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What is a game? It's a question that has been debated for centuries, and everybody has their own idea. Today, in response to a podcast by Mark Rosewater, I give my thoughts on the question.

Caleb Compton, Blogger

July 23, 2018

10 Min Read

The following is a reproduction, and was originally posted on April 28, 2018. The original article, and many more, can be found at RemptonGames.com


I know it may not feel like they are, but they are. Every definition of sandwich I can find affirms this simple fact. From Miriam Webster:

Definition of sandwich

1 a : two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between

the hotdog clearly fits this definition. How about a google definition?


noun: sandwich; plural noun: sandwiches

  1. 1.

    an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with meat, cheese, or other filling between them, eaten as a light meal.

Same thing. A hotdog is meat between two pieces of bread, and therefore a sandwich. Sure, an argument could be made that it doesn’t count because the bread is connected at one end, but if this is your argument then you will also have to disqualify other types of connected bread, such as the submarine or cheesesteak, which are generally accepted to be sandwiches.


Why am I talking about hotdogs? Because this week’s article is all about definitions – specifically, the definition of games. This article was inspired by a recent episode of the Drive to Work podcast by Mark Rosewater, wherein he gave his definition of what a game was, and challenged other game designers to come up with their own.

Today, I am taking up that challenge and attempting to come up with my own definition of what a game is. My personal definition may be different than yours, and that is absolutely fine. While there are certain things that are pretty much universally considered games, this topic has always been a bit fuzzy. My plan in this article is not to be the final word on this issue, but simply to throw my two cents into the ring.

Ready Player One

In order to figure out what a game is, I think it might be helpful to first figure out what a game has. And I believe that the very first thing that a game must have is players – at least one. While this may seem obvious, there are actually a category of games called “zero-player games”, in which the “game” is played entirely by artificial intelligence, with no human interaction.

An example of this is Conway’s Game of Life – while it can be fascinating to watch, the entire thing unfolds without any interaction from the user. I would consider things in this category to actually be simulations, not games, even if they may appear very game-like in other aspects.


Of course, adding this restriction to games simply opens up a new question – what is a player? Luckily, I think that this question is a little bit easier to answer. In my mind, a player is a human participant in the game whose actions can influence the outcome of the game itself. And this definition carries with it another very important aspect of games – agency!


Call my Agent

I believe that, in order to truly count as a game, the player must have some actual ability to exert influence over the outcome of the game. This definition necessarily excludes certain game-like activities where the outcome is determined entirely through luck, such as Roulette wheels or Chutes and Ladders. While these activities may be a fun way for some people to spend their time, the outcome is entirely outside of the player’s control and therefore I do not consider them to be true games.



However, what does and doesn’t count as agency can itself be hard to pin down. In Mark Rosewater’s original podcast, for example, he claimed that for most people Tic-tac-toe would not be considered a true game because, once you know what you are doing, you can always tie the game. His claim is that, since you will always know the correct move to make it is not a real decision. I, however, disagree with this statement.

I don’t believe that always knowing the optimal move for a game (also called “solving” the game) necessarily means that the game doesn’t have agency to it. Sure, in Tic-Tac-Toe you can always tie if you make the correct moves, but it is actually up to you to execute on that. You still have to react to your opponent’s actions, and if your opponent isn’t playing optimally you can actually win.This also applies to games like Pac-Man, where the optimal pattern is widely available. Even though it is quite easy to determine the optimal way to play, very few players have actually been able to execute on this.

Another example is Rock-Paper-Scissors. While this game may seem random at first, there is actually a decent amount of psychology and strategy underneath the surface which, in my mind, means that it does qualify as a real game.

The Goal-den Rules

Another important thing that any game needs is a goal. Games need to, eventually, end, and generally this ending is achieved by completing the goal. This goal can be anything from “save the princess” to “beat your opponent”, but it has to be there. The goal gives the player something to work towards, a reason to keep playing the game.

The goal for a game needs to be possible (that is, it can actually be completed within the game), and there needs to be obstacles to achieving this goal. Suppose I had two players and a car, and told the players that whoever lifts the car with their minds gets to keep it. Since this is clearly an impossible goal, it fails as a game.

How does this apply to games such as Battletoads, where a bug prevents the player from actually completing the game? In these cases, I believe that these are still games, but the goal must simply be modified. If you cannot make it to the planned end of the game, the goal simply becomes to get as far as you can before the game breaks.


Suppose, on the other hand, that said all you had to do to win was breathe air. Breathing air is an achievable goal, but it is far too easy to actually work as a goal for a game. There are no obstacles preventing the player from reaching this goal, no challenges to overcome. However, it is possible to turn a goal as simple as this into a game by adding another important component of games – rules.

Every game needs rules, even if they are relatively simple. Games are defined as much by what you are not allowed to do as by what you are. Take the game of Football, for example. The goal of the game is to get the ball to the opponent’s goal, but it is the restrictions placed upon the players that make this game interesting to watch. Suppose, for example, that the players were allowed to drive automobiles while playing. This would be a very different game!

car football

Rules are also what separate an RPG like Dungeons and Dragons from simply “playing pretend”. In these games you can do almost anything, but you are still bound by the restrictions of the game itself, such as the magic and combat systems. While these rules may seem like limitations, it is these very limitations that make the game fun. The player is only allowed to perform the actions that their character is actually capable of, which enhances the role-playing aspect of the game, and the restrictions force the players to think outside of the box when facing challenges.

The Final Word

If you add all of these different components together, what you end up with is “An activity in which a player uses their agency to achieve a goal, while overcoming obstacles and acting within a set of rules and restrictions”. However, this definition is still incomplete, because it is incredibly broad.

My college classes, for example, could be considered a game under this definition. I am trying to achieve the goal of “not failing the class” with the obstacles of “completing all assignments on time while balancing work and personal life” and the rules of “follow the academic honor code”. However, I think very few people would consider this to actually be a game. Therefore, something must be missing in my definition.


Mark Rosewater, in his original podcast, gave the restriction of “the game must not simply be a part of everyday life”. This helps eliminate a large group of activities, but I also think that it creates a new set of questions. What counts as everyday life? For a professional Baseball player, does this mean that Baseball is no longer a game, because it is their job?

I think this last criteria is close, but not quite right. While I am not sure exactly how to fix it, I think that one possibility is to say that “the game is played for its own sake”. When you are playing a game, the game itself is the point. You are not playing it to achieve some other, larger purpose, but simply because you want to.

Based on this definition, it is clear that my college classes would not be considered games. After all, while I love learning the main reason I am taking the classes is to help me get a job in the future. I am not taking them simply for their own sake, but as part of some larger goal.

I also think that this criteria would cover the professional baseball case mentioned earlier. When players are playing a game of baseball, the game itself is the point. Sure, they are getting paid, but that isn’t the point. The players are getting paid because they are great at the game, but the game came first.

Until Next Time

That’s all I have for this week! Do you agree with this definition of games? If not, what would you change about it? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic in the comments or on social media. If you liked the article and want to see more in the future, be sure to subscribe to the blog on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post something new. And join me next week, where I will be sharing my personal strategy for the board game Clue!

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