. I hope to spark debate in some circles, frankly!


mrfun (link), on .

Imagine a flash movie that requires you to tap “Continue” every 5 seconds of video.

Is it a game?

Is the cardgame “war” a game?

In War, we cannot control the outcome, it is already set in stone in the deck. We can only control the speed that it occurs. Kids love War, adults, no so much.

Is pressing Play on a VCR a game?

I think “game” and “not game” are subjective, fuzzy, things, but for me, game means meaningful interaction that has an effect on the outcome.

I don’t think your entry can qualify under my own definition.

But I liked it, and don’t think classification is so important anyway…

pansapiens (link), on .

First up, I haven’t had a chance to play ‘Heart’ yet, so this isn’t a commentry on the game-iness of your entry.

I’m sure students in game design courses belt out “What is a game?” essays every week. It’s discussed reasonably often (and often in relation to Ludum Dare entries :) ).

One distinction that is often made is that of a ‘toy’ vs. a ‘game’. A toy can be fun, you can play with it, but it lacks what most people would consider the _goals_ and _rules_ of a game. Kids (and enlightened adults :) ) play games that they make up themselves using toys, but this does not make the toy itself a game. The physical or programmatic rules that govern the behaviour of a toy can become part of the rules of a game, but are not game rules until a game is actually defined around them.

I think your revised definition of ‘Game’ is too inclusive. Is the school playground a game in itself ? It has rules and boundries (which can be broken, with consequences), and people play in it … yet I wouldn’t define the school playground a game in itself. It is a space where games can be defined and played, and free-play and imagination, in the absence of a game, can occur.

Sounds to me like Heart might not be a game unless the player makes it one :) (keen to check it out now).

pansapiens (link), on .

I played Heart, and really enjoyed the experience. Quite unsettling, but enjoyable.

Corvus (link), on .

@agj I’m glad my definitions resonated with you. I just played Heart and found it has much in common with Jason Rohrer’s Passage, which many people didn’t feel was a game either.

I want to address the inclusion of community in my definition. If you create a game, with the strict intent of only playing it yourself… then why are you doing it? My guess is because on some level you are aware that the person playing the game will not exactly be the same person making it. They will have different life experiences and a different perspective. On some level, this creates an artificial community of sorts.

However, I would consider this scenario to represent play, and not a game. Games have historically been used to pass important survival skills from one generation to another. Modern games, even single player games like Freecell, represent some level of community, even if it’s a very one-way communication between designer and player.

@pansapiens Yes, because we wouldn’t want to be inclusive with our definitions now, would we? There’s a common misperception that being exclusive is a more legitimizing stance, but I think that’s a mistake. My definitions have been carefully constructed keeping in mind the entire history of what has been considered games across many cultures.

But I also don’t expect everyone to use my definition. I know it’s right for my purposes (I’m a Narrative Design Consultant who works on video games, theatrical productions, art installations, etc), and that’s good enough for me. I’m glad when it works for other people, however.

@mrfun A lot of people try to derail the definition by saying things like “is the entire playground consider a game then?” And my answer is… most likely it is, yes.

What’s important to recognize, however, is that the VCR button system was not specifically created for play and therefore doesn’t universally qualify as a game.

But if a child is learning to that pushing buttons on a VCR has an effect on the tape being played within and explores this by pushing the buttons repeatedly… than that’s most likely a game as well.

I will agree that Heart provides very limited choices. But, unlike a DVD player, hitting the back button generates a meaningful response. Also, it was specifically designed as a (very) bounded space for play. Instead of dismissing it for failing to be a game, it would be far more useful to talk about the meaning of the game and what our emotional responses to it are.

LoneStranger (link), on .

5parrowhawk makes the same point between toy and game that I have always used as my guidlines.
A game requires rules and boundries, whether they are built into the toy or managed by the players.
A ball by itself has rules. For example, it bounces when you throw it against something and will keep rolling until something or friction stops it. However, that doesn’t make a ball a game. There needs to be some sort of goal. You can create a game using that ball by trying to see how many times you can throw it against the wall and catch it without it touching the ground. You can try to balance the ball on your finger. You can hide the ball from your friend behind your back. Doesn’t matter what the goal is, it’s a goal you can define and valuate.
Goals for games involve a win or lose condition. It doesn’t need both, but it should have at least one of those.
Lots of games will reset your game condition when you fail to complete a task, but will give you unlimited tries toward the ultimate goal.
Lots of games don’t have a set win condition, but have very defined lose conditions. Pac-man, for example. If you don’t die too many times, you can theoretically keep going on and on. The ‘win’ condition can be acheiving the highscore on that game machine, but that’s a definition given by the player.
I haven’t played Heart yet, so unless it has these things I’ve defined above, I might find that it’s not a game. I could define some goals for myself, but that would make it merely a toy in my own game.

agj (link), on .

