Definitions: Game

Learning == Gaming

I appreciate Keith Burgun’s work on defining the word “game” (See this post for a good outline. To summarize, KB defines games in terms of the layered context “Toy, Puzzle, Contest, Game” where each successive element is a sub-set of the last) but I have arrived at a slightly different objective space and corresponding terminology. I’ve addressed this topic informally already, (and the topic of the definition of game even more informally) but it bears a more thorough look.

In short: Games are active models designed to allow the user to cheaply learn important information about costly systems.

Or, put another way:

Games are simulations of serious things too expensive to play with.

No, I don’t mean “educational games” per-say (though there is much good work being done on that front). I mean that EVERY GAME (and in fact, all of life) is about learning dangerous things cheaply.

First, some examples.

Let’s start with the easy one. Patty-cake is about learning how to mimic others and exercise gross motor skills and rhythm. Most adults don’t play it, because they have already mastered the skills and information it teaches. But it’s still a game. It’s quick, and easy to perform on standard human hardware, and no one gets hurt. The skills are also highly important. Mimicry, gross movement, and timing are all critical physical and communication skills. Your survival as a living creature hinges on these abilities every day. Thus “patty cake” is certainly a game. It’s low cost, yet teaches important abilities which would be expensive to learn through direct application.

Modern military FPS games are about learning? Yes. They teach you (ostensibly, anyway) what it is like to be a front-line soldier in war. What it looks like, what it sounds like, what you can expect to be doing all day (on the exciting days anyway) and what your life expectancy is (again, only on the exciting days (SPOILERS: life expectancy for soldiers is not good)). Plus they are extremely non-lethal, and very cheap compared to the skills they teach. FPS are certainly games.

Sports are games? Totally! They teach both the players and the audience. They also emulate warfare, but without anyone getting killed (most of the time). Cheap learning of tough lessons? Check!

Okay, so this definition seems to work okay for the positive examples (things that we normally think of as games do, in fact, fit the definition). What about things that probably aren’t games? Specifically, Toys, Puzzles, and Contests (The things that Keith Bergun identifies as commonly confused with games)?


…are models, but they are not active. They can be easily turned into a game (of discovering how the toy works) or used in a game (by using a toy similarly to the thing it emulates) but in themselves, toys to not teach. They do meet all the other criteria however. Thus, I would say that toys and games are often confused because they are nearly identical. The only distinction I can see is that games are active, and toys are passive. Restated:
Toys are passive models…
Nearly the same as games, but not quite. Overall, I’m most comfortable with conflating “game” and “toy” as there is a lot of overlap. How passive is too passive? How active is active enough?


…are even less of a game than toys, by this definition. Not only are puzzles passive, but they also only teach one lesson (the solution to this particular puzzle) and thus have a hard cap on their utility as games. So, as a learning experience, puzzles are fairly poor. You can certainly make a game out of them, but once you’ve learned the lesson in question, the game is over. Restated:
Puzzles are passive models… learn a solution to a costly system.
Close to games, but not quite there.


…are certainly games by the given definition, but this introduces an interesting distinction. A contest doesn’t teach you about the game system, but instead about the players! Specifically, the purpose of a contest is to learn about the relative abilities or qualities of the players, as they pertain to the specific challenge in question. Restated:
Contests… learn information about people or groups.
If people aren’t costly systems (and groups of them even more so), then I don’t know what is. Thus, Contests are a sub-set of games, not the other way around.

A Few Further Points

Using this definition, one can quickly see why many definitions of game include “has a winner” as a condition. Combat (and its widespread variant, warfare) is one of the most popular topics for game treatment, as it is both important in real life, and much too costly to toy with. Since combat has a clear winner, people often infer that all games have a winner, which is by no means required (since not all expensive scenarios are combat… space flight for example).

This definition also has the advantage of being quite broad, while also including metrics for degrees of merit. One can call nearly anything a “game” under this definition, but only a few are really good games, in that they have a very low cost for learning very valuable lessons about highly costly scenarios. This definition guides evaluation of the merits of nearly an object or activity on the grounds of being a game, while excluding very little.

So, it seems like this definition holds water at least. I’ve run it through all the mental gymnastics I can think of, and now it’s time to let the internet take a crack at it.

Games are active models designed to allow the user to cheaply learn important information about costly systems.

Or perhaps Games are simulations of serious things too expensive to play with.

Or are they? Let me know your thoughts.

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