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What is a Game?


Disciplines > Game Design > Articles > What is a Game?

A game is | A game is not | Discussion | See also


What is a 'game'? How can we define the term? Below, we look at things that make games and things that do not.

A game is...

A dictionary definition of 'game' is:

A game is a contest with rules to determine a winner.

Certainly some games are like this, and rules seem critical at the very least to constrain action and create boundaries for the game. But must there always be a winner? Must it be a contest? What about games of patience that one player plays? What about role-playing games that have no particular beginning or end?

An additional definition is:

An amusement or pastime.

This fits the more relaxed view of games and helps indicate two very different types of game, those that are about 'winning' and those that are about 'playing'. There are many definitions that miss this point.

Wikipedia defines it as 'structured playing'. 'Structure' echoes the rules, but 'playing' is new. Play is done for pleasure. Can you play without enjoyment? Possibly, but that is unlikely to be thought of as a good game. Can you play without it being a game? It seems so. I can play with a football without it being a game.

Games may engage any number of people. They may be played alone or with played with others. Games with others may be one-on-one, team-vs-team or large-group activities.

Games are stimulating, arousing interest through challenge. They offer a satisfying sense of achievement through completing challenges or beating other players.

So here is a revised definition:

A game is a stimulating, rule-bound activity.

No point mentioning people as there can be any number. No point talking about winning because not all games are contests.

A game is not

If we can think about what a game is not, then we can further bound the term more tightly, excluding certain aspects and domains.

A game is not real.

While games are played, the outcomes do not have much or any effect on your daily life. You may lose at chess, your video-game characters may die but you still sit down for dinner afterwards as if nothing had happened. In the game, you are player, playing. In the real world, your actions have lasting consequence.

A game is not passive.

You are not just an observer as games require you to act in some way. The game or other players may well respond, causing interaction and conversation. Movies are passive as you just sit and watch. You have to engage in games.

A game is not unemotional.

Games stimulate, they create pleasure and other emotions. The echo the trials and tribulations of life. They engage you and stir your interest. Few people will continue to play a game they find boring.


Games are often associated with children. But adult do and can play games too. You do not have to give up fun when you grow up, and in fact in an increasingly pressurized world you need to find such ways to release the stresses and strains of everyday living.

Beyond this description of what game are and are not is the bigger question of what constitutes a good game.

Rules are important in games as the boundaries they define shape the play. It is also important that players follow the rules and that they believe others do likewise. If necessary, an umpire of some sort may be employed to ensure the rules are followed, with the power to punish transgressors. The shaping of the game may also be helped by various mechanisms, such as objectives, throwing six-sided dice or a guiding storyline.

Games are increasingly being examined for ways they can be used in educational classes and in the workplace. Games seem to get people highly motivated to achieve 'great' things (at least in the game world). What if we could take some of the aspects of games and use these to motivate people in the real world? For this, the curious word 'gamification' has been invented.

We also talk about games as repeating patterns of activity that are often dysfunctional. Addicts play them. Families play them. But this is not the 'games' that we are talking about in this section.

See also

Games (in life)


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