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What is a game and why do we play?

Let us start at the beginning. In order to understand games we must know their definition and what makes us play. This post is an attempt to answer those questions.

Nils Pettersson, Blogger

January 16, 2013

8 Min Read

Starting by nailing down such an elusive concept as what a game is can be a daunting project, especially if you aim at creating an all-encompassing definition fit for all situations and people. I believe that I have found a definition that helps me immensely during my design sessions. So bear with me as I attempt to explain this definition.

All creatures play when they are young, this much is apparent through simple observation. The question then becomes:

Why do we play and what purpose does it fill?

We need to figure out the answer to these questions in order to define what a game is. Most if not all designers I know are driven towards creating the most immersive, fun and interesting game possible. A game that will be remembered for years and years for its brilliance. This is certainly very ambitious but if we do not have the answers to the above questions we are just swinging blindly.

Most people can agree that we play because it is fun. But why is it fun? Fun is, after all, just an emotional response to something we are doing. It is a combination of different chemicals released in our brains in order to promote positive activities.

I am a great fan of Raph Koster and especially his book A Theory of Fun. If you haven't read it yet I highly suggest you do it now. It is, in my mind, essential reading for any game designer. Koster argues that:

"Fun arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that make games fun. With games, learning is the drug." - Raph Koster

Mastering a skill might take a lifetime but it is time well spent. 


This is by no means a new idea, and we are supported by several other great thinkers who have reached the same conclusion:

  • "The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things" - Plato

  • "Play is the child's most useful tool for preparing for the future and its tasks" - Bruno Bettelheim

  • "Play is the highest form of research" - Albert Einstein

Our brains are hardwired learning machines, this is what drives us into playing. Learning gives us the tools we need in order to overcome the challenges that are inevitably part of life. Overcoming challenges gives us a sense of achievement and makes us feel good about ourselves, which creates the feeling of fun. A good game is a game that constantly challenges the player and forces her to learn.

Our definition of a game must therefore include, in some manner, that learning is at the core of why we play.

But just figuring out why we play games is not enough. If a player is not guided by the game it is inevitable that she takes the path of least resistance since that is human nature. How can we as designers prevent the players from bypassing the challenges we create and in doing so bypass the entire learning process that is central to playing? If we let the player ignore the challenges she will not learn anything and the game will not be considered fun.

In order safeguard against this it is important to be able to control what challenges are presented and what methods are available to overcome them. To achieve this we need to consider rules. Since I come from an academic background this is the time to use a couple of terms that I find incredibly useful when discussing games.

These terms are widely used but my first acquaintance with them came from the book Man, Play and Games written by Roger Caillois. This is another book I cannot recommend highly enough. These terms are:

  • Paidia - Unstructured and spontanteous activites

  • Ludus - Structured activity and explicit rules

It is easy to see where these two terms fit into our society at large. Paidia is what we associate with childrens' games and playing. It is about improvised, creative playing were rules are implicit and changes rapidly as the game progresses. 

Ludus on the other hand is perhaps most associated with sports, but all organised games fall into this category. Ludus is about playing within explicit rules towards a clear goal. It has the advantage that the creator can quite easily control the play experience since all players must abide by the same rules. 

Based on the facts that:

  1. We play games to learn

  2. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance

  3. Ludus has explicit rules at its core

We can draw the conclusion that in order to guide the player within the game, to make sure that she encounters the challenges we present and does not simply bypass them, we need to stick with ludus. Our game must have enough rules to limit the player's actions while still allowing for a learning process. As such we cannot simple create rules that are so strict that the player will always act in the exact same manner. There must be room for error and improvement.

Sports is a typically associated with ludus.


We are supported in this conclusion by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim who clearly states the difference between play and games:

  • Play - "Freedom from all but personally imposed rules, no goals."

  • Games - "Externally imposed rules, goals." 

Our definition must include ludus in some way since we are defining game and not play (which would be paidia).

A regular mistake when creating a definition is to focus solely on a factual specification of what something is from a purely techincal standpoint. This completely ignores that all things exist in a context, and in my opinion that context must be addressed by the definition. In my opinion a game is not so much an artifact as it is an activity. A game has no meaning until it is played. When it is played it serves as a medium for the player to learn. The act of playing and learning is an activity. This is what I mean with a game being an activity rather than an artifact.

Now that we have the technical specification, the context and the purpose we can create our definition. I suggest the following:

A game has explicit rules and goals, and is played with the primary purpose of learning.

This definition neatly ties together what we have discovered about games and the purpose behind playing. In order to test this definition to see if it actually works on a real example we need to look at an existing game. A definition must be useful in a practical context after all.

Let us look at Skyrim developed by Bethesda. A game widely praised for the amount of freedom granted to the player to creatively explore and generally do as she wishes.

  • Skyrim is set in a huge world where the player is free to wander as she wishes as long as she stays inside established boundaries. - This explicitly states the arena of the play area.

  • Characters can be developed and improved in a variety of ways in order to meet challenges and customise the way the player plays the game. - This gives the player choices about how to tackle said challenges while still staying within the confines of the rules.

  • The player has freedom within the rules to seek out and overcome challenges via creative thinking and trial and error.

The illusion of freedom.


Skyrim gives the player the illusion of choice that feeds her creativity while still guiding her along the intended experience. This illusion of choice is somewhat of a holy grail to game designers and something that is increadibly hard to nail down in a game. Everything in the game is controlled by explicit rules that cannot be broken since it is a digital game (computers are notoriously bad at independent thinking after all).

We can see that Skyrim fits into our definition neatly. If you choose to test the definition on other games you will find that what you typically refer to as games fits into the definition while other activities leaning more towards paidia do not.

If I were to give any practical advice from this largely abstract discussion it would be that if you wish to trap a player inside the game you create, if you wish to keep them playing, you must:

  • Present her with a problem that require her to learn in order to overcome a challenge.

  • Create rules that are explicit enough that she is unable to simply bypass the problem.

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