3. What is a Game?

What does the word game mean? Stop for a moment and try to type a definition out. Then press the Continue button:

Would your definition include solitaire? Poker? Tarot? How about football? And what about playing catch? Does it include Monopoly? Dungeons and Dragons? Would it include acting out a play? Does it include SimCity, Minecraft, Team Fortress 2?

Would your definition allow someone else to categorize all of those as either game or not game and come to the same conclusions as you do?

Vocabulary might not be as fascinating as that game you want to design with robot laser ninjas, but it is important, because it gives us the means to talk about games critically. The word “critical” in this case does not mean that we are being critical (i.e. finding fault with a game), but rather that we are able to analyze games critically (as in, being able to analyze them carefully by considering all of their parts and how they fit together, and looking at both the good and the bad). Otherwise we’ll be stuck gesturing and grunting, and it becomes very hard to learn anything if we can’t communicate.

One of the most common ways to talk about games is to describe them in terms of other games. “It’s like Grand Theft Auto meets The Sims meets World of Warcraft.” But this has two limitations. First, if I haven’t played World of Warcraft, then I won’t know what you mean; it requires us to both have played the same games. That means it does not cover the case of a game that is very different. How would you describe Katamari Damacy in terms of other games?

More importantly, without a vocabulary for talking about aspects of games, we will have a hard time communicating why the latest MMORPG is different than World of Warcraft - in what ways it is a more effective or less effective game. This level seeks to start establishing a common vocabulary - one that includes the terms and ideas that have become accepted in the game development community.


Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)