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Part 3: READ THIS: Defining The Word Game

by Darren Tomlyn on 03/23/11 01:41:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.




(If you’ve not read the previous entries in my blog, then I suggest you do so – (click the contents above) – since this is based upon their conclusions).


Part 1: More Problems

So, let’s dive straight in and see if we can figure out the rest of the problems affecting the word game, or its equivalents in other languages, before we take a good look at the word itself in isolation.

There are two main problems affecting perceptions and understanding of what the word game (or equivalents) truly represent – both of which are symptoms of the same problem, but affect the word in different ways.  The underlying problem itself, as I’ve already mentioned before, is a very basic, simple problem due to not using, or recognising such use of, language itself, correctly.  Since this problem is caused by not fully obeying the rules of language itself, it should be completely unsurprising why the word game isn’t fully recognised or understood.

The basic problem is simple:

Mistaking definitions of words – what the words represent in themselves - for their applications - how what such words represent is used or applied, (usually indicated by other words used in combination).

Most languages separate the two for an extremely good reason – what such words represent can usually exist independently of such an application, so defining them as such does not make any sense at all.

We’ve already seen one example of this problem with the word story.  Other imaginary equivalent examples would be defining words such as door as being open, or table as being metal etc..  We use the word open in combination with the word door in order to give it such an application (state), because what either word represents can exist separately – a door does not have to be open in order to exist, and the word open can be applied to many other things, not just doors.  The words metal and table are similar – tables do not have to be metal nor metal have to be a table in order to exist.

Again, recognising the difference between definitions and applications is such a fundamental part of how many of our languages function, that the inability to do so, will always cause problems, such as those found with the word game.

As I said, there are two main ways in which this problem is affecting the word game – one directly, the other indirectly.  The indirect problem is being caused by the application of another word affecting the perception of games in a manner that is not consistent with how the word game is used.  Such a problem has bearing on a few other related words too, so it’s best we look at the problem as a whole.


Part 2: Work and Play, Tools and Toys

Games are neither toys nor tools, involving neither work nor play (as nouns), and though they can and will be recognised as either, such recognition is purely subjective - a subjective application of toy/tools/work/play upon something in addition, and separately, to that represented by the word game itself - so therefore they have no place in its definition.


In order to understand this, we must first understand what the words work and play, (as nouns), toy and tools represent, and then compare that with how the word game is used.

There is one fundamental mistake people make when it comes to fully recognising and understanding the word play, especially.  They mistake what the word represents - in this case, of course, an application of behaviour - with why such behaviour takes place.  (I even made this mistake initially, though I quickly realised what I’d done).

What the words work and play, as nouns, represent, is:

Work n. something done that is productive

Play n. something done that is non-productive, (therefore usually done for enjoyment instead).

Obviously work and play represent a very firm dichotomy – something done can only ever be one or the other, never both of any degree.

The mistake many people make, is of course that they think that play is defined as being an enjoyable activity – but if that was the case, then work could never be enjoyable – which is not consistent with how the language is used.  (If you enjoy your work, then good for you!).  Again, enjoyment is not what the word play represents, based on how the word is used, it is instead merely why such behaviour exists.

Of course, with what we’ve figured out before, we can describe these words in another manner:

Work n. productive story-writing

Play n. non-productive story-writing, (usually written for enjoyment instead).

In this case, such descriptions probably don’t really help, at least in isolation, but then, that’s only half of the problem.

The reason why such words are causing problems for games is because games are seen, and perceived, as being non-productive – i.e. as being play (noun).

There are two main reasons for this.  The first is because many games people play are non-productive, and therefore people think that such an application is fully consistent with what such games are, even though it’s a purely subjective application of play itself.

The problem with this, is very simple and obvious – games can be, and often are, played for work – i.e. for productive reasons.

And this brings us back to another problem – misunderstanding and recognising whose behaviour the word game represents an application of.

The only person or people’s behaviour that matters for the definition (and most applications) of the word game, are the person or people playing (verb) the game, and taking part in the activity itself!

