An interactive experience constrained by mechanics designed to reliably satisfy a common teleological aspiration.
Merriam-Webster says a game is “an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” which is hopelessly broad. Try pitching “Punching My Younger Brother: The Game” the next time you meet with a publisher.
Raph Koster claims that “fun is just another word for learning” and that therefore “all games are edutainment.” This is insightful because it attempts to define games by describing the needs they meet, but is obviously too narrow. Someone that is leveling their fifth World of Warcraft alt is not learning anything, but I dare you to try to tell them they aren’t having fun. And shouldn’t the tutorial be the most enjoyable part of a game? This definition commits a logical error called the fallacy of the undistributed middle. Even if learning is fun, that doesn’t mean that everything fun must be learning.
In Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define games as “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.” Now, it would be unfair to quibble with specific word choices or come up with obscure examples of games that don’t fit this definition. No definition is perfect. The real difficulty of this definition, as well as many other similar efforts, is that in dissecting games into pieces they have lost the whole. It is as if, when asked to define the word weapon, you started listing types of wounds and metallurgy techniques and sources of propulsion and got bogged down trying to figure out if a baseball bat was a weapon or not. The best way to define weapons is to describe their purpose, committing or threatening violence against someone, and the same is true for games.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that there is no adequate definition for the word game and we don’t even need one! But he was not known for being a particularly fun guy, so maybe we can do better.
We’ll start with our previous definition of fun: “the positive emotion associated with fulfilling a teleological aspiration.” The first definition of game that suggests itself is “something that is fun,” or more specifically, “an experience that fulfills a teleological aspiration.” However, there are so many ways to satisfy our needs; what makes games special? Unlike many enjoyable activities, the only purpose of a game is to have fun, and since they have a singular focus, they are able to satisfy these aspirations very reliably.
Additionally, teleological needs like learning or achieving or performing cannot be satisfied passively or by proxy. They require participation, so they must be interactive and respond to the player’s actions. This interactivity is not random; it reliably leads to fun experiences because it is limited to specific set of possibilities and actions. Some games are indeed guided by explicit rules, but many games are constrained by their simulation, or by the objectives given to the player, or even by the story setting in which the game takes place. In many games the experience is actually constrained by the unpredictable actions of other players. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what form these game mechanics take, as long as they constrain the experience in such a way as to more reliably fulfill the player’s needs.
Finally, our definition should acknowledge the fact that in order to ensure that a game’s mechanics lead to an experience that satisfies the player’s needs, they must be carefully designed to do so by a game designer. Games do not appear naturally in nature.
So, now we not only have a useful definition for the term game, we have also determined the role of the game designer and have a reasonable criteria for evaluating design skill. A game designer is someone that creates and tunes game mechanics to constrain an interactive experience such that it reliably fulfills common teleological aspirations, and the more reliably these needs are met, the more skillful the game designer.