What is a game?

My speech at XXIV Board Game Studies Colloquium, May 18th 2022

Some time ago, a friend of mine asked me what a BoardGame Colloquium is about.
“It’s about board games, obviously”.
“All right, but what do you mean with ‘board games’?” she replied.
“You know, games played with a board, with tokens, cards, dice and so on”, I answered.
“Well, but what do you mean with ‘games’? Surely, you all talk about something very specific and defined, don’t you?”

Now I was in trouble. I realized a very important thing. First of all, I need new friends with less embarrassing questions... But more important, she was right: it seems we have no shared and accepted definition of what a game is in the field of Game Studies, except for a vague and unsatisfactory one; or the other way round, too many clashing definitions of the same concept.

But any field of study needs definitions: not as the need of classification by itself, but as the requirement to set borders and limits on what we are studying.

We will see some of the most used definitions, in order to finally try to give one which is the most meaningful under the point of view of Game Studies.

Let’s start with some missed attempts by several scholars, like philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who deemed impossible to give a proper definition; Gregory Bateson, who in a meeting gathered other scholars from several fields without any success — or maybe just because of that; and Eugen Fink, Karl Groos and Bernard DeKoven, who addressed more the “play” than the “game”.

But “play” is not the same of “game”: we need a game to play, but a game may exist even if no one ever played it!

Of course, we cannot start without quoting Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), a Dutch historian who claimed not only that games are part of culture, but culture is derived from games. He stated in Homo Ludens (1938) that

Johan Huizinga

Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space. According to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It is utterly absorbing, with no material interest and no profit gained by it. It creates social groups that separate themselves from the outside world.

This definition is an incredibly wide one, including not only any form of game, but even the effects of playing and games. We could also strongly argue against the “no profit” issue in games, which is clearly not true in countless examples. But in the end, we are facing a definition of “playing a game”, not game as such.

One of the most successful, used and abused definitions of game comes from Roger Caillois  (1913-1978) in Man, Play and Games (1961):

Roger Caillois

A game is played by players freely; has borders agreed in advance; its goal is unpredictable; it does not create wellness nor richness; it is governed by peculiar rules; it goes with a special consciousness of a second reality.

This leads to the four key components of the game: Alea, i.e., the luck and chance to declare a winner; Agon, the competition based on skills among players; Mimicry, the role-playing component where players “play” the role of someone else; and Ilinx, the “vertigo”, the excitement from strong emotions (including fear and other not-so-positive ones).

These four components may be found ranging between two poles: the Paidia, i.e., the childish, unregulated way of playing, and the Ludus, the more adult way, subject to formal rules.

This definition is very intriguing, but becomes less interesting as we note that, again, it defines more “play” rather than “game”. Also, it states that it does not produce richness and above all it is very broad, including dancing, mountain-climbing, juggling, theater, nursery rhymes and even more. Most of what we commonly understand as “board game” is just the most “Ludus” way to play what is made also of a mix of Agon and Alea.

Clark C. Abt (b. 1939), engineer and entrepreneur was among the first ones to face the direct challenge of defining a game as such in Serious Games (1970):

Clark C. Abt

An activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objective in some limiting context.

It seems that this definition does not include solitaire games; but it does include war, economics and political elections.

Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015) was an educator who spent his whole life searching for the meaning of play and games. In The Study of Games (1970) together with Elliott Avedon he defines game as

Brian Sutton-Smith & Eric Avedon

an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is a contest between powers confined by rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome.

Given Sutton-Smith's interests and inter-disciplinary approach, this definition is quite extensive and — much like Abt’s — it actually may also include real life situations like politics and economics.

Bernard Suits (1925-2007) was a brilliant philosopher who in The Grasshoppers: Games, Life and Utopia (1978) outlines playing a game as

Bernard Suits

the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles using only means permitted by rules,

(the so-called “lusory attitude”, which is one of the most interesting points of this definition). This is a smart idea; however, we are still on the field of “what playing a game is” instead of “what a game is”.

Chris Crawford (b. 1950) is a videogame designer who pioneered the critical analysis of electronic entertainment. In his seminal book, The Art of Computer Game Design (1984), he defined a game as

Chris Crawford

a closed formal system, which subjectively represents a subset of reality, with interaction, conflict yet safety for players.

As Salen and Zimmerman point out, maybe it is not a fully developed definition of game but rather a characterization: however it is the first game designer’s view on the topic.

Another remarkable game designer who contributed to the topic is Greg Costikyan (b. 1959), a versatile author whose publications range from game to videogames to role-playing games and even fantasy and space opera novels. His definition of game (I have no words & I must design, in Interactive Fiction #2, 1994) is:

Greg Costikyan

a form of art where participants take decisions using tokens to manage resources in order to pursue a goal.

It is worth noting that it is the first definition explicitly addressing game (or, more precisely, the creation of games) as a form of art. This simple yet powerful definition is very suitable under a Game Studies point of view: for example, it does not include other forms of art or real-life struggles. Maybe it lacks the conflict and interaction we find in most games — and, by the way, the view of games as a form of art is a daunting task: but, in my opinion, it is well-founded.

