What is a Game?

Everyone has their own definition of what constitutes a “game” and, as one would suspect, philosophers have put forth their own theories as to what is and is not a game. I have long felt that there is a certain aspect of gaming that is often misidentified and included in many activities that are called games but I believe are not actually games.

I believe that in addition to whatever other definition one uses to define a game that the needed additional rule is this: To be a game an activity must have an outcome that can be directly affected by the player. That is to say, that the player doesn’t just choose to “play” but once begins to “play” can actually choose to change the final outcome. This can be defined differently by stating that in order to be a true game an activity must require that logic and reasoning be applied.

To further refine this definition it should also be included that the game should have within its affectable components enough complexity to disallow for any “perfect” play – at least by humans.

A fuzzy definition, I realize, but a useful one all the same. Chess, for example, is clearly a true game as the moves made by the players directly affect the outcome – the fundamentals of skill. It is further a true game because no human has memorized the “perfect” chess game or set of moves that can be duplicated blindly to guarantee a win or a “best outcome”.

Given that we know that Chess, Go, Age of Empires and similar games are, in fact, games let’s look at some examples of what fails to be a game – at least to me.

The Automatic Win/Lose: This artificial non-game is very simple. One of more players choose to play a non-game. Each player is then informed that they have either won or lost. This fails to be a true game because the players don’t really play – they simply learn of their results. This may sound like a silly example until you realize that one of the most popular game-like activities is in lotto and lotto-like gambling (slot machines, for example) where you pay to “play” and you are simply informed that you have either won or loss. There is some enticement in the fact that there is money to be won or lost but that is outside the bounds of defining this activity as a game. Many lotto dealers promote lottos that are automatic win/lose scenarios as games when the player has no ability to effect the outcome.

Many people may actually enjoy activities that require no though or effort and simply result in a win or a loss. It is not uncommon to find people who actually gravitate towards this type of activity but to call that activity a game would render the term game meaningless.

“Hello little children, would you like to play a game?”

“Yes, please!”

“Okay, you lose. Wasn’t that fun? Would you like to play again?”

As ridiculous as this seems the Internet and anonymous gaming has begun to show that players will happily cheat on a game whose only goals are to win or lose within the game itself. By cheating they are not actually playing the game but are simply attempting to get the system to provide them with a “You win” outcome. Prior to anonymous gaming opportunities this was generally assumed to be caused by a need to show superiority to others but now we have a very good opportunity to witness that the only real desired outcome is not actually winning at the game but being told that you have won. It is clear that “playing a game” is not a universally desired activity. The automatic win/lose is more desired than it sounds likely to be.

The automatic win/lose scenario can be applied to more complex systems that give the appearance of a game on the surface. A perfect example of this is the children’s board game snakes and ladders which originated in Victorian England. (It is commonly known under the brand name Chutes and Ladders in the United States.) This game has many of the makings of a true game to give the appearance as much as possible that the activity is actually a game. But it is not. The player has no affect on the outcome of the game (without resorting to cheating which breaks “the game”, refusing to play, stopping play, etc. which are often given as excuses for why it would still be a game.)

Snakes and Ladders (or Candyland or any other of a myriad of similar activities) serves as nothing more than a fancy covering over the automatic win/lose scenario by giving the impression of forward profess, introducing a built-in random element, having an official “name” and a board on which to play. It even has a set of rules. But in the end the players never make a single decision. The game simply starts, the rules are followed, no decision is ever made and a winner is announced. The game could be reduced to several players simply rolling a die and the highest (or lowest or closest to “3”) numbers wins. Activities such as Snakes and Ladders are simply game-like illusions designed to provide positive feedback to players incapable of winning a game where skill is involved and to teach game-like rule following and constructs to children too young to participate in real games.

The next category of activities crosses into a foggier territory – that of activities that have a clear set of “best practices” that guarantee or nearly guarantee the best possible outcome. The best example of this would be in the game of Blackjack or 21. The rules of the game are simple and the player can directly affect the outcome. However, there is no true allowance for creativity or strategic thinking in Blackjack. There is a well known and well defined basic strategy that provides a clear “beat outcome” over any large number of games. Any player who does not follow this strategy will eventually lose to a player who follows this strategy and the strategy is simple and can be learned by almost anyone in just a few minutes. Once this has been learnt even the most novice player on their first game is equal to the most seasoned player and the game is reduced to an automatic win/lose. On any given hand of Blackjack a random play diverging from the accepted standard best practice might yield a better outcome but this is an anomaly and over the long course of play will not continue to be a winning practice. It is a more complex illusion of being able to positively affect the activity’s outcome.

A slightly more complex example of this same phenomena is the popular board game Monopoly. In Monopoly the player has the ability to make many choices throughout the course of the game but, once again, there is a basic strategy that, once applied, is the best possible chance of winning. Beyond holding to this simple strategy the game, once again, reduces to nothing more than an automatic win/lose scenario. Any divergence from the accepted strategy of Monopoly is, basically, voluntarily losing or lowering the chance of winning. Intentional losing is not a part of accepted gameplay in normal gaming situations – it is the same as not playing. A player intentionally throwing a game of chess is doing so to create the illusion of a game while actually providing an automatic win/lose.

Most activities that people traditionally identify with games, in my opinion, outside of the very traditional games such as chess, draughts, go, etc. generally boil down to a simple situation as simple as a die roll determining win/lose outcomes while providing players with the impression that they have worked hard, thought carefully and managed to outperform their opponents. Most people are not good at games and this randomization with skill-less winning situation provides a sense of accomplishment when no work, skill or thought has been applied.

Perhaps the widespread popularity of automatic win/lose or known best approach games of chance is one of the best examples of modern society working very hard, even subconsciously, to reward mediocrity.  We want everyone to feel that they can win a game even if it is just an illusion.

You may wonder why I am so adamant about what constitutes a game.  The answer is simple.  I never want to spend several hours of my life “playing a game” that is nothing more than a random chance of winning or losing.  Where is the fun in that?  There is no challenge (not there is a “little challenge, literally there is none at all), there is no skill, there is no “trying hard” or careful strategy.  I have no concept of how an activity which involves no input whatsoever from its participants can ever compete with actually doing nothing or, better yet, taking part in an interactive activity such as a game.  Activities such as this are one of the ultimate wastes of time known to man – few activities can utilize so much time while engaging us so little.  It would be better to take a nap because at least then you have rested.  Additionally, activities such as this are designed to, commonly, produce one winner and multiple losers.  Not only does one person seem foolish for feeling that they have accomplished something by being happy to be told that they won but several people have to feel as thought that have failed because they have “lost” even though the activity is nothing more than random chance.  Overall, it is designed to produce bad feelings while accomplishing nothing.

Leave a comment