@mrfun: I’d argue that whether a Flash video that requires you to press continue is a game depends on the intent. If the action has a meaning that is not purely functional, e.g. it is meant to provoke the player and anger him, I’d say it is game, as such an interaction has an aesthetic quality to it; on the other hand, if it’s to make sure you’re awake and thus not use up your computer’s resources (…or something), then I wouldn’t call it a game.

@pansapiens: The school playground itself is not a game, it is a place, but the interactions that occur within it may well conform a game. Just as you said, it depends on what it is used for.

@Corvus: Thanks for swinging by! (And for inspiring my post.) I’m still not sold on the community deal, because I don’t see the difference between making a game for oneself to play when bored in the train, to making one for others to play when bored in the train. :)

‘Play’ may very well be the ambiguous form of ‘game’; ‘game’ before it is made concrete—in which case I suppose I understand your apprehension to rule out the possibility that only one person can validate play as a game. I guess I’m not sure which side I lean on anymore.

anonymous, on .

to be quite honest, i find the search for what constitutes a ‘game’ to be am exercise in pretention as we all know what is meant by ‘game’.

Fuzz, on .

Ha, I think my previous comments on your earlier article have been entirely invalidated. Heart is “fun” by my definition. Not enjoyable, but “fun”. I really don’t know what that word means anymore.

agj (link), on .

@rollbak: Well, my intentions are to be explorative, though in this case I basically aped Defect’s mechanics for my own purpose. Can’t claim to be terribly original.

@anonymous: Clearly, but everybody’s definition is also different. And as I have discovered, most are more restrictive than mine. Also: thinking about and discussing things doesn’t equal pretension, buddy.

@Fuzz: Well, I’m glad either way!

Chris B, on .

Long time no see, nice blog you have here. I know I’m a little late to the party, but I still want to give you my thoughts on your definition:

“Game is a set of rules and/or conditions which serve as a bounded space for play.”

and contrast it with the one I’m using (from encarta.msn.com):

“Games, activities […] governed by sets of rules.”

So yes, I think that it was a good idea to omit the community part, as I’m also against the requirement that rules have to be established by a group of people.

Apart from that, both definitions imply that games are sets of rules (mentioning conditions seems redundant, because they’re defined by the rules as well) the only real difference being that in yours, the rules serve a bounded place for play, whereas in mine, the rules govern an activity (which is the “play” in your definition). I see two problems here:

1. “serve” is to weak compared to “govern”
2. “bounded place for play (aka the activity)” is to weak compared to “the whole activity”

pansapiens wrote:
“Is the school playground a game in itself ?”

And I have to agree with him, because your definition doesn’t rule this out. The problem is that the rules do not just concern the “bounded place for play”, but the whole activity of playing the game (including the number of players, their possible actions, and among these the environment aka the bounded place, etc).

Furthermore I’d say that the rules do not just serve the activity (which could mean that they’re only responsible for a part of the whole activity), but govern it comprehensively.

At least that’s how I see it. Btw nice to see you continue making games, I have to check them out some time.

agj (link), on .

Hey, good to hear from you!

A condition is different from a rule in that it may be an actual limitation, like having to use a game console, a controller, a TV, and a cartridge in order to play Mario, or that we need a tennis court to play a match.

The Encarta definition lacks one important aspect, which is that games are for playing. Otherwise, any ruled system would be a game. I don’t consider a court trial to be a game, at least not in itself.

Your definition also brings the concept of ‘activity’ in, which seems worth thinking about. Is the game the activity of playing? I’d say there are possibly two separate things here: the game, and the playing of the game (the activity).

The playground is not a game because it’s not a ‘(figurative) space delimited by rules’. Perhaps the use of the word ‘space’ is not the clearest. It stands for a collection of these rules, which forms a system. The playground is not a system.

Thanks for making me think deeper about the definition. At some point I’ll attempt a new one, to address all ambiguities.

So, are you making games?

Chris B, on .

“A condition is different from a rule in that it may be an actual limitation”
Rules are limitations as well, e.g. there’s a rule in tennis that states that it’s played on a tennis court. That automatically rules everything else. By stating what is allowed, rules also state what isn’t allowed.

“The playground is not a game because it’s not a ‘(figurative) space delimited by rules’.”
I see, your bounded space refers to the possibility space that is defined by the game’s ruleset. I took it to literally (probably thought of Huizinga’s magic circle). Well, in that case I think your definition is pretty fine as it is (I’d probably still use “govern” or “define” instead of “serve” but that’s a minor complaint).

