What is a game? Why is it fun to play games?
There is no “official”, or at least a commonly agreed-upon definition of a game. Wikipedia offers several definitions, which are all kind of true. Chris Crawford’s definition is probably the best articulated. But all of them lack the “essence” of a game, as the sum of components is not the whole in this case. It’s like defining an elephant as an animal with four pillar legs, a small tail, a trunk and big ears – while true and useful, it does not necessarily add up to an elephant.
Another piece of the puzzle lies in the “play” part. Wikipedia to the rescue again, and we see the same pattern – opinions of what play is are quite divided, and the definitions are rather generalizing than specific of what play is.
Simply put, playing is our natural way of learning. Like cubs get prepared for the real life through pretend attack, ambush or flee, we use the hands-on playing to learn in a most productive way. And when we are most efficient at it – it is the most fun we have. It is our hard-wired instinct that makes it attractive for us.
The reverse is true as well – when we are not learning efficiently, the instinctual reaction makes us feel “bored”, which is extremely unpleasant, and forces our behavior into a more effective learning. There is no need for any other motivation, playing is intrinsically motivating as long as we are having fun, that is – proactively learning.
Of course, learning is not necessarily fun and is not always play. And this is a fundamental problem of our modern institutionalized education system. Playing, in turn, is always our most efficient learning method and is subconsciously rewarded as “fun”. We pour so much energy and drive into it, without any second thoughts, that it easily overshadows even the extreme efforts put into traditional non-play learning.
It is important to note that playing is always a pretend activity. It is a simulation of the real thing or situation and it offers the safety of experimenting. Once we step into the real world, we stop experimenting and apply the most efficient method we’ve learned to the situation at hand. Often times we do switch back to a simulated play and resume the learning by more testing of the boundaries. But, by and large, playing is a pretend make belief activity.
Games are the activities we play. They have rules that define the scope and means of our actions, as well as goals to be achieved, that serve as benchmarks of progress. These two components, rules and goals, can range from well defined and obvious to obscure and dynamically altered. Sometimes they are clear and documented, and sometimes subjective and known to the playing person only.
Just for an academic point, I would argue that playing with a toy is a game as well. The rules are of the physical world (if it’s a physical toy), and the goal is to find out how it works (to discover the rules). The toy in itself, however, is not a game, as it does not have the rules nor the goals defined – it’s the player that supplies them and creates a game. That’s why one of the best toys is a stick, seconded only by an empty cardboard box.
Once we master the goals and we get good at it (and “good” is defined by lack of further material improvement) the game becomes boring. It is boring when there is nothing else to learn. A game that’s too easy is boring for the same reason.
Games can also be frustrating, when they are too hard to master or when the rules are not consistent. This is a natural reaction of pushing ourselves beyond the limits of our maximum comfortable effort to overcome the challenges of difficult goals or making sense of contradicting rules. Successful games, therefore, have consistent rules and allow the player to progress at their own pace.
Now, all of the above, summarized into definitions:
Playing is our natural way of learning in a simulated environment. It is intrinsically motivating and it is “fun” when learning is efficient. A game is the structure of playing and it is comprised of rules and goals. Rules define the skills to be learned. Goals are the benchmarks of learning.
While these definitions may look quite similar to the ones found elsewhere, there is a fundamental difference in that games are not true entertainment. They are associated with entertainment because “fun” in games is pleasurable, but their first and foremost function is learning.
This leads to many observations and conclusions that may seem counterintuitive and contradicting to the established views. More on this subject is explored in upcoming posts.
*Originally published at GameManifesto.com