Quest Log: What’s a Game?

quest-logQuest Log is a feature in which I set out on adventure to learn how something works. This might be game mechanics, social issues, or technology. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the topic and spread awareness.


So …what is it? What makes a game a game? I dare you to try to define a game.

For gamers, we know a game when we see it, right? We’ve played tons of them …and yet any one of us would have a terrible time trying to narrow down what makes a game a game. I can name a few games for you. I can tell you how they make me feel. I cannot tell you what a game is.

Things that come to mind: games are interactive, they’re fantasy, and they’re fun (though that’s probably too subjective a term to mean anything). This is all I can name without getting into gray territory, such as saying that games are competitive and have goals – because that’s not always true. Minecraft isn’t competitive, nor does it have goals. Same for The Sims and plenty of other games. There are also games that aren’t fun in the traditional sense, but are highly engaging – say, To the Moon is a great example. Despite knowing what games are and being able to point to one when we see it, don’t you find it interesting that you can’t describe them?

Roger Caillois, a french sociologist, wrote a book in the 1960s titled Man, Play and Games in which he asked this very question. He concluded that games consist of six characteristics:

  1. Games are non-obligatory.
  2. Games are outside of the routines of life
  3. Games have an element of randomness.
  4. Games are unproductive.
  5. Games have rules separate from ordinary laws.
  6. Games involve fantasy

I’ve quoted Caillois before in an essay I wrote on game ethics. In that essay I proposed that some software that we call games may not be games at all. I think that point applies here. Even though we love all the things we own that we call games, it’s possible that some of them aren’t games after all. That fact doesn’t change our enjoyment of them. It changes nothing at all in practical terms.

Several rules stand out on the list that might have raised your brow or perked your ears, because some of your games probably game to mind. For example, rule #4 means that true games create no wealth. Just a year ago Diablo 3 wasn’t a game according to these rules. Add any freemium game with “insert coin” mechanics to that list of Games That Are Not Games. Only a week ago I was writing about gold farmers and even before then I’ve made the point on several occasions that when games involve real world economics, we’re outside the realm of games. In this case, it doesn’t matter who receives the wealth (the player or the developer), the fact that game activity is generating it removes it from the definition of games (because player activity becomes productive and obligatory, violating both rules 1 and 4).

We should also consider that MMOs and VR are challenging rule #2, as they become a routine part of our daily lives. When full-body VR finally arrives, I fully expect to see a world very similar to the movie Surrogates. One could argue that the growth of the internet has already made people disappear into their homes for entertainment, instead of going outside for it. As technology increasingly puts us inside our games, rule #6 will gradually fall away as reality and fantasy meld. And even after all of that we still don’t quite know exactly what makes a game a game!

There’s one other crucial point that Caillois made that’s important here: society corrupts games by institutionalizing them. For video games, eSports would be a corruption of gaming. It could be the case that all of our games were totally real games until society corrupted them into something else. Just think of all the conversations that have become more frequent over the past five years about gamification. We want everything to be fun, and to that end companies turn to gamification to make mundane routines more engaging, to use games for business ends. I don’t think this is a good thing, though it all sounded really cool when the concept became popular. I think it’s fair to call gamification a corruption of games and play, but I’ll have to speculate for now and revisit this question on another day.

So given Caillois’ definition of games, how many games do you think you own now? I think I own about 3 …

6 thoughts on “Quest Log: What’s a Game?

  1. Those are qualities which define play, not rules which define games. “Rule #4 means that games create no wealth.” Caillois (transl. Meyer Barach): “These diverse qualities are purely formal. They do not pre-judge the content of games.”

    Even when taking a whimsical look at the difficult definition of games, well, especially when doing so, I think it’s important to really grok the entirety of what’s already been said to guide us in refining our understanding of our common leisure activity. Eight years ago, Richard Bartle posited that “1) Play is what happens when you freely and knowingly bound your behaviour according to a set of rules in the hope of gaining some benefit. 2) Game is play you can lose.” (http://www.youhaventlived.com/qblog/2006/QBlog181006A.html) Perhaps his definition has changed since then, but it seems to be in line with your definition of games (his psychological, yours behavioral) from your article on gamification: “Games are basically well designed loops which predict and encourage human behavior in order to entertain us.” The simplicity of those definitions works for me, but like you and many others, I’d be hard-pressed to expand on that without going into wall-of-text mode.

    Gamification in the domain of marketing can indeed act as a corrupting force insofar as it promotes mindless consumerism and other values which disconnect us from one of the fascinating facts of gaming: making interesting, informed choices (and in recent times, helping us connect meaningfully with other people via this age’s unique social media). Research done on gamification in the domains of education and training, however, has yielded largely positive effects.

    I’m interested in seeing how an evolved, comprehensive definition of gaming helps us understand the benefits of this endlessly enjoyable, “unproductive” activity.

