What exactly is a game?

Written by rex on 28/02/2015 16:10:23

We all know games, everyone plays games, but do we really know what defines a game? Before we can create a good game we need some sort of definition of it. So what is it? Sure, everything with rules can be defined as a sort of game. But let’s define it a bit better than that. So let’s try!

What would be the most simplistic game you can think of? The first game that comes to my mind is the child’s game “Tagging”. It has two very basic rules: One player is “it” and if you’re being tagged by “it”, you become it. Remembering my years on the primary school’s playground the game had different additional rules all the time. An often used additional rule was “You can’t tag the old “it” back”. Although these were set by us, additional constants where there too. For example the teachers didn’t allow you to leave the playground or trip others. Not a rule set by us, the players, but by our superiors.

The summary of the game? There’s conflict, no-one wants to be “it”. It would be boring if someone wanted to be “it” because of the lack of conflict. The rules define boundaries in the game. The outcome of the game was clear too, the child being “it” at the moment of the school bell lost the game. Katie Salen, a veteran game developer, her description of a game comes to my mind:

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome” (Katie Salen, Game Design Fundamentals, page 80)

If I apply this logic to one of my previous Ludum Dare games, for example, “You only get one” we could describe it like this:

Conflict: the player wants to get home without being eaten while the dragon keeps advancing.

Rules: the player is constraint in a 2D world, there’s gravity, the game is lost when touching the dragon, his fire or falling out of the screen.

Outcome: the player wins when he enters his house (time constraint).

Ludum Dare 28 - The dragon's journey

That is quite clear, but how does this apply to popular games like Minecraft? Is it a real game? Let’s try:

Conflict: the player needs to stay alive (retain its hearts)

Rules: the player loses hearts when hungry, the player receives damage from mobs, the game is lost when its hearts are depleted, the player can eat food, can create weapons and armor etc.

Outcome: is there any? What about defeating the ender dragon?

Is the ender dragon really a quantifiable outcome? After defeating the dragon the conflict itself remains, nothing is resolved. The main conflict centers around staying alive, not on the dragon roaming a different realm. Thus, I wouldn’t describe it as an outcome or a game, but more of a sandbox or toy. Though open world games like Oblivion feature some kind of the same freedom as Minecraft, in the end you resolve the main conflict, defeat the bad guy and establishes peace. That’s a clear quantifiable outcome with rules and conflicts.

This is my first of a series of blogs on “What makes a good game”.

What’s your take on the definition? Does it fit mine?