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2:15pm on Wednesday, 18th October, 2006:

What's in a Game?


Last night I was interviewed in Second Life by a class of 35 students on the University of Washington Digital Play: virtual worlds, virtual communities course. One of them asked me what I'd been working on, and I said I'd been thinking about the nature of games and that maybe I'd blog it.

So, I'm blogging it.

Be gentle...


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.

Explanation of terms:

Freely, because play under duress or obligation is not play. There are some national laws I only obey because I'd be arrested if I didn't.

Knowingly, because if you don't know you're playing, you're not. You may be a token in someone else's play, but that doesn't mean you're playing.

Bound, because you could otherwise do it. I don't shoot laser beams from my eyes because I'm incapable of doing so; I don't move a rook diagonally in chess because I choose not to do so.

Rules, because play is considered. (The earlier freely implies that the rules are artificial).

Hope, because there's no guaranteed outcome.

Benefit, because play is purposeful. "To have fun" is a perfectly acceptable benefit.

Lose, because games are goal-directed; not win, because games don't have to end.

Points to note:

Statement 1) amounts to a description of Huizinga's magic circle, except it's restricted to an individual's point of view. You're playing when you do this — even if other people with whom you believe you are playing are not in fact playing. Play is in the eye of the player.

Statement 2) implies you believe that any other players in your game have bought into the same rule set as you have in Statement 1). The word game is a noun, like play in Statement 1); "a game" is an instance of game activity.

You don't need to know all the rules in advance, and they're not necessarily fixed; so long as you knowingly and freely bound your behaviour by those rules you do know, in the hope of gaining some benefit, it's play. Likewise, you don't need to know what the benefit will be, just so long as you hope there will indeed be one.

Is it a game?

There are some classic borderline cases that cause problems for definitions of games. Here's what my definition says about them:

Noughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe)
This is a game for children small enough to play it and actually lose. For most adults, though, it will always be a draw or a win and therefore not a game.

Crossword Puzzles
These are games if you view them as a challenge set down by the compiler, and failure to compete them as being "defeat". I suspect that most people don't regard crossword puzzles as something you can lose at, however, and would therefore call them pastimes rather than games.

Dungeons and Dragons
This is a game. You can't win, but you can lose.

Snakes and Ladders (Chutes and Ladders)
This is only a game if you gain some benefit from rolling dice mindlessly. For small children, and for the adults who want to keep them happy, it can indeed be a game. For everyone else, it's a chore with no benefits and therefore not a game.

Lotteries are games, just not particularly sophisticated ones.


The definition is silent about whether the benefit is due to the play itself or to a side-effect of play. Some people play football because they enjoy the game, yet others are only involved because they want to keep fit: is it truly a game if the benefit you hope for is not intrinsic to the rule set?

Play and work are separated only by the flimsiest of nuances — how you interpret the word freely. If you feel you have to play, then it's not play, it's business. This leads to terminology confusion: if professional game players are not playing games but working, then how can they be called game players?

I'm sure there are plenty more that people will discover, but hey, this is what happens when you try to keep things simple...

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).