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Monday, January 05, 2004


Richard Süselbeck

All of these definitions are perfectly valid. Unfortunately saying that a game "is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in pursuit of a goal" is like saying that film is "a sequence of images of moving objects photographed by a camera and providing the optical illusion of continuous movement when projected onto a screen".

Both definitions are certainly true, but they are entirely focused on the mechanics of makings films/games and tell us absolutely nothing about the nature of film or games as forms of art. So in essence they're completely worthless unless you really have no clue at all what a film or a video game is to begin with.

Your definition is a little more interesting, because it includes the word "fun". I disagree with requiring games to be fun, however. After all, was Schindler's List a "fun" movie? Certainly not. But most people were still glad that they saw it. In the same way I believe that games can make you feel almost the whole spectrum of human emotion and not just the limited subset that I would associate with the word "fun".

Most game developers still seem to see video games mostly as electronic toys and your definition seems to support that. Toys are only supposed be fun. A toy that makes you feel sad is a bad toy. A game that makes you feel sad is actually a major success, at least if making you feel sad was the creator's intention. Fallout had a very sad and poignant ending and that's exactly why everyone loves it so much.

I think the key to a meaningful definition of video games as an art form lies in the fact that a game forces the player to make decisions. If it doesn't, it's just a toy. I think Sid Meier, wether serious or not, really hit the nail on the head. His definition is actually pretty close to yours (after all a decision is just a response to a problem) except that he doesn't require the decision to be fun. Just interesting. Let's explore what "interesting" can mean.

"Saving Private Ryan" raised the question of wether one life was worth risking that of several others. A game could raise the same question, by forcing the player to make that decision. (It's quite unfortunate that the Medal of Honor series, which was often indirectly marketed as "SVP - The Game" only requires the player to decide which Nazi to shoot first, but that's another discussion.) This is where the strength of games comes into play. Forcing the player to actually make that decision himself also forces him to really think about the issue, weigh the pros and the cons, etc. In the film he can just let Tom Hanks make the decision for him.

What makes an "interesting" decision? Simple. Anything that gets an emotional response from the player and/or gets him/her thinking. That emotional reponse can certainly be "happyness", in which case it's a "fun" game. But it can also be "sadness" if, for example, he has to sacrifice a friend in order to win the war. (A moment in Corey & Lori Ann Cole's "Shannara" where you are forced to kill your girlfriend to prevent her from turning into something horrible still ranks as my most emotional and favorite gaming moment ever. Ironically most people complained, because there was no way to "win" that sequence. They saw the game as nothing more than a toy.)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: I agree with Sid Meier. :)

Michael Hobbs

I think that I would rank "artificial" above "fun". Bernard Suits' use of "unnecessariy obstacles" in his definition really resonated with me, which was then repeated by Salen and Zimmerman's use of "artificial conflict". I think artificiality is the key-piece to games. However, the artificial conflict has to have some element of fun in order for anyone to willingly engage in it. I propose that someone could in fact devise a game where the conflict was artificial, but not fun. Such a game would still be a "game", but it would be a game that nobody would play.


"I disagree with requiring games to be fun, however"

It all depends on your definition of "fun". There are plenty of depressing, downbeat movies that aren't fun (Requiem For A Dream springs to mind), but which you can still enjoy watching. Making the viewer / player sad doesn't mean that you're not entertaining them. In fact, taking them on an emotional journey is (for most genres) a good thing. But if they're not having fun on some level, they're not going to keep watching / playing.

Having said that, it's perfectly possible to make a game that isn't fun either way, but I wouldn't advise doing it! ;) What Scott said is more a definition of "a good game" rather than just "a game".

Brian S.

I think you and the rest are thinking too much about the electronic form of games to form a proper definition. A very simplified, common, and understandable definition of "GAME" that encompasses most forms of activities that could be described as games, from toys to gambling to sports to role-playing, would be: "structured interactive play."

By "structured" I mean a prescripted set of rules for the game. A deck of cards is not a game, but solitaire, poker, rummy et al are considered games because they have specific rules that govern and structure the activity.

By "interactive" I mean active participation by the user(s) to cause/affect change in the game. Participation is a requisite factor. A kid with a toy gun in itself is not a game, but "cowboys and indians" is one.

