What is a Game?

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September 12, 2013 by Devin

I have been on a bit of a feminist kick lately, and while I really do enjoy writing about things like that, I decided to do a post that is a bit of a palette cleanser. This blog is about a lot of things, and I hope people will find the questions I ask interesting, even if they are not intimately familiar with the material.

I recently picked up a large amount of Independent Tabletop RPGs through a charity bundle,* and it got me thinking about what actually makes a game.

(For those who do not know what a “Tabletop RPG” is, for our purposes it is like a board game where the players also create a story)

These types of games are wonderful to look at because they show off a game’s mechanics, whereas in video games, those mechanics are often hidden. For example, in a game like Call of Duty, all the player needs to know about the guns is how to point and shoot them. But in a tabletop game, all the variables (range, damage, movement, etc.) are immediately apparent to the player, letting the player know exactly what the designer designed. It is a bit like watching a movie while watching someone develop the special effects in real time.

But seeing all this game design led me back to one fundamental question: what is a game?

I do not mean to ask what is a video game, or a board game, or a tabletop game, but what makes something a game and what makes something else something else?

I could not think of one answer, so I thought of several.

A game is a series of rules

The first step to any D&D game is conquering the rulebook.

This should be obvious to anyone who has ever played a game of Dungeons & Dragons. What is the one thing that every D&D game needs? A rulebook. Without that, there is no game.

And a rule is just something that says if x happens, y will result.

Every game has rules, even if they are hid behind a veil of graphics and story. In Portal, much of the game is spent learning what exactly the rules are. “If I jump into a portal, I’ll jump out the other side,” “If I put a cube on a button, the button will activate,” “If I toss a turret across the room, it will stop shooting,” etc.

The basics of game is rules. Running is just running, but running against a time limit is a game. Throwing a ball into a hoop is just throwing a ball into a hoop until that shot is given significance by a restriction or a statement of purpose. Stacking blocks is just practice for packing until someone says, “Better make sure they do not do this” and adds some sense of stakes to the experience.

The joy of play then comes from exploiting these rules and figuring out what can be done within those rules. Minecraft gave players a huge sandbox of tools to play with, and players went wild figuring out what exactly could be done. There are many endeavors that seem ridiculous, just as a building a programmable computer within the game, but the reason these creations are amazing is that they are within these sets of rules. Gamers took restrictions and explored them to figure out what was possible.

And working against those restrictions is both challenging and fun.

A game is a series of interesting choices

Naming cities is another important choice that shan't be neglected.

I’m actually stealing this one from Sid Meier, creator of Civilization and Pirates! This idea is basically that the reason that players play games is to make choices.

Sometimes the choices can be complicated, like should I research Metal Working so I can create a larger army that will destroy my opponents and also make nifty backyard art, or should I research something peaceful like gift-giving so I can have good relations with my neighbors to the north?**

But at other times, the choices can seem simple, even though the effects can be drastic. Halo presented players with a limitation on the amount of weapons they could hold, which is one of the reasons why the game was so well received. Limiting the player may not seem like a feature, but it presented the players with an interesting choice even amidst a firefight. Do I want the Rocket Launcher so I can take out some bad guys really easily, or should I grab the Battle Rifle because it is a more dependable weapon? The choices the player constantly faces keeps them engaged and learning to make the right choices separates the good players from the bad.

But the choices can also be qualitative rather than quantitative. One choice does not have to be necessarily better or worse. Do I want to act like a jerk to that woman or do I try and understand her situation? Do I want my character to look like a jester on prom night or a hardened soldier who is a loose cannon? Do I want to be the thimble or the car?

Every game can be broken down into a series of choices, and the games that people remember usually have the most interesting choices. Those are the moments that people remember, whether that choice was made through long deliberation over a piece of a paper or over done in a split second with the push of a button.

A game is an interactive story

This is from when I killed a troll as a little hobbit burglar. It was awesome.

Tabletop RPGs probably place a higher emphasis on this approach than any other type of game. For example, in the game, Annalise, one of the main mechanics in the game is players creating characters with vulnerabilities and secrets that later show up in the game (and are capitalized upon by the antagonistic force in the game, the Vampire). The game is built to create interesting narratives and not necessarily perfect game mechanics.

And this concept applies to other games as well. Single-player games are creating stories with the player. Sometimes the game leaves the plot up to the player, letting the player create their own narratives out of the tools the game gives them. Sometimes the game does most of the legwork, telling players who they are and their motivation while players provide the details for smaller points like how exactly the characters managed to beat that one particularly tough enemy.

But this approach also works with multiplayer experiences. Clue is a drama about trying to find a killer with all the same basic beats of a mystery story. Life uses the structure of life to create a structure in the game with different acts and even an epilogue. Even card games like spades are built around creating moments of tension that create conflict and drama.

Some game developers have even used this approach in their design. Valve, when making the multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, added mechanics that would make moments of tension and moments of release, creating climaxes much like a story would.

The point of this approach is that the joy of games comes from the stories the players create with and within the game. Sometimes the story is simply about a soldier who managed to find the right flank and win against the enemy. Sometimes the story is as in-depth as the rise of a cleric from a level 1 healer to a level 99 warrior mage. Sometimes the game even draws in the player and makes them the point of critique or intrigue.***

But when players leave a game, they should have a story about their experiences.


I still am not sure which of these approaches is really the best approach. That is probably the wrong way to take these ideas, anyway, but postulating on what games are allows game designers an angle to create more meaningful experiences, which in turn gives game critics better vocabulary to describe those experiences.

There probably is no one right answer, but I am an English student. I am okay with multiple interpretations.

Do you disagree? Do you think there has to be on definition of what a game is, and do you know it? Are you a math student? Let me know in the comments below.


*The bundle is now closed, but you can find the details of the bundle (including future bundles) here. If anyone has played any of these games, I’d love to hear what you think of them.
**Can you tell that I don’t play Civilization very often?
***In other words, I still can’t get over how good Spec-Ops: The Line was.

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The Good Greatsby

Paul Johnson's comedy blog: I didn't get into comedy to be rich or famous. All I've ever wanted was to be loved...by somebody rich and famous.

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