The behaviour of the game itself, (if any), and therefore its creators, it's setting, any audience or beholders of such an activity, do not matter for the definition of the word game whatsoever!  A person might watch a game, but has no place in defining it as a game at all – merely applying such a definition based upon the behaviour of those taking part, depending on their own subjective perception of the activity itself.

A lot of professional sportsmen (and women), therefore play (verb) games for work (noun), though not all sports involve games.  The police and military are also involved in playing games for work too, and so it should be obvious that games exist independently of work or play (as nouns), both within and without the language.

For this reason, the nature of the (any) objects used in such activities are also dependent on such a subjective application of work or play:

Tool n. an object used for work (writing productive stories)

Toy n. an object used for play (writing non-productive stories).

Of course one of the other big problems is that the difference between being work or play, or a toy or tool, is merely a matter of subjective perception.  Indeed with objects that can be used for multiple activities at the same time, (such as a computer), it is possible to be ‘both.’  But that’s fine – a subjective application, of (hopefully) an objective definition, which is how language is supposed to work.

Since games can be either productive or non-productive, it depends entirely on an individuals perception as to whether or not any objects used in doing so, happen to be toys or tools.

The second problem is due to the use of the word play as a verb to describe the behaviour of taking part in such an activity being confused for the word play as a noun.  For this type of word, however, (including music/concert etc.), the link between the two does not exist – all these activities – these applications of behaviour - can exist and be taken part in (played – verb, when applicable) for both work or play (noun), and be productive or non-productive.  (Being a musician myself (violinist), I have often played music for such a reason (usually for money)).

So, it should be obvious now, why the first paragraph in this part was true:

Games are neither toys nor tools, involving neither work nor play (as nouns), and though they can and will be recognised as either, such recognition is purely subjective - a subjective application of toy/tools/work/play upon something in addition, and separately, to that represented by the word game itself - so therefore they have no place in its definition.

So why do certain dictionaries (like my mini-OED) define the word game by using such words as enjoyment, (or similar), or play as nouns?

Game n. 1 an activity done for amusement or sport. 2 a period of play, ending in a final result.

As we can see – neither of these definitions for the word game are consistent with how the word itself is used, and are therefore incorrect.

But the problem involving work and play is merely one such problem affecting the word game – there is another based on how the word game is used directly:


Part 3: Game - Separating Its Definition From Its Application(s)

This is, by far and away, the biggest and most influential problem affecting the word game at this time.  It is also fairly recent – (say the last millennia or less).

This problem exists for one, simple reason: due to how the language is used, and how they have been labelled, games have become recognised, understood, and generally known and considered by one specific type of application – the medium they use.

But such media are always presented and described by using other words in combination with the word game itself – just like metal table for example, and so exist completely independently of each other within the language itself!

Such media, therefore, usually describing and representing any objects used within such an activity – such as ball/computer/dice/card/board etc. – have no place whatsoever in describing or defining the word game itself for what it represents – any more than the word metal can affect, describe or define the word table.

Because games have become known by such an application, however, the knowledge and recognition of what it is that is being applied – the game itself - and therefore what the word game must represent in isolation – the link between its use and application – has been lost. (EDIT: I'm going to come back to this point later - (in conjunction with another use of the word in relation to a couple of example activities I'll be examining) - since the etymology of the word game itself and its relation to its current use and meaning is relevant to this particular matter). This problem is not limited to just the English language either, but is affecting people worldwide.

In addition to the problems in recognising how the word game is related to the rest of the English language, this means that the word game, in itself, has become completely isolated within the language – therefore becoming so subjective was inevitable.

As I said, however, it is also a comparatively recent problem, (and I have no doubt that it would make quite an interesting study in etymology).  A couple of millennia ago, this problem did not exist – at least in the manner it does now, or even for the past few centuries.

So, we now have a problem to solve.  We need to know what it is the word game represents in itself, in isolation, independently of such applications, in a manner that is consistent with how it is used.  We can find out, of course, by studying how it is used, looking at what it is used to represent – taking a game as an example - and then separating out any and all applications, to see what game it is that is being applied – what basic application of behaviour such a game exists to enable and promote.

If, in doing so, we can also learn more about such applications too, then so much the better.

