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/ log / 10th Mar, 2011

Definitions of ‘game’

  1. Thu, 10th Mar 2011
  2. 2 Comments
  3. McGonigal
  4. Definition
  5. Game
  6. Bernard Suits
  7. Game Design Bootcamp
  8. Krems
  9. Terminology
  10. Rusch

Some time ago, during the Game Design Bootcamp in Krems, we talked with Dr. Doris Rusch about the definition of games. She proposed a definition by Salen & Zimmerman (2004) we discussed then:

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

And I remember that I had read the blog entry of the group the year before. And I had to agree to a participant’s reply that this definition also applies to wars.

Well, yesterday I stumbled upon another definition in McGonigal’s Reality is broken (2011). A definition by Bernard Suits:

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”

And I like this simple definition, especially with the given example of playing golf: That to achieve the goal - get the ball into the hole - the easiest and most efficient way would be to take the ball, walk to the hole and drop it into it. So actually the ‘unnecessary’ rules of golf make this game engaging.

But coming back to Suit’s definition: Today I found out that the cite was taken exactly from the book where also the first one is coming from. And this book had drawn McGonigal’s attention to this definition. And the circle closes.

Isn’t it interesting that Suit’s definition from 1978 is coming back to the surface while the other one from 2004 is discarded? What other definitions do exist? I think it’s quite difficult to find an appropriate solution to match any existing game.

A followup from 14 Jun, 2011:

The article The leisure of serious games: A dialogue from Rockwell and Kee (2011) sums up two additional definitions concerning games an play:

The first one by Huizinga, defining ‘play’:

„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 intensly and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules ...“ (p5)

The second one by Roger Callois in Man, Play and Games (1961), explained by Geoffrey Rockwell, concerning the definition of ‘game’. I find this quite interesting because the book of Callois is from 1961.

[...] Callois defines the playing of games through six characteristics:

  • Free — in his words “not obligatory”; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion.
  • Separate — or “circumscribed within limits of space and time”
  • Uncertain — in the sense that outcome is not predetermined
  • Unproductive — as opposed to disconnected from material interest — his point is that nothing is produced in play, though money can change hands
  • Governed by rules — or “under conventions that suspend ordinary lawys, ...” and finally,
  • Make-believe — or “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or a free unreality, as against real life”

30th Jan, 2012

Another definition I found in ‘State of the Field Review: Simulation in Education’ from M. Magee (2006):

“A pure game is a set of rules that define the conditions a player must agree to follow in order to create a desired state (Greenblat, 1975, p14).”


  • Greenblat, C. S. 1975. Basic Concepts and Linkages Basic Concepts and Linkages. In C. S. Greenblat & R. D. Duke (Eds.), Gaming-simulation: Rationale, Design and Applications. A Text with Parallel Readings for Social Scientists, Educators, and Community Workers. Toronto: Wiley & Sons.
  • Magee, M., 2006. State of the Field Review: Simulation in Education, Alberta: Canadian Council on Learning.
  • McGonigal, J., 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Penguin Press HC, The.
  • Rockwell, G.M. & Kee, K., 2011. The Leisure of Serious Games: A Dialogue. Game Studies - The international journal of computer game research, 11(2).
  • Caillois, R., 1961. Man, Play and Games, New York: The Free Press.



Browse adjacent articles


  1. 1 by Heinrich on 11th Mar 2011 at 18:43

    Jesse Shell tries to find a definition for “game” in his book “The Art of Game Design”.  His chapter 3 concludes with:

    1. Fun is pleasure with surprises.
    2. Play is manipulation that satisfies curiosity.
    3. A toy is an object you play with.
    4. A good toy is an object that is fun to play with.
    5. A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.
  2. 2 by Thomas Bröker on 14th Mar 2011 at 11:17

    Reading both proposals (Shell’s and Suits’) I am wondering why both define an activity instead of the object ‘game’. A game by itself is not an activity. Is according to Shell a game then a problem that encourages playful problem-solving. But how does such a problem then look like?
    Actually only Salen & Zimmerman deliver a real definition to describe what a game is. Though it has its flaws.

    By the way: A game that seemingly never fits in any game definition is Flower. Unfortunately I have never played and only read about it as I don’t own a PS3.

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