What is a game?

I’m taking a class in “Beginning game development”, because I’m a total beginner at game development don’t you know. Anyway, one of the assignments for the first week was to write a report defining what a game is. I’m posting the text here, because why not. I feel like I did a fairly good job, but I’m a programmer, not a writer.

What is a game?

Among ludologists — philosophers who study what it is to play — the concept of “game” has many varied definitions. According to Wolfgang Kramer, a game is any activity that includes a set of rules, a goal, a measure of uncertainty or chance, and competition. Sid Meier, the developer responsible for classic video games such as Alpha Centauri, and the Civilization series put it more succinctly: “A game is a series of interesting choices”. While Kramer was writing about games such as Go, Solitaire and dice, and Meier referred to video games in his definition, I believe that either of these descriptions can be applied neatly to any type of game, be it a Half-Life, chess or football.

Can a game really be classified as such if there is no choice? While strategy games often consist of nothing more than an endless string of choices to make, and games like Deus Ex provide a tremendous amount of freedom, others such as Portal often provide a single path to a goal. However, while Portal is as a whole very linear, the player is given great freedom while solving the puzzle. Choice in video games is important as a means to an end. While a game’s ending may not be affected by the player’s choices along the way, the ability to choose his actions throughout is what makes it a game and not a long movie with checkpoints and quick-time events.

Similarly, a game must necessarily involve chance or uncertainty; whether it be that data is generated procedurally or, as is most often the case, that the enemy’s strategy is unknown, the player should never be in complete control, or indeed removed completely from control. If there is no possibility of failure, there can be no option to win. This is parodied in Portal 2, when one “puzzle” is solved by pressing one button. If chance is removed from the equation, playing the game is reduced to a rote sequence of actions.

All games must have goals, for obvious reasons: it is impossible to win without them. However,
goals are not always specified, and must be discovered or set by the player. In Minecraft or the sandbox mode of Just Cause 2, where no set goal exists, the player will invariably set a goal for himself, from building the Chichen Itza to destroying an entire enemy camp without taking damage. This is not bad game design; quite the opposite in fact. Sandboxes, even more so than strategy games, are probably the best example of games as a “series of interesting decisions”.

Another thing all games must have is a set of rules to govern player conduct. In board games rules are more intrusive that in video games, as an intimate knowledge of the rules is necessary to proceed. However, rules in a video game, while it is not necessary to know every one, are equally important, and even the most nonrestrictive game has hundreds of rules that are essential to maintain consistent behavior. Without order there is only chaos.

Finally, a game must have competition. In games like Call of Duty, Battlefield or Unreal Tournament, the competition is supplied by other human players striving for the same goal; whereas a single-player game like Half Life provides competition in the form of computer-controlled enemies. In this context, however, “competition” can refer to anything that prevents the player from reaching his goal. In Portal, for example, the competition comes not only in the form of hazardous environments, turrets and time limits, but also from the player’s own ability to look objectively at the puzzle and solve it given the tools at hand.

Personally, I think Kramer and Meier’s definitions go well hand-in-hand. I feel that the most important requirement for a game to deserve the title is that of choice. In recent years video games seem to have been straying towards a more cinematic style, frequently removing control from the player to ensure that he sees what the game designer intended, or to perform some action that would be impossible due to the rules of the game. For similar reasons, I don’t consider “You have to burn the rope” to be a real game. An excellent parody, to be sure; but not a real game.