What is a game?

Back from the Games Developers' Conference in San Francisco, Raph Koster weighs in on the perennial debate about what makes a game, starting with his own classic formulation, "Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model."

Some see this as a “fundamentalist” approach to the definition. But I use it precisely because it is inclusive. It admits of me turning a toy into a game by imposing my own challenge on it (such as a ball being a toy, but trying to catch it after bouncing it against the wall becoming a game with simple rules that I myself define). It admits of sports. It admits of those who turn interpersonal relationships, or the stock market, or anything else, into “a game.”

Basically, I see this whole issue as this Venn diagram. I group sports, boardgames, and yes, videogames under “game” because all of them are susceptible to being broken down and analyzed with game grammar. They all have rules. They all have an “opponent” that presents varied challenges to the player. They all have a feedback loop. They all present verbs to the player. They all present goals. The fact that some use real-world physics as the opponent, some use the human body, some use dice or boards, and some use a computer is not even relevant when you break down the game atoms. I can group these easily because I’ve dug into them so much that I know there is something there in common.

“X” isn’t a game!

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