By "play" I mean an activity or set of activities whose participation is primarily done during/for the non-essential (leisure) time of the user(s) life activities. In other words, "play" is in contrast to "work." For a professional as opposed to an amateur, the activity is no longer a game, but a job.

Richard Süselbeck

"But if they're not having fun on some level, they're not going to keep watching / playing."

I'm not so sure about this. Watching "Requiem for a Dream" is not fun or entertaining on any level. At all. At least not for me. Requiem can only be fun for a freak who loves to see other people suffer.

So why is Requiem a good movie? Wwhy do we keep watching, despite the fact that we feel bad while doing so? Simple: Catharsis. By living through all these negative emotions we experience a great relief of tension and anxiety when it's all over. But only then. Not while we're watching it.

So finishing the movie is "fun" if you define the word loosely, but not the process of watching it. That's a very important distinction.

Scott Miller

At first, I was vacillating between using "entertaining" or "compelling" rather than the word "fun." I liked "entertaining" up until the last minute, and changed it to "fun" just to shorten the letter count, but maybe that was a mistake.

Schindler's List may not have been fun, but it was entertaining, no?

Also, I'm not sure that movies need to be fun, while games should strive to be.

Perhaps a bigger question is this: Is it necessary for a game to be fun (or entertaining)? Or, is an un-fun game one that should be considered work?

I've stopped playing many games that were not fun, and conversely I only finish games that are fun. It seems to me that some quality of pleasure must be present to separate a game from activities you wouldn't voluntarily do in your free time.

Richard Süselbeck

"I think you and the rest are thinking too much about the electronic form of games to form a proper definition."

I can't speak for the others, but you are right. I do. And that's quite intentional. I think that video games are really moving away from the more traditional forms of games that you're talking about. I don't even think that "video game" is an appropriate term anymore. But we're stuck with it for better or for worse.

If video games are the same thing as "cowboys and indians" then they aren't art. And if they aren't art, we're probably wasting our time here, because then they wouldn't be all that interesting. (At least they wouldn't be to me.)

Of course if you through a wide enough net around the term "game" then video games will always be included. But the idea here really is to specifically figure out what video games are and not games in general.

Richard Süselbeck

"It seems to be that some quality of pleasure must be present to separate a game from activities you wouldn't voluntarily do in your free time."

Yes, but the pleasure doesn't necessarily have to be inherent in the problems of the game, as your definition implies. The pleasure after seeing Requiem of a Dream can be quite intense for the audience. But that pleasure comes from the fact that the pain has stopped (in a meaningful way of course, otherwise the end of the House of the Dead movie would be orgasmic), not from the fact that the movie was pleasurable itself.

Maybe making the decisions in the game is quite painful and you really don't want to be faced with all these moral dilemmas, but dealing with them teaches you something about yourself and that can give you pleasure.

As such I don't think that requiring the problems themselves to be fun is quite correct.


I guess I'm kinda with Meier on this one. I like to say 'choice(s)made within a set of bounding rules'. It doesn't have to be a series, as that would rule out rock-paper-scissors. But I guess mine would exclude Calvin-Ball from Calvin and Hobbes.... Yeah, Okay. I'm with Meier. Games are choice(s).

And I think they can be art. I think anything not done for the sole purpose of survival can be art.

But I think your question of 'MUST video games be fun" a much more interesting one. My first reaction is "Of course not!", but then I think about it, and I'm not so sure. Has anyone here played a game they wouldn't consider 'fun' while playing? And I mean in Richard's superb explanation of "Not while you were playing, but after you played it, you were glad you did," type way.

As a complete aside; Requiem For A Dream had me slack-jawed and muttering "Oh man... It can't get worse" every time they cut to a new scene. I loved the movie. Good point in bringing it up.


The problem with comparing movies with games is that games are interactive. How many people wish to control someone who is hooked on some type of drug? How about WATCHING someone who is hooked on the drug? Well, Requiem For A Dream shows that people enjoy watching it. I, personally, would never even consider a game that gives the player control of an addict. Why? How is that fun? Why would any player wish to jump into a fantasy world where their virtual life involves doing drugs, spending time at an imprisonment camp, or throwing their comrades out to die? No player wants these dark ideas to be interactive. Why? It isn't fun.

Richard Süselbeck

"Has anyone here played a game they wouldn't consider 'fun' while playing?"

