What is a game?

This we, I want to think about the definition of a game.

This week, I want to focus on the definition of a game.

When we talk about games, we seem to have an idea of what a game is, despite how games vary from one another. It is hard to describe what exactly is a game and everyone’s definition is different. That should be completely valid, for people know games from different aspects, different eras, and play them for different reasons. However, it is easier for designers to know what they are talking about when discussing or brainstorming if there is for a fact, a “definition” of games. Here in the fourth chapter of the book “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”, which I have been reading for the past few weeks, the author Mr. Schell gives his take on the definition of games.

He mentioned at the start of the chapter, that he was not giving any solid terms to describe what games are, but rather “a clear expression of ideas” that designers can use easily. And the process of trying to do so helps to learn some abilities when it comes to designing.

Schell started with this: “A game is something you play.”

Then he made an analogy to toys. However, toys are very different from games: “A good toy is something that is fun to play with”

What is fun then? All fun contains the element of pleasure, otherwise, we wouldn’t like to have fun much. Fun also contains some surprise, a special excitement. “Fun is pleasure with surprises.”

Now, back to the toys. What do we mean when we “play”? Schell made reference to a few attempts in the past to define “play”. We don’t seem to play for anything’s sake other than its own. People are forced to work because we need food, but we play because we want to play. When we play, we are driven by the fun of it, and more specifically, the pleasure and the surprises that come along with it. We ask things like “How do we defeat the team playing against us?”; “What happens after I beat this final boss?”. More accurately, Schell says, we are driven by our curiosity. This brings us to his final definition of play: “Play is manipulation that indulges curiosity.”

We finally work our way back up to games. Through examining a few definitions of games people gave, Schell concluded ten qualities of games:

  1. Games are entered willfully

  2. Games have goals

  3. Games have conflict

  4. Games have rules

  5. Games can be won and lost

  6. Games are interactive

  7. Games have challenges

  8. Games can create their own internal value

  9. Games engage players

  10. Games are closed, formal systems

After considering all these qualities, Schell comes to his definition of games:

“A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.”

I’d say that this is a pretty good definition, and I enjoyed following his thought process. So, I did a little thinking experience myself after reading this. I started with this:

“A game is a set of scenarios in which players try to overcome obstacles to get to an epic goal.”

Let’s break that down.

What is “a set of scenarios”? Well, from my experience with games, there is always at least one scene. For board games like Monopoly, it’s the board on which the pieces walkthrough. For sophisticated games like Legend of Zelda, there are many scenes featuring different terrains and elements, like fire, water, and thunder, etc. Players immerse themselves into the scenes, and without scenes, there are no experiences for them.

In “overcoming obstacles”, I mean something similar to the “problem-solving” process as in Schell’s definition. When overcoming obstacles, players will propose many possible solutions that are allowed in the scenario. Essentially, they solve problems. But wait, people face problems everywhere in their lives, and most of the times they are unwilling to solve them. Games have problems that are unique: they incite the players’ curiosity. Schell also mentioned curiosity of men earlier in his thought process. I do feel like curiosity is a big part of games. Designers need to keep players curious about what behind the next door or that giant piece of cloud. If they make the process of exploring too long or the reward not exciting enough, players quickly lose interest and are likely not to play the game ever again.

The last part of my definition, I mention this “epic goal”. Games always give the players a purpose. Most, if not all, of their hard work, is directed to the epic ending. I first heard of this idea in a TED talk by Jane McGonigal, an experienced game designer. She designed a game, when she was suffering from a severe injury caused by a car crash for recovery, in which players finish simple tasks like drink a cup of water or walk around your block, and step by step the players recover and fight of the “monster” in the game, an incarnation of their illness. With a grand and epic goal, players are inspired to finish the quest for that ending.

Hmm, I guess I didn’t get really far modifying my definition for games, maybe because these are only my thoughts, unlike Schell, who took in so many other opinions. So here’s my final answer:

“A game is a set of scenarios in which players try to overcome obstacles which tempt their curiosity to get to an epic goal.”

What’s yours?

See you next week!

Latest Jobs


Vancouver, BC, Canada

Bladework games

Remote (United States)
Senior Gameplay Engineer

University of Canterbury

Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
Academic in Game Arts and Animation

Fred Rogers Productions

Hybrid (424 South 27th Street, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Producer - Games & Websites
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more