I have a pseudo-philosophical question: what makes something a Game? That is, for a given set of activities what criteria would you use to distinguish whether those activities are a Game or Not A Game?

Let me start by narrowing the discussion so as to eliminate sophistry. First, I'm not looking for a hard-and-fast single criteria the presence of which makes something a Game and the absence of which makes something Not A Game. I'm willing to say from the beginning that there are probably multiple elements that create Gameness, and that something we call a Game may not have all of them, and another thing we call Not A Game may have some of them. Similarly, I'm not interested in the Sorites Paradox. I'm willing to accept shades of gray and don't care to have a discussion about how much of Criterion X something has to have before it has a binary switch from Not A Game to Game.

What I am interested in are what criteria we would use to distinguish a Game from something that isn't a game. Multiple people playing the game? Play over a limited time with a defined endpoint? Winners and Losers? Rules? Some means of measuring the quality of a player's performance? Conflict?

The question get more interesting the more I think about it, because while a lot of criteria go into a game there are some that seem more important than others and there's also a sense in which the absense of one of the criteria can be compensated for by the presence of another. Example: Solitaire. Solitaire lacks multiple players, yet it's still what we'd call a game. A player sorting through a deck of cards and organizing cards by suit and rank value would not be playing a game, as far as most people are concerned. But a player who is trying to accomplish that same goal by following certain strict rules regulating card placement is said to be playing a game.

I would say that, as a criterion, Multiple Players is very weak. It isn't sufficient (Any number of activities can involve multiple people without being called a Game) and it isn't necessary (solitaire, numerous video games, etc.). Still, it's a sort of buttress to something's gameness; I would say I'm vaguely more likely to want to call something a Game if it involves multiple people than I am if it doesn't. Rules of conduct I would call a more important criterion; it's hard to think of anything we would call a game that doesn't involves some form of rules (even things like Fluxx, Mini-Mao and 1000 Blank White Cards offer a basic structure of rules to order play even as they allow extraordinary fluidity in terms of the creation of new rules). At the same time, rules can't be enough on their own because there are a lot of things that have rules but that we would never call games. Winning/Losing/Measurement of Performance strikes me as another important aspect of gameness, though I'd allow that you can have something that's a game without it.

Thoughts? Additional criteria? And here's a question: Right now I'm having a difficult time with the example of trials at law. That is, a trial has strict rules, multiple players, hard-and-fast winners and losers, competition, and it occurs over a strictly defined period with an end point (it might be a long time coming, but all trials end eventually). So why isn't a trial a game?

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

Contact Zach


Webcomics of Which I am a Fan

Sites I Read Daily: Politics

Sites I Read Daily: Video Gaming

Sites I Read Daily: General Miscellany

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Zach published on February 18, 2007 9:16 PM.

Introducing: My Year of NES was the previous entry in this blog.

My Year of NES, Week 1: 1943 is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04