Sure, any game that has ever scared me. In real life we don't want to be scared, because it's a very negative emotion. But being scared in a game or movie can be very cathartic and the experience actually helps us deal with our real life fears.

By the way, there have been games made featuring drug use, imprisonment and killing comrades. And many of them were good. In part because of those things. They are all a part of the human experience, and we deal with these issues in our art and entertainment. If video games do not deal with issues like these they will end up being a short lived fad and any hope of them becoming a respected art form is already lost.

Jim Vessella

I think the definition using fun is better suited to deciding what is a good or bad game. I dont think anyone can argue that good games aren't fun. As many of us have said, we won't play a game unless its fun, thus Scott's definition of "fun" or "entertaining" for a GOOD game is right on.

But what about games that suck? We all know they exist, they recieve horrid reviews, and sell minimal copies. But they still do exist. Are these "interactive systems" not games simply because they're bad? What if they include the other characteristics such as conflict, rules, and choices. Just because they're not fun doesn't mean they're not games, it just means they're not GOOD games. Thus the definition of "fun" should be reserved for judging the quality of a game, not whether it is a game in the first place.


"How many people wish to control someone who is hooked on some type of drug?"

Actually there's a module for Neverwinter Nights called A Recipe For Horror where your character can get hooked on gumbo made from .. shall we say some rather odd ingredients. If you go too long without a fix you start to suffer ability score penalties.

And wasn't there a drug-induced nightmare sequence in Max Payne? It really dragged on for too long - all that running around on narrow ledges in the dark above a bottomless pit got tired quick, and the constant wailing and screaming was enough to drive the player as mad as Max - but it was an interesting idea, and the skewed FOV and strange lighting and sound effects worked quite well up to a point.

And I always thought it would have been a nice touch if the player had got less and less effect from the painkillers Max was constantly popping as he built up a tolerance to them. Taking all that medication in the space of a proverbial New York minute can't be good for you... ;)

"Why would any player wish to jump into a fantasy world where their virtual life involves doing drugs, spending time at an imprisonment camp, or throwing their comrades out to die?"

Having the player's character hooked on drugs could be an interesting .. er .. hook for a game if handled well. You could do anything from a tacky GTA style smash-and-grab fest where you play a junkie trying to fund their habit (a sure fire way to get tabloid headlines, be banned from Walmart, and so sell millions of copies) to a game where some unscrupulous person has got you hooked on a drug as a way of controlling you and you have to find a way out whilst doing jobs for them in the meantime to keep yourself alive. Imagine if Max Payne had tackled the issue of drug addiction head on instead of just having Max have some weird dreams and then go through cold turkey in a cutscene. It might have made for a much more interesting ending to the game.

There have been several games recently set in PoW camps, and I remember having a lot of fun playing an Escape From Colditz boardgame as a kid.

Throwing your comrades out to die is pretty much a staple of real-time strategy and tactical action games, especially as neither genre is exactly well known for its great AI.

Scott Miller

Jim, it's hard to argue that un-fun games are not still games. But just because we can make a bad game, does that automatically mean that a proper definition shouldn't include the requirement for pleasure? Perhaps un-fun games are game wannabes, or game failures?

I'm not sure either way with this, just tossing stuff out. But I do have a hard time abandoning the notion of entertainment as part of the definition, because that seems to be 99% of the reason we play games -- to be entertained. If we're not entertained, then the game merely becomes a test of some sort. (And how many games are about as fun as taking a test!)

Lots of great comments, so far, btw. Many angles to consider.

One last thing for those who like Meier's definition: Isn't the word "interesting" pretty close to "entertaining"?

Michael Hobbs

Here's a possible counter-example: I know people who have fun and are entertained by IQ tests and brain teasers. Are they games?


An interesting read is over on Raph Koster's Page: "the theory of fun" - at http://www.legendmud.org/raph/gaming/theoryoffun.html

Basically saying, a game is fun only for as long as it takes for you to master it - to see the pattern to the point that you know exactly what to do / how to win / what's going to happen next - and then you're done with it (but it's a nice PDF file with lots of pics, so you're really better off hopping over there and reading it for yourself).

This would include "IQ tests and brain teasers", which those people would NOT find enjoyable if they were too easy. i.e. If they know all the answers without having to think about it, they'd find that particular IQ test boring.

