Defining Play, Game, and Gaming

One of the recruiters in The Los Angeles Film School’s Admissions Department recently asked our Game Production faculty to define three terms: play, game, and gaming.  My assumption was that it was to help when describing our program to potential students, but regardless of the reason, I was happy to comply.  One of the other instructors came up with some very philosophical definitions, but after a couple of paragraphs, came to the conclusion that “game” couldn’t be defined. But what’s the purpose of words for communication if they have no commonly understood meaning? So, I decided to give this one some thought.

I had just spent an entire day in my introductory game production course describing the psychology of play, and I actually provide a number of definitions for each of these terms. One of the definitions of play I use is “the freedom of movement within a more rigid structure.” That’s a definition I found in my textbook, Game Design Workshop, and I use it when just describing the elements of a game, where “freedom of movement” translates to “player actions” and “rigid structure” translates to “rules, goals, conflict, resources, boundaries, etc.” That works for the lecture, but it isn’t a very practical definition. After all, commuting to work is also freedom of moment (driving) within a more rigid structure (streets and highways).

The definition for “play” I ultimately decided upon was “to engage in an activity for pleasure and recreation.” To me, play is not about what you are doing, but why you are doing it. You can play baseball for fun, but if you’re a professional athlete, it’s work. Household chores can be tedious, but if you approach it with a playful attitude, it can be more fun. Besides, the definition was simple and straightforward.

“Game” is a little bit trickier. It needs to cover board games, card games, tile games, party games, pen and paper games, sports, electronic games, and video games (which in turn includes console games, computer games, mobile games, and browser-based games).

I provide a lot of definitions of “games” in my class. Sid Meier describes games as “a series of interesting choices.” Well, so is a multiple-choice test. Jesse Schell has an alternate description: ““A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” My problem with that definition is that the problem-solving in some games, such as Rock-Paper-Scissors or Candyland, is so trivial as to be virtually non-existent. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen defines “game” as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” Yeah, that will attract potential students!

In my game design class, I describe games as having the following elements: players, goals, procedures, rules, conflict, resources, boundaries, and outcomes. However, in very simple games, resources can be non-existent, and the conflict can be trivial. I eventually decided that the essence of games was this: “a playful activity with rules and goals.” Short and sweet.

Gaming! The final definition I had to come up with. Well, strictly speaking, “gaming” means “to play games of chance for money.” Our campus is in Hollywood, not Las Vegas, so I came up with an modified definition, specific to our program” “to play video games.”

I was happy with my working definition of “play”, “game”, and “gaming.” But if you have others, I’d love to see them in the comments below.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on January 11, 2016, in Game Design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Hello! I’m sorry for starting with it being offtopic, but I really wanted to introduce myself: when I was investigating concept of an Idea Guy on the Internet, I encountered your blogpost about it. I was really weirded out by the professionalism and analysis that your article provided, it was on a totally different level than anything else I read before. And then, after reading who You are, I was awstruck: Sir Mullich himself stepped down from HoMM3 and talks about videogames! Sorry, you probably get that a lot, but I’m amazed!

    So, back on topic:

    I was first interested with the problem when TotalBiscuit said what’s his definition of a video game. I can’t find it right now (he mentioned it in a video, and google links to lots of tl;dr stuff), but essentially it constitutes to the fact that if you can lose, then it’s a videogame (and it doesn’t mean if it’s a “game over” screen or something implied by the player).

    I don’t know if I misunderstood it or something, but it sounded awful! First, there are many adventure games which are undoubtably games and can’t really be lost. Second, by that definition an interactive menu on a DVD movie would be a game: you need to start the video (or select a scene you want, or get the appropriate options), and you can fail at that if your fingers slip! And not only that, but seems to sidetrack the thing, naming a specific element that happens in a game rather than touch the “heart” of it; reminds me of those ancient Greeks that tried to defind a human and came up with a “featherless creature with two legs”.

    Then I became invested into thinking about it. I analysed both adventure games and all other types I could figure out, and came to a conclusion that definition of a videogame is as follows:

    “A videogame is a computer program that challenges the player for the purpose of entertainment”.

    As you can tell, it’s similar to the one Jesse Schell presented. In fact, I think that’s what he meant! However, you can probably instantly see flaws in my definition – so I’ll go one by one through the ones I’ve seen:

    – “Computer program” – this is mostly a linguistical one: by now you certainly realised that english isn’t my native tongue, and I’m simply not sure if the term applies to console games. Well, it’s meant to!

    – “for the purpose (of entertainment)” – this excludes programs that are accidentally entertaining. I think leaving it in introduces the idea better, but probably can be omitted. It’s not like games like those are created anyways (not accidentally, that is).

    – “challenges the player for the purpose of entertainment” – the main thing. It seemingly wraps around all games I can think of, and touches the heart, the idea of what all games are. It includes even things that are hard to otherwise apply (like adventure games) and kicks out things you can fail at but are not videogames (for example said on-DVD-movie scenario or an exam that a professor can make in a program form to test her or his students). Still, it’s not without a problem: while “for the purpose of entertainment” sidestep a lot of the issues (and after dropping the “computer program” part it can easily accomodate rock-paper-scissors; I’m not sure what “candyland” is), it notably excludes high culture games (I played only one such game, and I’m not sure there’s many more, but the number will probably increase), which purpose might be something more than just an entertainment.

    Overall analysing the problem gave me something a lot better than just a bad definition: it made me understand that at the skeleton, at the structural basis of most games what lies are it’s gameplay mechanics. They are the things that define the overall experience overall, not storyline, characters, graphical or sound design; those are extremely important components, of course, but what creates the basis and foundation of any spirit are the actions that the player performs 95% of the time, and thus requires the most development focus. It also made me analyse and define the kind of challenges that the player can be facing (by what abilities are required from the player). I know it’s probably obvious to anyone who focused more on the game design, but to me it was a very important experience.

  2. The “game” is the resistance within the boundaries.

  3. If you haven’t read the book “Homo Ludens” by Johan Huizinga, I suggest you give it a shot.

    His definition of play:

    “Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.”

    Good site I found on one of my daily procrastination tours:

  4. Hi David!

    I appreciate your definition “a playful activity with rules and goals.” but do think it does not go deep enough.

    A jigsaw puzzle has rules and a goal, but its not a game (which is why its called a puzzle). A role-playing game also has a rules and goals, but its not a game like chess is.

    I’ve come up with a definition to games that satisfies my mind and I would like to share it.

    “Games are about the Play of Measurement”. The measurement can be physics (3D shooters), grid (board games), tractable (CRPGs), etc.

    I’ve included a link to my theory blog post so would welcome your thoughts.

    Best regards,


    • The criteria I give in my class is that a game must be a form of play that has objectives, rules, feedback, conflict and choices. I too use a Jigsaw Puzzle as an example of a form of play that is not a game, because there is no conflict: you can keep trying until you are done.

      • I agree with you. A Jigsaw puzzle is not a game, but could be made a game by adding a time limit (complete the puzzle in x amount of time). I believe you would say that this is an example of conflict (race vs the clock) while I would see it as a Puzzle made into a Game by the addition of the Play of Measurement (time being the measurable).

        Some of the most popular games (The Sims, Sim City) have almost no conflict but are wonderful to play. Also Conway’s Game of Life is another example of how playful measurement makes it a Game with no conflict.

  1. Pingback: Journals of Doc Surge » Response to Defining Play, Game, and Gaming

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