What Is a Game?


The word game has many meanings, from a competitive sport to an impromptu backyard tug of war. But the one most commonly used to describe video games is a system of artificial conflict defined by rules that result in a quantifiable outcome, whether victory or defeat. It’s an intriguing definition, and one that’s been debated extensively by people who research, write about and make games.

As the popularity of games has grown, so too has their social and psychological significance. As a form of entertainment, games can be fun and relaxing, teach practical skills, serve as a form of exercise or even provide a simulational experience for players. They can be played solo, in teams, or online; by amateurs or professionals; and can also have an audience of non-players (as with spectator sports).

But the definition that separates games from other forms of entertainment is arguably the most important: “interactive entertainment”. This means that the primary difference between games and movies or books is that you don’t just watch them — you participate with them. This interaction can range from moving 2D blocks in a Tetris-style puzzle to inhabiting an immersive, persistent virtual world like Fortnite. But a key part of the interaction comes from making decisions. Decisions can be simple or complex, but they must require a player to make choices within a restricted set of options, and these decisions must have a meaningful impact on the outcome.

In addition to the aforementioned constraints, games must have clear tools and objectives. For example, a toy can’t be considered a game because it allows unrestricted play; however, a chess board and a video game both present rules for the players to follow. Most games use tokens, either physical objects like pawns on a board or intangible items such as points scored. The rules may be simple or complicated, and the gameplay can vary greatly based on the environment. For instance, playing hide-and-seek in a school building will be radically different than in a park or an auto race track.

As such, the development of games requires a great deal of creativity and problem-solving. It’s no wonder that some people have found themselves drawn to this unique medium. And while departments of computer science have studied the technical aspects of gaming for years, theories that consider games as a medium of human expression are only just emerging. The two most prominent schools of thought in this area are ludology and narratology. But, despite their differences, both of these approaches share the belief that video games are a distinct medium that should be studied and understood in its own right. They’re also beginning to show that playing games can have positive effects on mental health. This is particularly notable given that, in a recent study, researchers found that time spent playing video games was positively associated with self-reported experiences of autonomy, competence and relatedness. But that’s another story for another article.