Definition of fun stretches to include anything and everything that is "NOT BORING".

But then, I've played games that were just too freaking hard. I wasn't exactly bored, being all red-faced and cursing and whatnot at the time, but I was frustrated, and definitely wasn't having fun.

Brian S.

Let me clarify and expound upon the meaning of games as structured interactive play. I think the confusion over what a “game” is and whom a “gamer” is is because “structured interactive play” branches into two main categories that often overlap and we, the “players,” move between each group. Most games are either performance or non-performance skilled competitions.

By performance I mean participatory role-play wherein the participants assume alter-egos (but not necessarily alter-personalities) in order to play the game. The classic example is role-playing the dungeon and dragons game. Players create new identities in accordance to the game rules and go quest adventuring. PC games that typify this category include Diablo, Wizardry, and most MMORPGs. A close cousin of this group is the interactive fiction-type game. Rather than making up your own character, you become the story’s character and prod him (or her or it) along toward one ending or another in a structured narrative (which is usually saving the princess/kingdom/world/universe from the evil dude and associated minions). In addition to traditional quest-adventure games, most non-ported console RPGs, to the consternation of some, like SquareEnix’s Final Fantasy series fall into this group.

Non-performance skilled competitions include most of what else are considered games. These include card and gambling games (go fish and poker), board games (chess and monopoly), tabletop games (pool and pinball), toy games (marbles and jacks), TV games (Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune), competitive target shooting, and sports. The principal factor that differentiates them from performance games is the object of scoring toward a goal of accumulating wins. While you can be victorious in a role-playing game (either through battle or by accomplishing minor and major goals), it is not a requisite for participation. Victory (through the concept of scoring/point totaling) is the sin qua non of non-performance skilled competition games. Of course, you can play a game without keeping track of the score, but it does not obscure the fact that points have accumulated (either for or against you). Also, these games do not require players assume alternative identities (though for most sports video games players take the attributes of the athlete characters). Video games in this category include all electronic card, gambling, board, tabletop and sports game versions, many shooters, and most arcade and arcade-style games that keep high scores.

A synthesis of the two above main groups is the simulation/strategy (simstrat) game, especially as an electronic platform. The simstrat can have a narrative or not (Command & Conquer v. SimCity). You can assume an alter-ego or not (Wing Commander v. Microsoft Flight Simulator). Scoring can be kept or not (Railroad Tycoon v. SimLife). Simstrats are typified by either assembling/construction or God-perspective or both.

Of course, many games have some attributes of all of these categories. So, it is not inconsistent for groups like the ESA to proclaim that video games are not longer and should not be stereotyped as just for teenage boys. However, industry figures like Chris Crawford have complained that this is decidedly misleading because although it is true that the definition of “games” should encompass each form of structured interactive play, it is not where the bulk of the sales that ESA members get their revenue from. Those multi-million dollar budgets that publishers front are not going for card and board games, but for testosterone-inducing, whiz-bang action games. If one is able to parse out what the various parties mean by “games” then we can come to some understanding of how well the state of the industry is proceeding.


My shortest: Games are educational tools for the imagination.
The goal and/or conflict is imagined, bound by imaginary constraints.
Every experience educates and the finest inspires.

Some Guy

It seems like saying "fun problems" becomes a judgement call and is thus unsuitable as a definition. Somehow the definition has to communicate the intent, not the judgement:

A game is a structured set of problems intended to entertain.

Doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well unfortunately.

In any case, while it's a fun exercise, I think that while working on a game design you need to view it through many different lenses to truly do it right.

Jim Vessella

Scott, I like your counter-point that un-fun games are possibly game failures, and I also like Dundee's point that some games are just too hard to qualify as having fun. (I'm reminded of the first time I played Myst or Riven)

I'm thinking now that the definition could be refined that games AIM to be entertaining or fun. After all, fun is often subjective. While I may have been frustrated playing Riven, the next guy might have had a blast. What if a game was designed correctly for fun, but turned out with too many bugs to provide an enjoyable experience?

Thus I would say games strive to be fun, whether they succeed or not should not deter from the fact that they are still games.

Scott Miller

-- "A game is a structured set of problems intended to entertain."

Some Guy, I really like this one; definitely an improvement over my original stab at a short definition, and cures the problem that many games fail to be fun.

