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.