What is a Game?


Last night at the Dice Cup, I was chatting to some people playing Concept.  In Concept players take it in turns to try to communicate a concept (a word or a phrase) to everyone else.  It might be an object or an activity, or it might be something more abstract (and therefore more difficult) like justice, or melancholy.

Players have to communicate using pictures.  At this point you’re probably thinking, “Isn’t that Pictionary?”  The difference is that Concept doesn’t involve any drawing.  You have a big board full of pictures and you place cubes or other tokens on the different pictures to communicate your concept.  Eg. You could put one cube on the picture for ‘Metal’ and another cube on the picture for ‘Hot’ to indicate a saucepan.

It can be surprisingly difficult for beginners, but experienced players can communicate with remarkable accuracy.  The question is though, is it really a game?  You can play with points, but most people seem to just play for the fun of trying to communicate the given concept each time.  When is a game a game, and when is it just an activity?

This might sound like an arbitrary distinction.  Who cares if it’s technically considered a game or not?  People play games or take part in activities to enjoy themselves either way.  That’s true, but I recently came across an illuminating breakdown of this question by a guy called Chris Crawford.  It changed the way I think about various forms of entertainment.

Chris Crawford was a computer game designer back in the 80s and spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of games.  I’m going to try to summarise his analysis here and then we’ll see how his definition affects some modern games that seem to sit outside the traditional notion of a ‘game’.

He starts with a very broad category of ‘creative expression’ and then proceeds to ask several questions to classify the nature of the creative expression you are looking at.

Considering creative expression:

  1. Is it made for money? If so, it is entertainment.  Otherwise it is art.

Considering entertainment:

  1. Is it interactive? If so, it is a plaything.  Otherwise it is media (music, films, books, etc.)

Considering a plaything:

  1. Does it involve goals? If so, it is a challenge.  Otherwise it is a toy.

Considering a challenge:

  1. Is there a competitor? This might be real person or an AI of some kind.  If so, it is a conflict.  Otherwise it is a puzzle.

Considering a conflict:

  1. Is there interaction between the competitors? If so, it is a game.  Otherwise is it a competition.

This is helpfully summarised in the following flow chart:

Game Classification Flowchart

I really like this breakdown.  All of these things can be enjoyed, but they are potentially tapping into a different area of your brain when they create that enjoyment.  If you’re designing a game, I think it’s interesting to consider where it sits in the classification and what kind of feeling you’re attempting to provide the players with when they play.

Returning to Concept then, it would be a puzzle according to the above flowchart.  Even if you play for points, it would be a competition rather than a game.  Each player competes against the others, one at a time, to communicate the most effectively.

Note that many co-operative games are still considered games by this definition however.  The players are working together, but they are in ‘conflict’ with the game, which provides a form of AI – it creates (potentially unpredictable) obstacles for players to overcome and can adapt to player actions.  The players are interacting with each other as well as the AI so co-op games can definitely be considered games.

Hanabi is an interesting exception though.  This is a co-operative card game where you’re working together to play cards from each other’s hands in a certain order.  Once the deck has been shuffled and the initial hands have been dealt out, it is effectively a co-operative puzzle.  Although the players are interacting with each other, there is no competitor.  The players just have to get as many cards played as they possibly can given the order that they come out of the deck in.

Although I like classifying games like this, the lines certainly become blurred at times.  Can you think of any games that aren’t technically games according to this classification?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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