Jim, I think you're right, too.

All: Does the word "interactive" need to be part of the definition? I've gone back and forth on this point, and currently I'm leaning toward No as the answer. Am I wrong?

Brian S.

I don't think the statement "a structured set of problems intended to entertain" really defines what a game means. It is both too vague and haphazardly worded. Since what entetains you is in the eye of the beholder, solving math problems or fixing a leaky pipe would fall under the definition of a game. This doesn't work.

Also, interactivity is crucial to a game since what is a game devoid of participation by players? (see my posts).

Owen Christensen

Turning to our friends at dictionary.com:

Game - An activity providing entertainment or amusement.

No set of problems. No definite end. No specification of medium. Our job is to provide diversion from reality and (fleeting) joy. It is our ultimate goal as game creators. If we do not provide entertainment we provide paperweights. And we're not in the paperweight business :)

CM Lubinski

"Thus I would say games strive to be fun, whether they succeed or not should not deter from the fact that they are still games."

This is very accurate. All games are supposed to be entertaining in one way or another, whether this is for the user or the creator.

Also, the "artificial" challenges may not be entirely true. After all, look at Street Fighter or any sport. This is a challenge of persons. A created world could be included but is not necessary. The actual game lies in pitting two HUMAN players against each other.

Continuing, interactivity is a must for a game. If it were not interactive, it would be a picture, movie, or book.
Although looking towards movies and the like is not going to give us all the answers, it does give us the essence of a story. Every story has a conflict; otherwise it is just a collection of ramblings, not a STORY. Similarly, a game needs conflict/obstacles/problems/tasks. If there is a conflict, there must be a goal. Therefore we can assume that all games need a goal, whether it be short term (Pac man: I ATE HIM!!!) or long term (Link: Triforce whoo!).

Brian S.

Excerpted from Merriam-Webster Online:

Main Entry: game
Pronunciation: 'gAm
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English gamen; akin to Old High German gaman amusement
Date: before 12th century
1 a (1) : activity engaged in for diversion or amusement : PLAY (2) : the equipment for a game b : often derisive or mocking jesting : FUN, SPORT
2 a : a procedure or strategy for gaining an end : TACTIC b : an illegal or shady scheme or maneuver : RACKET
3 a (1) : a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other (2) : a division of a larger contest (3) : the number of points necessary to win (4) : points scored in certain card games (as in all fours) by a player whose cards count up the highest (5) : the manner of playing in a contest (6) : the set of rules governing a game (7) : a particular aspect or phase of play in a game or sport b plural : organized athletics c (1) : a field of gainful activity : LINE (2) : any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle ; also : the course or period of such an activity (3) : area of expertise : SPECIALTY 3
4 a (1) : animals under pursuit or taken in hunting; especially : wild animals hunted for sport or food (2) : the flesh of game animals b archaic : PLUCK c : a target or object especially of ridicule or attack -- often used in the phrase fair game
synonym see FUN
- game·like /-lIk/ adjective

CM Lubinski

A Dictionary gives diction. I think when we ask what is the deffinition of game we speak more of connotation. If you look up "art" in a dictionary it gives you everything in literal terms; unfortunately a literal definition of art simply "does not do it justice." This same quality applies to "game."

Brad Renfro

"a structured set of problems intended to entertain."
I like this definition for its inclusiveness. It implies a lot of the other definitions. Problems imply "decisions" and entertainment implies "interesting". Intent and structure implies art. Problems imply solutions, goals, rules, and limited resources (BTW, the resources in Frogger is lives and time;the resources in Tetris is boardspace and time).

But I think this question is the most fun when you pull at its seams:
- Does it always have to be interactive? How about the non-interactive solo game of naming all 50 US states alphabetically? Or is that not a game?
- What if its intent was not to entertain but it sometimes ended up that way? War games are expensive undertakings meant to train, most certainly not to entertain the army. But I'm sure they can be fun as hell.

Scot Le May

While i agree in a sense that a game that is not fun, could be a failed game. One could debate the fun factor, or usage of the term fun. Learning curve FPS's for instance, arent usually fun once you step in and play them. As you aquire the skills to better yourself, so your not always seeing gibs exploding, it stats to become 'fun' in an addictive manner.