“’there are possibly two separate things here: the game, and the playing of the game (the activity).”
Well yes, that’s why our defintions include both of these things. You also have the “activity part” in your definition (it’s just expressed differently) but yours essentially says this: “a game is a ruleset, serving the activity of playing it”, which is pretty much identical to mine.

“The Encarta definition lacks one important aspect, which is that games are for playing.”
Doesn’t that go without saying? “Playing” is the activity that takes place during a game. Also explaining game through play sounds kinda self-defining to me.

“Otherwise, any ruled system would be a game.”
No, not any ruled system, but any ruled activity (or yes, if any systems govern activities).

“I don’t consider a court trial to be a game, at least not in itself.”
And yet it could easily be a game. Let’s say that you’re the one who’s judged, then you lose if you’re spoken guilty. Walking down a hallway can be a game, you win if you succeed in walking it down. Your flash project “Heart” can easily be considered a game, you win if you traverse all the way to the right. Even aging can be a game, you win if you reach your desired age. Also a game can cease to be a one, e.g. if it is becomming more like work, maybe cause you’re playing to earn money.

Play can show up anywhere (in any activity governed by a ruleset). One man’s leisure is another man’s work, or like Huizinga said, even “culture itself bears the character of play”.

More importantly, I think the interesting question is not “What is a game?”, but “What is a good game?”.

“So, are you making games?”
Yes, well.. kind of. I have dozens of ideas, but not the time to work them out. Atm I’m just writing them down whenever they come at me, to get them out of my head. I am working on my framework again though, maybe I’ll have something release-worthy in a few months.

agj (link), on .

But rules are only limitations in their quality as agreements. A condition can be something that is not part of the agreement, but is still a requirement. That was my point.

The difference between our definitions, regarding game vs. play, is that yours supposes that the activity itself is the game, whereas mine is concerned with the systems that rule it.

You say that a trial could be a game, and that is true. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily one. This is because the intent of the activity is important too, and why I underlined the relevance of ‘play’ in the definition. I consider play to be voluntary, at least.

‘What is a good game’ is definitely a good question, though I’m particularly interested in ‘what is a game’ because I take pleasure in witnessing and creating unexpected things, and I think that there’s a lot of potential for that in games.

Chris B, on .

“But rules are only limitations in their quality as agreements. A condition can be something that is not part of the agreement, but is still a requirement.”
I think a rule can be a limitation, regardless of any agreement, and what do agreements have to do with this anyway? A rule may also describe any condition. The term rule in itself is the more powerful concept (or at least as powerful). A ruleset can include any set of conditions you could come up with. Rules are just governing powers, able to define any state or mode (any condition).

“The difference between our definitions, regarding game vs. play, is that yours supposes that the activity itself is the game, whereas mine is concerned with the systems that rule it.”
And they’re both right. This is the old data (system) vs process (activity) duality (fallacy). You encounter it everywhere. I think the difference between:
“an activity governed by a ruleset”
“a ruleset governing an activity”
is negligibly, as long as both acknowledge that games can be seen as activities AND rulesets (ruleset = system).

“the intent of the activity is important too, and why I underlined the relevance of ‘play’ in the definition. I consider play to be voluntary, at least.”
Then you probably should define play as well at some point (like Corvus did). As said, it’s redundant to say that a game is played, it doesn’t add anything to your definition, if you define something with itself (game with play).

Also this kinda opens another can of worms. Is there even a voluntary action? (Newer researches in neuroscience deprive us of our free will.) What if you’re playing absent-mindedly? Are infants engaging in play voluntarily, or out of pure instinct?

But anyway, the encarta definition actually went on for a bit, stating that games are undertaken for the sake of recreation or skill-development. So despite my concerns, the inclusion of the intent probably doesn’t hurt much.

“I take pleasure in witnessing and creating unexpected things”
Yeah I do too, I mean that alone wouldn’t be enough in my eyes, but I’d also state it as a vital part of what constitutes a good game for me.

agj (link), on .

Rules always require agreements, as they are not natural, so it is necessary to know them in order to follow them. They are not a superset of conditions. A condition stands for the other kinds of requirements to play a game, so it rounds up the definition. You may still be right that it’s nonessential.

Data vs. process, eh? Then a definition that refers to both could be “Rules, and the play that is governed by them”. In my head I still see game, play and ‘the activity of playing a game’ as being part of the same, but still semantically distinct.

I did define play, or rather, I took Corvus’s definition of it. It’s in the post.

Maybe play is not necessarily voluntary, but it is not against the will. In Corvus’s definition, it’s described as ‘self-guided’.

A possible way to reach the best definition for game is to identify what changes can be made to one before it stops being the same game. This might be a good question to discuss in a forum.