LearnWhat is a Game?

Nick Pettit
writes on October 15, 2015

Most people have played and enjoyed a game at some point in their lives, whether it’s Tic-Tac-Toe, Pac-Man, Flappy Bird, or League of Legends. However, it’s not often that players think about the fundamental nature of a game. The question of, “What is a game?” is difficult to answer.

A Common Definition

In the game Super Mario Brothers, is it a game because of the tension and drama created by the possibility of running into an enemy? Is it a game because the player can collect coins and perform other actions that add up to a high score? Is it a game because the player must traverse levels that challenge both their dexterity and creative problem solving abilities?

Edited screenshot of Super Mario Bros. Mario is jumping over a pipe and attempting to reach a flag at the end of the level.

 

Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a common descriptor for all games that’s any more specific than “fun problems” or “interactive entertainment” because that could also describe Barbie dolls, jigsaw puzzles, and other things that are not categorically games. A concise dictionary definition that matches everything from Chess to Minecraft is elusive; It’s like trying to define art.

Genres like adventure or real-time strategy can be helpful to quickly summarize common tropes and themes, but a genre doesn’t help to separate games from other forms of interactive entertainment. Instead, I like to think about games on a scale of decision making, which includes toys, puzzles, contests, and games.

Toys

No true game is purely a toy in the same way that building blocks or a doll house is a toy, although some games come close, like Minecraft or SimCity. Describing these games as toy-like is not derogatory or meant to imply that they are rudimentary. Rather, the term toy describes games with no definitive winning conditions; And that’s OK. You can’t win at Minecraft other than feeling a sense of pride in your conquests and creations just as you can’t win SimCity beyond creating a financially successful and well balanced city. These games feel like toys, but they’re different because they operate on a set of rules.

A pile of LEGO building blocks.

 

In both Minecraft and SimCity, there are still entertaining problems to solve that might contain some emergent storytelling (every Minecraft player has stories involving Creepers), but most of the enjoyment comes from the player building a mental model of the world’s rules through trial and error. Games that do this well have many failure states that are both surprising and informative. For example, when you’re running out of money in SimCity and you decide to raise taxes to biblical proportions, you observe how the city reacts to your actions (citizens usually start rioting and businesses dry up).

Puzzles

Examples of puzzles include mazes, connect-the-dots, or Sudoku. While puzzles are typically not described as being games, there are games that are puzzle-like such as Candy Crush or Tetris and they are indeed thought of as games. What’s the difference?

Photography of a hedge maze.

A pure puzzle is a problem that only has one final correct answer. There are multiple paths through a maze or a Sudoku puzzle, but they all arrive at the same solution. By contrast, there’s an enormous number of solutions to Candy Crush or Tetris, and almost every play session is unique from all of the previous. The difference between a puzzle and a game is whether or not the player can change the final outcome.

Contests

Many games, including most classic arcade games like Donkey Kong or Space Invaders, can be thought of as contests. There’s some shallow level of strategy, but for the most part they are tests of dexterity and endurance. The entire goal of these games is wound up in how long you can play without failing, and perhaps at a higher level, whether or not you’re better at playing the game than other people. Most often these types of games have a high score board to provide a point of reference for how well you did. Maybe you felt good about your first play session, but then you see someone else did far better.

Contests start to cross the line into games, a pure contest it something closer to an Olympic sport; There are multiple roads to victory, but the crux of most Olympic events is to test a skill and be the best. A game with contest-like elements differentiate themselves in small ways by providing the player opportunity for creative strategies based on limited information.

Games

A pure toy doesn’t have any decision making beyond whimsy, a puzzle involves some basic decisions to arrive at a fixed outcome, and a contest involves slightly more decision making to achieve a measured outcome. Each category climbs the ladder towards games, and while games borrow elements from each of the previous interactive categories, they stand on their own.

Photograph of chess pieces on a board.

A game is different because the player must build a mental model of the rules and make decisions based on incomplete information. As they continue to play the game and feed the rules with input, they gather each piece of obfuscated output to further refine their mental model. Once a player has some experience playing a game, their understanding informs strategic decision making; That is, the player can reason as to why one decision might be more optimal than another. However, even at the highest level of play, games separate themselves from puzzles because there’s always hidden information, whether it’s the other player’s hand in Poker or the fog-of-war in StarCraft.

For instance, in a game like Tetris, the player only knows three things: The current layout of the board, which piece they currently need to place, and which piece they’re going to receive next. As they gain experience, they learn that there are only seven configurations of pieces, which can further inform their decisions about optimal piece placement. The information that’s always hidden is which piece comes after the next. It’s random, so the player must make educated guesses when making choices.

Even in a game like Chess where every piece and board position is known, there’s still hidden information: Your opponent’s thoughts. Even a Chess Grandmaster or a super computer has no way of knowing with 100% certainty how their opponent will respond to any particular move or strategy.

Games are best when the player is able to arrive at an optimal solution to a problem without fully understanding or controlling every element involved. People like using their heuristic abilities to put together an effective strategy without possessing all the facts.

If you have more thoughts you’d like to share, or if you have any questions about games, feel free to discuss in the comments below!

4 Responses to “What is a Game?”

  1. Hi Nick,
    really nice article 🙂

    New game development series brought me back to Treehouse – big thank for that!

    Tomas

  2. Huyen Hoang on October 16, 2015 at 11:28 pm said:

    Hi Nick,

    Where would I find good resources to start a small HTML5 game project?

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