While other types of fun, could be 'fun' enjoying an artistic rendition of an enviornment. Examples being myst and alot of the latter adventure games( siberia etc).

So I think the definition of 'fun' would be more enlightening than that of the word game. Or what is it, that is fun. I find that lately fun tends to be more on the tedious side. Where its NOT fun what you are doing, but it is fun when you get to point a by doing a bunch of not so fun stuff to aquire the FUN item a.

I hope this style of design goes far far away. Especially now that we are reaching a technology level where games can now become truly artistically awe inspiring.

Jesper Juul

I am not sure that you have produced a definition as much as a list of losely defined characteristics:
"A game is a structured set of fun problems".
A definition should make it easy to determine what falls inside and what falls outside the definition - the individual points are perhaps a bit too vague, and it also seems too exclusive and and too inclusive at the same time.
Here are 3 objections:

Fun, too exclusive: I spent a lot of time playing StarCraft, but I honestly didn't have any fun, it was just frustrating me that I never became a good StarCraft player. Hence it wouldn't be a game in your definition.

Fun, too inclusive: I think humans generally enjoy solving a problem, any problem. Thus, packing your suitcase or calculating a mortgage are also structured, fun problems. So is writing a Ph.D. (I did have fun) or connecting your new stereo. I tend to only have jobs that revolve around structured fun problems.

Problems, too exclusive: Is Dance Dance Revolution a game?

I tried creating a game definition that would make it easier to examine how and why something fell inside our outside the definition, here:
Looking for a Heart of Gameness.

Here's the short form:
A game is
1) a rule-based formal system with
2) a variable and quantifiable outcome, where
3) different outcomes are assigned different values,
4) the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome,
5) the player feels attached to the outcome, and
6) the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.

The point of this way of phrasing it is that it makes it easier to discuss how something falls inside or outside the definition. For example, war according to the Geneva convention fullfills 1-5, but not 6, and so on.

Richard Süselbeck

"One last thing for those who like Meier's definition: Isn't the word "interesting" pretty close to "entertaining"?"

Yes, it is. I think in this context each word implies the other and they can be used interchangeably.

"Thus the definition of "fun" should be reserved for judging the quality of a game, not whether it is a game in the first place."

I can see your point, but if words like "fun" or "entertaining" cannot be used then we have to fall back on purely technical definitions that don't really tells us much about the nature of games. Yes, there are a lot of games that aren't fun. But they were supposed to be. And maybe for a select few people they are. If they are not fun at all for anyone, I guess they aren't really games. Would you call a car without an engine and square wheels a car? Nope. It's merely a failed attempt at building a car. I have to agree with Scott's "game failure" theory.

"All: Does the word "interactive" need to be part of the definition? I've gone back and forth on this point, and currently I'm leaning toward No as the answer. Am I wrong?"

The word itself doesn't have to be in the definition, though it has to be implied. The words "problem" or "decision" for example imply interactivity.

"solving math problems or fixing a leaky pipe would fall under the definition of a game. This doesn't work."

Not true. The word "intended" in the definition you're referring to makes sure of that. A math problem is supposed to teach you math and the leaky pipe didn't start leaking to entertain you. As such they are not games, no matter how much fun you may have solving those problems.

"Does it always have to be interactive? How about the non-interactive solo game of naming all 50 US states alphabetically? Or is that not a game?"

Yes, it has to be interactive. And your example actually is interactive. It's a series of 50 decisions intended to entertain you. Only one specific set of decisions wins the game, but I think we've already established that winning isn't necessary to enjoy a game. Many games don't even have a winning condition.

I really love "A game is a structured set of problems intended to entertain.". Like Brad said, it implies everything that is crucial about a game and restrictive enough to leave out things like fixing leaky pipes.

Scot Le May

I agree with you richard to the extend that a game has to be interactive. Otherwise its not quite a game but more like a movie...

While the "A game is a structured set of problems intended to entertain." does tend to fit the bill. Perhaps it should be, A game is a structured set of interactive problems intended to entertain. Otherwise one could speculate on what types of problems, and thus could be linked to the plot-lines of a movie for instance. Which in its essence is the difference between games and movies.