David Parlett (b. 1939), a renowned game designer and game scholar. In the very first pages of his The Oxford History of Board Games (1999), he rightly defines what he will be going to talk about:

David Parlett

a formal game has a twofold structure based on ends and means.
Ends: it is a contest to achieve an objective. Only one of the contenders (be they individuals or teams) can achieve it. To achieve that object is to win.
Means: an agreed set of equipment and of procedural “rules” by which the equipment is manipulated to produce a winning situation.

Note that Parlett refers to formal games, meaning not toys, not child play, not dancing or theater. We could argue that in some way this definition may include also real-life activities with procedural rules and materials (e.g. finance), but this is one of the most fitting and satisfying descriptions of what a board game really is. Notwithstanding this, it does not speak of “art” concerning games.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their weighty Rules of Play (2003) after comparing several definitions outline their own one:

Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman

a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict defined by rules that results in a quantifiable outcome.

It is a polished definition, with few flaws. However, it does not recognize the artistic power of the medium.

My suggestion for a Game Studies approach, especially (but not exclusively) with board games in mind, is as follows:

a form of art where participants interact actively taking [conscious] decisions following formal rules to reach a final, declared and variable goal.

Each word is carefully selected to be meaningful.

I would need another speech to fully back up the view of games (or, more precisely, the game design) as a form of art, but here we can note that in the first place there are several hints in this direction:

  • They are both product of human ingenuity
  • They both derive from religion
  • They both convey messages
  • They are both unnecessary for survival
  • They both originate from a creative process
  • They are made by Man only (if we refer to formal games)

We cannot go into the details of the definition, so I’ll sketch just some implication.

First of all, what is not a game:

  • surely, toys like dolls, toy cars, balls, action figures or LEGO, because there is no way to “win” unless you set your own sights;
  • for the same reason, we do not include traditional arts like music, theater, novels, poetry, movies...;
  • also, pseudo-games like children’s or animal play, or training practices which may actually start from a real game, but with vague or relaxed rules;
  • puzzles of any sort like crosswords, computer adventure games, brain teasers, labyrinthys, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books etc. do not qualify as game because they all have a pre-fixed way(s) to obtain the win.

There are also gray areas which must be considered on a one-to-one basis, for example:

  • Contests like Athletics, races or even computer games with no final goal like Pac Man or Space Invaders have almost no interaction at all among players and are more a comparison of their own, separate results (often in separate place and time);
  • Role playing game and LARPS often have no clear way to “win”, and focus on performing well your role;
  • Simulations are a very detailed replica of real-life situations, whereas games are a deliberate simplification of any world the game designer creates; and most of them have no way to “win” (think of Flight Simulator);
  • Gambling games go beyond this definition when they are 100% luck, like Roulette or slot machines, because then there is no meaningful decision-making by the players. However, this holds true only if we assume that the decisions made by players are "conscious", otherwise they rightly be considered proper games.

Which definition is the best one? Here we can roughly see the span of each definition. It is not surprising that our definition is the most delimited ones, because it aims to pinpoint what a “proper” games is, excluding as many different entities as possible, even if they could seem very similar.

It seems that the best answer is: “it depends”: it depends on the context and on the field of study.

So, my final suggestion is to abandon a definition of games which holds in all contexts, or even worse a definition which matches another field of study.

Even if I am pretty sure my own definition fits the standards to be most appropriate for Game Studies, I am not here to say it is absolutely the best one to adopt, as we may have different perception on the subject: but I do press on choosing a shared definition in Game Studies contexts. Until we agree on this common definition, it would be great if anyone would declare, before any other statement or research, what he is talking about and what he means with the word “game”: thus, we avoid ending up with talks which could possibly be misunderstood or — as Crawford says — “disintegrate into arguments over semantics”.

REMARK 1: I heard that someone, among them David Parlett himself, argued against this definition of "game", stating that a game needs players, otherwise what we have is just an equipment to play a game. I am sorry that this objection completely misses the point: as I said at the beginning of the speech, that's "playing", not "game". Does a book exists only if someone reads it? Does a music is a music only if someone is playing it, or hearing it? Certainly not. Sure, a sheet of music and a musical instrument may be required to play it: but the music itself is always there, created by the musician. Besides, this would imply that games that noone plays anymore are not games. Instead, those games still exist: simply, there is noone just willing to play them.

REMARK 2: Another criticism is against the game as a form of art. I know it is a controversial topic for many, but I just like to stress that I am not saying that playing is making art: what I am stating is that designing games is a form of art.


Sono autore di giochi, scrittore, musicista, programmatore analista e grafico pubblicitario, nell’ordine.

Il mio gioco più famoso è BANG! (dV Giochi, 2002), un gioco di carte speciali ambientato nel Far West. Il mio libro più importante finora è L’Arte del Gioco (Mursia, 2010), un saggio divulgativo di ludologia.


Seguimi sui Social