What is a game?

We had a little bit of a Sunday sleep-in, but not much. My wife and I took Scully for a long walk around the neighbourhood on our favourite route, and she got lots of running and ball chasing in. Later this afternoon we invited Luna, the poodle who lives next door, over for a play date, and she and Scully went bananas for half an hour. This is good, because it means they get tired and sleep well.

Besides doing some comic annotations I spent some time chatting with friends about matters arising from virtual games night on Friday. We played a custom implementation of Scattergories, and one of the categories was “Games played outdoors”, with the starting letter of “S”. Someone answered “Sports”, which caused much discussion over whether it was a valid answer or not.

The player argued that sports are indeed games played outdoors, and thus his answer should be valid. Others of us argued that the category was meant to encompass things like soccer and tennis, not an all-encompassing class of things like “sports”. This led today to a discussion of how to clarify rules of the game so as to define more clearly what sort of answers are acceptable.

In another example, someone had answered “Seven Dwarves” for “Movie characters”. Most of us thought this was perfectly fine, but the guy whose “Sports” was disqualified on a vote argued that this was the same sort of answer and should also be disqualified. This led to us today trying to reason out what about “Seven Dwarves” made it seem like a correct answer while “Sports” seemed like a wrong answer. An analogy was made: If the category was “Birds”, would “avians” be acceptable? Some of us thought yes, some thought no.

We eventually came down to a clarification that the answer should be “An example of the category”. Our feeling was that “(The) Seven Dwarves” is an example of “Movie characters” because the seven dwarves are a specific well-known, named set of characters (“six dwarves” would not be acceptable). “Avians” was not “an example of birds”, but rather a synonym of the entire category of birds. And “Sports” was not “an example of games played outdoors” – it was more like “avians” although not exactly synonymous with the category. (Also, some sports are played indoors, so the answer actually also includes some things not in the category.)

We were more or less happy with this. But then there was a flow-on discussion of what is a valid game anyway, as someone contended that soccer was in fact not a game – in his view sports and games were mutually exclusive; something could be one or the other, but not both. This discussion continued for several hours over the course of the day, and turned to asking questions such as whether a crossword puzzle is a game, or whether a Choose Your Own Adventure book is a game. Mark Rosewater’s definition of a game (which I think is pretty good, but not perfect) was cited and argued over.

This was all good natured, and not an angry argument in any way. It petered out eventually, and I think the basic conclusion was that “game” means different things to different people, and we’d never come up with a definition that everyone agreed with. And if it came up with Scattergories again, we’d just have to argue about it and make a case-by-case call.

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4 thoughts on “What is a game?”

  1. I disagree with that definition. If you look at nature, you see puppies and young animals play games to train for the real world when they are alone and away from their parents.
    Playing Pretend is also a very good game for humans, in all its forms.
    Thus a child playing Soccer is still playing a game, while an adult doing the same as work – is working and not playing.
    The goal part is also a bit negotiable – I suppose you can say getting practice in something makes it the goal, but you don’t have to reach a point while running around and wresting your friends – for example.
    I suppose I would define it as something that doesn’t have serious consequences – if you lose in a game you may lose some tokens or a few coins, but not your life or your house (Poker as an example – if you play for small stuff, a game, if you play for big stuff – work).
    It would be a matter of a degree – how much is a certain activity a game and how much work – as opposed to Is this activity a game or work.
    I would disqualify “sports” as an answer, but I think I would also disqualify “seven dwarves”, unless groups were specifically stated as acceptable. Maybe you should define that in advance for each question – whether you need a single or multiple as the answer.

    1. I would say that the concept you’re trying to define with those examples is “play” rather than “a game”. They’re related, but not the same, at least to me.

      Oh, and yes, we’ve already established that groups are acceptable answers in our Scattergories games. As another example, although we would not accept “avians” as an answer for the category “Birds”, we would accept “owl/owls”, even though there is no single bird known by the name of “owl”, but rather a group of different species that are collectively known as owls.

  2. Back when I was a gamer, the big frientdy argument was over whether D&D was a game or not.

    These days, one thing I’m paid to do is create training games.

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