Richard Süselbeck

Jesper, "Sim City" isn't a game according to your definition because it doesn't fulfill 2 and 3. 3 in particular isn't fulfilled, because there is no way to quantify what makes a "good" city. In fact the game doesn't really have an "outcome" per se, because it never ends. (You could impose some quantifiers, like "a good is city is a city that is crime-free after fourty years", but those quantifiers aren't part of the actual game. Doing so would only mean that you've come up with your own game based on Sim City.) Therefore your definition fails. I also have to admit I don't really get what 6 is all about. Could you please explain this?

Also "A game is a structured set of problems intended to entertain." solves the problems you mentioned with Starcraft and packing your suitcase. You may not have had fun with Starcraft, but it was intended to be fun. Packing your suitcase may be pure bliss for you, but nobody intended for it to be that way.


Jesper's definition is interesting, though I still think the other versions here are on a beneficial path as well.

I think it's best to avoid 'fun' entirely. Rearranging some of the ideas posted here, I'll suggest:

Structured challenges designed for play.

'Challenges' lets us avoid the DDR problem problem. Invoking 'play' is appropriate, as it is a concept that underlies 'game', which is played by players. 'Play' is also broader than fun, entertaining, etc., all of which I would argue are too exclusive.

Richard Süselbeck

Scot, you may have a point. After all a movie is also a structured set of problems intended to entertain. In fact this already applies to an action sequence in a movie.

So I would agree with adding "interactive", because "problem" or "decision" don't actually imply interactivity as strongly as I thought.


Oh right, SimCity. This actually doesn't conform, I think, to the 'problems' or 'challenges' requirement, being much more paedeic than ludic. We'll have to broaden the definition if we want to include it as a game.

I'm not sure I'm on the interactive bandwagon yet, but how about:

Structured interactables designed for play.

I'll spend more time thinking about this before I toss out another suggestion. :D

Scot Le May

In what terms are you thinking interactivity though walter? In terms of, "the abiltiy to change...'. Or rather the use of input devices. The latter one is more in my definition of interactivity for games. The use of a players input through devices to become part of the experiance. All games require this even the infamous old school Dragons Lair.


But does "input devices" include our own sensory organs? You could definitely play a game without any sort of extra materials.

At any rate, I really don't know how I'm conceiving of interactivity. I'm inclined to go with the "ability to change..." version, though, as in the ability to change state.

I've just been checking out this Game Studies article, which I think is relevant:



"Sim City isn't a game according to your definition"

But IS Sim City a game? I'd argue it's more of a toy than a game, if we're going to get pedantic. You don't so much play it as play *with* it. There's no winning or losing, no ending, no real rules, and the only goals are the ones you set yourself.

These kind of open-ended "sandbox games" aren't really games at all. They're more like digital train sets. The fun comes from arranging all the pieces, then seeing how it runs and tinkering with the design. When you get bored of your setup, you dismantle it and start again.

Jesper Juul

True, Sim City is not a game according my definition, but that is part of the point:

Sim City isn't a game in a classic sense since there (generally) is no outcome and since there is no definition of what a "good" city is. (Will Wright also maintains that it is a "toy".)

On the other hand, it is often described as a "computer game" in a contemporary sense.

It goes to show that the notion of what a "game" is has been expanded from the later half of the 20th century and onwards.

Michael Hobbs

After thinking through some of the edge cases, I've come to the conclusion that defining what a "game" is will be about as successful as defining what "art" is. That is, the definition of what is a game is in a grey area and the line of separation is different for each person. The dictionary definition of "an activity providing entertainment" is about as good as it's going to get. (The word "activity" implies interactive, since you need to be an active participant in an activity.) But even though a game needs to be interactive and entertaining in order to be a "game", these two qualities alone do not strictly define what is a game. For example line dancing, playing music, or assembling a jigsaw puzzle are all different forms of interactive entertainment, but none of them would be considered games by most people. Any attempt to narrow the definition of "game" to exclude these activities will also exclude legitimate games.

Let's take a look at some of the edge cases. Why is line dancing not a game? Because it is just a recreational activity. However, Dance Dance Revolution is considered a game. Why? The only real difference is that there is a lose/win state. Maybe we should add a lose/win state to our definition of game? If that becomes part of the definition, then assembling a jigsaw puzzle becomes a game because it has a win state. Some may consider it a game, some may not. But let's keep going: What makes the children's games of Tag or Duck-Duck-Goose "games"? There's no lose/win state, but there is a "loser" at various points in the game. How about Peek-a-boo? Is that a game? What about Fetch? My dog considers that to be a very fun game.