Again, it must be stressed that the word game represents an extremely basic and simple application, of some extremely basic and simple behaviour.  Because of that, it should not be surprising that, due to our lack of knowledge and understanding of what the word game represents, there are many such applications of behaviour that exist, yet are not considered to be, or called, games at all.  Of course, the opposite is why we’re here – activities being called, or being used to describe, games, that are not.

To demonstrate this problem also, the game I am using as an example has been very carefully and deliberately chosen.

The question I have asked on various blogs on gamasutra is therefore related to this matter, and to which I will now provide the answer.  However, considering how basic, simple, and fundamental this question is for the understanding and knowledge of games in general, anyone who failed to answer it should go straight to the back of the class, (and may proceed kicking themselves afterwards):

What game is Sakes and Ladders an Application Of?

Or, to put it another way, given what we now know:

What application of behaviour does the game called Snakes and Ladders exist to enable and promote?

So, the first question that must be asked is:

Does everyone agree that Snakes and Ladders is, in fact, a game?  Yes? Good.  (Had to be asked).

So, how do we examine Snakes and Ladders to figure out the game it’s an application of?  As I said, we do so by subtracting the basic, simple applications it uses and represents, to find out what we’re left with:

So, Snakes and Ladders is:


1) A board game.

This is the type of media the game of Snakes and Ladders uses.  A board, in itself, however, is not a game, and therefore it has no place in defining it as such.  Any and all of the basic games can exist either with, or even without such media, and therefore labelling games in such a manner doesn’t really help us understand what game they are – just like labelling items of furniture as ‘wood furniture’ or ‘glass furniture’ tells us nothing about the item of furniture, and therefore what the word furniture itself represents.


2) Multi-player, involving direct competition, and optional interaction.

All of these elements represent different ways and means of applying the basic application of behaviour the word game represents, to the relationship between players and competitors, and therefore have no place whatsoever in defining the word game itself – (Chris Crawford – I’m talking to you).  All single-player games, by their very nature, involve indirect competition between the player and the people who made and designed the game, via the game itself.  (I’ll be looking at competition next, since many people have problems with it).  Again, many games, such as darts/golf etc. involve no interaction between players at all – therefore such an application is completely optional and therefore is subjective.  Again, we wouldn't define items of furniture solely as 'single' or 'double' furniture.


3) Turn-based.

Whether or not a game is played in real-time, or is turn/phase-based, again, has nothing to do with its definition, and is merely part of its application, with much impact on time, and the speed of motion/thought required to play.


4) Chance-based (involving dice*)

(*We’ll come back to this later).  Whether or not a game is chance or (player) skill-based greatly affects how a game is played, but is still an application.  One of the biggest problems with many computer games currently – (especially cRPG’s) – is the lack of consistency in how such an element is applied.  Chance can be used to enable player skill – (such as in the game of poker) - but it cannot really work the other way without the player’s skill losing its effect and meaning.  cRPG’s, unfortunately, tend to be very schizophrenic when it comes to understanding such a relationship, almost always implementing such a thing at the expense of the player.  It must be understood about chance, that it is, at most, (such as in Snakes and Ladders), merely an element the player has some influence over, and never full control.  For this reason, such influence, and the amount of chance must be carefully balanced between players, to ensure that it is the influence, and then the results of such chance that determines the behaviour.  If no such influence exists – if the chance is not part of the player’s behaviour, then it has no place in defining the type of, or even as a game itself.  Even games of skill that may involve elements of chance, (such as the weather), can involve certain methods and mechanics to try and mitigate the influence it has – (such as changing ends in football/tennis etc.), to ensure that it is, at best, the player’s skill that determines the outcome.  (We’ll come back to all this when I start looking at cRPG’s specifically).

So, that is it – these are all of the applications that are necessary to define the game of Snakes and Ladders in relation to the game it’s an application of.  Now, of course, the snakes and ladders themselves, which the board itself contains, and are therefore part of such an application, are what the game itself is labelled by, and affects the behaviour of the players during of the game.  They do not, however, define it as a game – still being part of the specific application which merely defines it as Snakes and Ladders itself.


Part 4: The Basic Games

So, with all of its relevant applications recognised and accounted for, what game, what application of behaviour do all of these elements exist to enable and promote?

