Defining the Undefinable: What Constitutes a “Game?”

What defines a “game” has always been a tricky question for both gamers and non-gamers and there have been numerous titles that have been hotly debated as to their entitlement of the “game” label. This has been seen with “Animal Crossing, “The Sims,” “Journey,” and many, many other titles, and the debate touches further than on a surface layer. Some might argue, “who cares if some people call it a game, it still exists in its own right and why need a title to justify the existence of this program of 1’s and 0’s?” While this is an idealistic idea in theory, it ignores a very real and somewhat unfortunate side effect of sectioning off what is and what isn’t a game. If a title is criticized as not truly being a game, it’s casually dismissed as not being worth the time or effort to advertise or promote the game, which has been seen for near a decade now. While this is more often seen with so-called “casual games” (and there may be other correlations between the success of casual games due to their previously limited market before the advent of mobile gaming, Farmville, and more popularized games) it cannot be denied that “Nintendogs” hadn’t received the same amount of media attention as “Scribblenauts” due to the wholesided dismissal of it as an actual game, rather than a dog-raising simulator.


Hardcore enough to be called a game yet?
Hardcore enough to be called a game yet?

As for the definition of the game itself, this is frankly an absurd concept to wrap one’s mind around. The major three arguments I’ve heard of what defines a game are as follows:

I. Games are interactive systems

II. Games are interactive software programs used for fun

III. Games require a winstate (I’m sure that there are other tenants that can be thought of, but these three are the most common that I’ve heard, and will be the three that I address. If you have your own definition of what constitutes a game, please feel free to include that in the comments!)

I. Games Are Interactive Systems

It is a fair assessment to say that games require some sort of player input to continue a narrative of experience, but this also unintentionally includes several “games” that I believe can be fairly easily ruled out as games, yet they meet this definition. Traffic lights and government branches are interactive systems… Yet, games? And to decide on a true definition, there cannot be exceptions for “this meets the criteria, but it still doesn’t count.” So we’ve tripped at the first hurdle already.

II. Games are Interactive Software Programs Used for Fun

While the previous definition was too broad, this definition is far too narrow. This automatically rules out sports, board games, or card games, and even rules out games that aren’t traditionally fun. Very few play Silent Hill, The Walking Dead, or Amnesia: The Dark Descent to laugh or smile, yet these games are still experiences that many wish to have. And while fun is defined as “enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure,” can feelings terror, fear, or unease be defined as enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure? Further reading on why some people seek a simulated feeling of terror or fear can be seen in an article titled “Complexity, Coherence, and Halloween” on the magazine, which the author makes a point of declaring as “not fun.”

III. Games Require a Winstate

Minecraft and even Skyrim do not technically possess a winstate, yet most are still defined by most as games. While Minecraft may have an informal winstate of slaying the Ender Dragon and Skyrim possesses an informal winstate of slaying dragons in order to finish the story progression, neither game ends after having slain a draconian beast. Many would argue that the true enjoyment of both titles is from the  free-range environment that does not section players off into a linear progression; rather instead it fosters creativity in a large open-world. The lack of winstate does not detract from the game, instead it reinforces a player’s imagination and enjoyment with the experience created.


What a “game” is still evades me, though I feel as if attempting to limit what  constitutes a game and what doesn’t potentially limits the freedom and success that a title may have. An outright dismissal of something as a game seems archaic and outdated, as even Guitar Hero once was under scrutiny over whether or not it was truly a game before the subcategory of “Rhythm Game” was established. Ultimately, I’d like to see a definition be formed that could universally apply to all games, though the probability of finding an adequate definition is easier said than done.


  6 comments for “Defining the Undefinable: What Constitutes a “Game?”

  1. mkessler
    April 4, 2013 at 10:33 am

    I have nothing to add or take away from your post liamh. I just want to say that the question you’re addressing is the same one I’ve been trying to reconcile for my thesis. I’d like to talk to you about it hahaha

    • William Hurley
      April 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Glad that you found it interesting! If you’d like to share a few words about it, feel free to send me an email ( (I’m not much of a twitter person, to be honest))

  2. Evan
    April 15, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    I’d have to agree that this is certainly a difficult topic to cover, similar to an argument of “is this art?”, and developing a concise and universal definition would be near impossible.

    However, I might have to disagree with the point made in the article “Complexity, Coherence, and Halloween” that you cited, in which the author states that those games are not “fun”. Without getting too technical, he didn’t seem to mention in the article the neurological and biochemical affects of fear on the nervous system, such as the release of dopamine (generally associated with the “reward system” part of the brain) and epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline junkies), which can be induced by the fight-or-flight response when people go skydiving and ride roller coasters, and even to a lesser extent, play scary videogames. So I would still argue that those games are fun, but not in the same way that Halo or Pokemon are fun.

  3. aallen13
    April 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    I remember when we discussed this question in the beginning of the semester and I still some trouble defining what a game is. I agree with Evan, I would have to say that for some people those games listed are fun while to others they aren’t.Just because a game is fun or isn’t shouldn’t have to define whether it’s a game or not. Which goes back to the question what is “fun”?

    I think in today’s society, anything really can be considered a game. If it’s appearance on the outside(case) and the inside (on the screen) then people will call it a game. Even if your goal isn’t to go around killing things, or saving a damsel in distress.

    I think it will take people a long time to come to an agreement as to what constitutes a game and what doesn’t.

  4. April 28, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    You’re going in a lot of directions here. On the one hand, in your opening paragraph, you imply that a thing’s being defined as not a game has something do with it’s being sold or not:

    If a title is criticized as not truly being a game, it’s casually dismissed as not being worth the time or effort to advertise or promote the game, which has been seen for near a decade now.

    You’re so deeply embedded in a passive voice, though, it’s impossible to tell from your sentence just who is criticizing what, who is casually dismissing whom, and who is seeing the whatever-has-been-seen for a decade now.

    Why does something have to meet a formalist definition of what a game is in order to sell well? I mean, I’m pretty sure Google’s doing OK, financially speaking, and it’s not a game.

    And of the examples you did mention, are there really people who say that The Sims’ not being formally similar to other games prevents it’s being advertised? Once again, I’m pretty sure it’s doing OK — at least, whatever challenges the latest one is facing have little to do with definitions.

    I guess my question is, what difference does it really make?

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