In the end, I think that all we can really say about games is that they are interactive and entertaining, but not all interactive and entertaining activities are necessarily games.

Scott Miller

Jesper, while your definition may be technical accurate, I was hoping to come up with something a little bit shorter -- hopefully a single sentence.

Back when I first gave serious thought to doing this, it occurred to me (right or wrong) that games are merely problems to be solved. "Challenges" could work just as well, but I think the word "problems" better implies the need to be solved and overcome.

I was also surprised that most existing definitions left out the requirement or intention to entertain, as this seems to be the whole point of a game, even an educational game (otherwise it's an education exercise or test).

Sim City may be technically a toy, but the wider world considers it a game, and so I'd prefer to have a definition that includes it. With that in mind, can anyone find a real fault or omission with the following definition:

"A game is a structured set of interactive problems intended to entertain."

Scott Miller

-- "However, Dance Dance Revolution is considered a game. Why?"

Michael, I think it easily qualifies as a game because it presents the player with an ongoing problem: Matching footsteps to the on-screen scrolling arrows. Also, it's designed to entertain. It's also interactive, as it provides feedback to your moves and progress.

Michael Hobbs

"A game is a structured set of interactive problems intended to entertain."

This definition might exclude Candyland, War and Bingo, where there is no real problem or challenge. The outcome is completely determined by the luck of the draw. Some could argue that they really aren't games then.

It also includes non-game activites such as playing sheet music, paint-by-number, or cross-stitch. Again, I suppose some could argue that these are forms of games.


Michael: I think there's something to your idea that defining 'game' will be about as successful as defining 'art'.

The problem I think we're facing here is trying to overcome Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblances. If we're trying to come up with an all inclusive definition of 'game', such that it includes just about everything that's been considered a game, I don't think we'll get much further than something like "rule structured play" (with 'rule' requiring its own specific definition).

It'd probably be a more fruitful endeavor just to delineate the dominant species of game (which Callois does in Man, Play and Games).

CM Lubinski

"This definition might exclude Candyland, War and Bingo, where there is no real problem or challenge."

In each game, each player must face against lucky, fate, what have you to win. This is similar to the Man Vs. Nature conflict in books. This conflict expands in two player games to (Man Vs. Nature) Vs. (Man Vs. Nature) if that makes sense. Either way, there is still a conflict and therefore a problem.

Scot Le May

Actually one could state the problem of those games, Micheal, is getting the dice to fall on the right numbers. You state that as luck of the draw which it is. Although that does not remove it as a 'problem needed to overcome'. Which would still leave it in the game category. I.E., "I'm having problems rolling that six..."

Heh, I think Scott has pretty much got it with, "A game is a structured set of interactive problems intended to entertain."

Jeff Mackintosh

I've seen others attempt to define "game" in various discussions and, to be honest, I fail utterly to see the point. Why attempt to define "game?" What is to be gained by it?

The only real point that I can see is to determine what things aren't "games" because they don't fit one's neatly defined definition. That is, imho, a level of elitism that is unneeded in a field devoted to having fun. In one way or another, "games" are about an effort to entertain - to have fun. Is there any advantage in deciding what is and is not a game? Does that increase one's chances of having fun? No, imho.

I think time is better spent on determining what is a good game. What sort of game increases one's likelihood of successfully having fun. I find that a far more important discussion than "what is a game?"

Just my two (Canadian) cents worth...


It's important to note that with the definition, "A game is a structured set of interactive problems intended to entertain," we were actually assuming the "intended to entertain" part before coming up with the definition. It doesn't describe everything referred to as a game.

CM Lubinski

Jeff's got a point. After all, any deffinition we come up with for a game is going to have an exception. Life is classified in part as having cells, and therefore viruses are not alive. To some, this is a mistake, as will any deffinition for games me. There will always be a 'game' that doesn't fit the definition.


Of course SimCity is a game. You guys have never gone bankrupt in SimCity?

However, those 6 points *do* fail to take into account open-ended games, or even games that only end when you fail. e.g. Pac Man, Defender, SimCity, etc.

If the author is saying, "If it doesn't have an ending then it isn't a game", then I call BS. :)

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