    • hmm, not exactly. In defining what games are there are two sides to the equation according to Caillois. There’s play and there’s game. You need both to have a game as we understand them. Therefore, the 6 characteristics are two sides of the same coin: games.

      In other words game would be the parameters we play within. And those parameters would be defined by how well they uphold the six characteristics. He effectively defines games through player participation. I think this is a very interesting way to look at it, because if we don’t look at it this way, it’s impossible to define what a game is (a game begins to look like every other activity we do in life). I disagree with Bartle, because games don’t always have a known benefit. This is demonstrated daily by children, who freely play for no good reasons at all. So I think you’re right that he may have evolved it since then.

      I like the technical definition I give as well, but it’s a meatless description. Writing it, I felt no closer to understand exactly what a game is than before, lol. I think you’re right here too that it’s a ponderous question and takes a lot dissection and reconstruction to really grasp.

      I’m not sure gamification is ever NOT a marketing ploy. I think training and education are naturally gamey; real learning is fun and engaging and I could argue that this is precisely why children play (they’re learning). So I think it’s a coincidence that games and education go well together. It’s possible we’ve divided their purpose and split one half of games out to create rote learning and took the other half and made it entertainment. Perhaps true gaming is when education and entertainment are combined.

      I wish I had thought of that while I was writing this piece. That’s something to think about 🙂

  2. “Rules are inseperable from play as soon as the latter becomes institutionalized.”

    I’ll accept the interrelationship between play and games vis-à-vis rules in Caillois’s sociohistorical context here. When reading about the qualities of play in the preface, though, I took it to be in a more generalized context that encompasses more than the exterior of group dynamics. The prevalence of gamification in the social structures of modern society is pretty pernicious, that’s for sure.

    “From this moment on they become part of its nature. They transform it into an instrument of fecund and decisive culture. But a basic freedom is central to play in order to stimulate distraction and fantasy.”

    I can see why you disagree with Bartle. Games don’t always have an extrinsic, known benefit. Sometimes it’s the intrinsic benefit of having fun. A highly subjective term, of course, and we shouldn’t be afraid to take a crack at meaningfully describing it. Why? For fun, of course.

    If I could expertly gamify my syllabus for my students my life would be a lot easier and I’d be a lot more effective. Like Bartle says, what you need is the equivalent of a graphic designer (artist + engineer): someone who can gamify and thinks like an engineer.

    • Oh now, I see where you’re coming from in the way that you read Caillois’ rules of play. That also makes sense and, yeah that would raise a question I didn’t even address about the structure of game.

      I do think that you’re at the heart of the real question when trying to define games. I think there’s a relationship, a mutual one, between learning and entertainment that it’s possible we’ve artificially separated. When it comes to the classroom, I think games are a wonderful tool. But I wonder if I think so because of the way humans fundamentally learn: playing. We see this also throughout the animal kingdom. All kids play and all kids game. I think it’s notable that as we grow older we play less, learn less, and become set in our ways. Those things all seem likely to be related. As a teacher, what do you think of that?

      • In learning, I think it’s useful to distinguish between two forms of play: freeform and directed, or however you’d like to label that dialectic. Directed would be something like a game with set rules (not that play doesn’t also have rules) with specific goals. Freeform would be the sort of play that animals and children engage in for no reason – although they often learn about the world around them, e.g. young lion cubs play fighting and in doing so practicing hunting tactics on each other.

        It’s true that many people, myself included, have a natural tendency to become set in our ways, You see this in language learners who reach a certain functional point and “fossilize:” they’ve had enough for whatever reason (psychological, social, cultural, etc.). For people who want to remain life-long learners, they need to try new things, in other words: they need to play in order to keep themselves in the right mindset and develop, grow, sing, dance, thrive, blossom. This kind of play has many knock-on effects, like the development of the space program leading to breakthroughs in medicine or strength training with kettlebells (spherical weights that can be swung around in circles) and developing muscles via what Pavel Tsatsouline calls the “what the hell” effect.

        There are many factors that influence our willingness and motivation to learn by engaging in novel play on a regular basis. Caillois would probably be most at ease with social explanations: e.g. in the context of education play may be seen as a waste of time since you’re not doing anything “serious.” I had a student in my reading class who was a mechanic; he said that when a machine broke down his boss would get on his case if he didn’t have a wrench on it. Reading the instruction manual and messing around with new information (playing) was seen as unwanted idling. Stasis is an unfortunate but understandable reaction to the demands of life and society.

        • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It shows that games and play aren’t simple things at all, but gamers love reducing them to simple, non-political activities. The more we ask what a game is, the more we discover games are political by nature. I say this because education seems fundamental to what we describe as “fun”. It’s a level of engagement you can only get when your curiousity is piqued and when you’re learning something.

          I think Caillois would be happy with educational play, even though he seems to work within the social and political. I see his work as critiquing capitalism, not the uses of play in education itself.

          But this is a really complex topic that I could definitely afford to write about again in the future. I still wonder how many actual games I own 🙂 It seems I like games among other game-like things.

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