A Game By Any Other Name… Defining a Game

What’s in a name? that which we call a game, By any other name would play as fun?

Hold up, wait a minute!  How could I blabber on about gamification without even defining what a game is?  You might say, “Silly goose, everyone knows what a game is.”  You might be able to identify a game by virtue of its fun factor, but what qualities make a game, a game?  Let’s take an example and break it down.

Is Tug of War a Game?

Sepia image of Zulu men posing for picture, playing tug of war in 1903

by Okinawa Soba (Flickr); CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Everyone will probably agree that Tug of War is a simple game.  First you need a rope and two teams, right?  Then you place the rope on the ground, unfurled and straight.  In the middle, there is a real or imaginary line drawn.  Equal numbers of players (usually 8 per side) aligned themselves with the ends of the rope on each side of the center line.  When the command is given to pull, each team pulls in the opposite direction to get the other team to cross the center line.  There are variations on these rules and more formal ones can be found the Tug of War Federation rules page.

I’m not keen on using Wikipedia as a scholarly resource, but it does have a nice definition of what a game is: “A game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements.”  Games include the following components:

  1. Goal
  2. Rules
  3. Challenge
  4. Interaction/Choices.

Using our Tug of War example, the goal is to get the other team to cross the center line to prove which team is stronger.  Our rules include using a certain number of equal players on each side, defining the center line etc.  The challenge of game is overcoming the obstacle of the other team’s strength.  Interaction doesn’t necessarily refer to interaction between players even though in this example this occurs.  Interaction or choices refers to a player’s feedback from interacting with other players or acting upon game tools.

Another good but very general definition of a game by Kevin Maroney is “a game is a form of play with goals and structure.”  Simple and easily expressed; however, it folds rules, challenge and choices into “structure.”  Later when we talk about what makes a good game, we’ll want to have these different aspects separate for evaluation.

Watch a Video: Popcorn Time

Check out this TEDtalk by Will Wright, creator of Spore, the Sims and Sim City.  He talks about the birth of his game Spore and how he believes games can change the world.  Can you identify the four (4) game components of Spore we mentioned previously in this post?  I know, it’s a little long but totally worth it! Drop us a comment or two about your definition of game or your thoughts on gaming changing the world.  We’d love to hear from you.  Until next time, keep on gaming!


Posted on October 23, 2013, in Gamification and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I view a game as a tool students can use in the classroom to better engage themselves so they actually learn. Students these days do not want to sit at their desks doing worksheets and limit their interactions with technology and with other students. Now a days students have a plethora of ways they can access technology and what better way to take advantage of that then by assigning homework or classwork on it. On a tablet, students can use so many games that can trigger their sense of learning in a way that is customized for them. I had an assignment in class to evaluate iPad apps and my particular favorite app/game was Math vs Zombies because students these days play call of duty a lot and that game contains zombies. They can relate to call of duty because if the zombies get you, you lose. They have to answer math problems that include addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division before the zombie gets to them. This game has a goal to allow students to recall answers to math problems faster, the rules are they cannot let the zombies get them or they lose, the challenge is that the game gets harder after every level, and the interaction is that they use an iPad and understand how to navigate through one and how to change the settings of the game.
    Hope to hear what you have to say in regards to this soon!

  2. Steven, Thanks for your comment.
    I’m not familar with Math vs. Zombies though it sounds familiar… and fun. Does Math vs. Zombies allow for competition with other students, a leader board or social media sharing?

    • Well unfortunately, this game’s purpose is not for competition with other student or has social media sharing. Its main purpose is to allow students to practice their skills and the higher the score they get is the knowledgable they are in the particular level they are playing. I think the creator of this app wanted to take away that competition so they can actually grasp the concepts they are “playing.” However, I believe that if there was a virtual leader board in the class, that would effect the way the students would try to go about this game. I think they would be playing the game for the games sake instead of acquiring the knowledge to apply it in the game. Do you feel this is the case or would something else arise?

  3. I’m not really big on “gaming” but I really enjoyed this post. I must say I had never really analyzed or dissected the definition of a game. However, I believe the four components you mentioned are essential to any game. Although, I am not big on video games, I do enjoy tradition games. Like in the tug of war examples, it is essential to have goals, rules, challenges and interactions. I will start to pay more attention to defining these elements the next time I play a game.

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