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Game Studies Course #13: What Is A Game?

Game Studies Course #13: What Is A Game?

Game Studies Course #13: What Is A Game?

Because I was attending ICCM Europe last week, I missed the first official class night. My co-professor, Dr. Jon Denning, introduced the course the first night along with guest speaker, Derek Thompson, who presented an introduction to Game Theory. I was so excited for the discussion with the students that I did not even notice my jet lag until the evening course was over, when it hit me like a speeding truck. Totally worth it, though, to be back with the students and discussing a passion of mine.

For my first class night, we dove right into a lively discussion of What is a Game? Have you ever contemplated the definition of a game? As a game player or a game professional, do you ever ponder what it is about games that interests us? Why do we even need a definition of a game?

  • philosophical discussion?
  • something to ponder?
  • a design tool?
  • creative argument?
  • a field of study?
  • a framework?
  • a starting point?

I wish you could have been there for the class discussion. The students had some great insights and debates regarding play, toys, puzzles and games. To give you a foundation of what we discussed, here are some of the core definitions we began our discussion with.

“Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.” – Historian Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938)

“the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles” – Philosopher Bernard Suits, Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978)

“A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” – Game designer Greg Costikyan, I Have No Words & I Must Design (1994)

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” – Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003)

“A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” – Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design (2015)

Taxonomy of Creative Expression

Taxonomy of Creative Expression

From there, we discussed one of my favorite visual tools for discussing games, the Taxonomy of Creative Expression from Chris Crawford On Game Design. To start, we watched an overview by Vsauce discussing a portion of the taxonomy. This taxonomy brings up strong opinions and thoughts on what is a toy vs puzzle vs game and leads to some lively discussions.

After this, we discussed the possible limitations of having a definition of a game, and I referenced a wonderful video by Extra Credits on how defining a game limits our medium. We discussed a length how having a hard definition of a game might hindered creativity. How do you define a solo game with no interaction? What about a visual experience like Myst (game or puzzle or both)?

We concluded the class discussion with a summary.

For those of us involved in games, it is important to understand what it is we are studying, designing, and analyzing. Do not let a game definition be a barrier but instead use the definition as a launching point.

We then continued the class night with a Brief History of Gaming and an overview of Games as Systems. I share in detail the What is a Game discussion because I felt it was something other freelancers, designers and publishers might want to discuss as well.

What are your thoughts on What is a Game? What do you think is the best definition? Do we even need a definition?


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