What game is Snakes and Ladders an application of?

The answer is, of course:

A race.

(Anyone who failed to get that may now proceed kicking themselves/banging their head on the table/wall* (*delete as applicable)).

What does this mean?

It means that a race is one of the basic applications of behaviour the word game itself represents – one of the basic games, from which every other game in existence is derived, which we can study and derive its ultimate meaning from.  It is not, however, the only basic game we have that the word is used as representing.

Of course, it should be obvious to all, that since a race is the only element that Snakes and Ladders has that defines it as a game, that this means that every other equivalent application of behaviour in existence is also a game.  Is every such race, at this time, considered to be a game?  The answer is, of course, no.  But they are – and must be - or Snakes and Ladders is not a game!


Game 1: Race

So, what application of behaviour is it that the word race represents in itself, by such a use?

The word race is used to represent the behaviour of reaching, or trying to reach, a set position or state before someone or something else, with the method of how/when/where to do so, usually being explained and enforced.

A race therefore involves two main applications – competition, and rules (structure).  The basic behaviour it represents is that of a person reaching, or trying to reach such a position or state (usually) by and for themselves.


Is such an application of behaviour consistent with other such basic games that are applied?

The two – (well I’m describing them as two, though they can be split into more if wanted)) – other basic games, given the nature of the first, should not be very surprising:


Game 2: Structured Combat

We have a problem in describing this game, in that it represents an application of the behaviour we describe as fighting.  Combat is obviously a word used to represent an application of such behaviour.  Unfortunately, the application it describes, is not necessarily consistent with the use of the word game itself – and unlike the word race, there isn’t really any single word that is truly appropriate to use, so we have to use another word in combination to represent such an application - the best word being stuctured.

This game involves a player interacting with another, again, based on a set of rules, in order to gain a specific advantage or stop the other from continuing, (often) by and for themselves, though this time involving doing something to someone else.

Again, though, the basic applications of the basic behaviour are still consistent with a race – structure (rules), competition, and a person doing something for themselves.

An example of a basic application of such a game would of course be chess, and I have no doubt you can all think of many, many others.

(Note: Boxing is not a game, but we’ll come back to why in the next part/post).


Game 3: Competitive Throwing or Movement for Accuracy/Precision, Distance or Time - (including duration).*

Yes, this, obviously, isn’t really a single game in itself, but it’s still the easiest way to describe them, so there we are.

This ‘game’, again, represents applications of behaviour that are also similar to that we have seen so far:

People competing in a structured environment, (rules), by doing something for and (usually) by themselves.

Basic examples of such games, would obviously include shooting/archery, the long-jump, pole-vault, golf, weightlifting etc..


However, all of these basic games, can be, and often are, combined, and therefore applied in different ways to create new and different games, sometimes very abstractly.  As we have seen with Snakes and Ladders, it uses dice*, as an abstract representation of throwing for distance, to enable and promote another game itself – a race.  Since it is merely part of the application, however, it has no part in defining it as a game itself – merely a type based on such applications and media - (even though it's the only element that directly represents the player's behaviour).

So, given that these are the basic games, from which all others are derived, either directly or with various degrees of abstraction, we can therefore use them to derive a basic definition of the word game itself from.

Before then, however, I’m hoping that it is now fairly obvious to all, just how basic, simple, and fundamental, and therefore old, what it is the word game itself represents actually is.  Just how long do you think humanity has been competing against itself in such a manner?  Again, as I said, probably as long as it has existed, or close to it…

Considering that only a few millennia ago, (or even more recently), such basic activities were fully recognised as being games – within the original Olympics, or the Highland games, for example – it makes you wonder just how something so basic and simple could be so badly affected so quickly by people’s own subjective opinions – even as humanity itself, in general, has always known what games truly are, though I have certainly done my best to figure it all out!  Of course, the modern Olympic games are no longer just games – it now also involves competitions as-well, which is what I’ll be looking at next, and for an even better reason, that is also the result of the confusion surrounding the word game:

Games, at this time, are not even fully recognised as being competitive.

If the explanations above are not enough to explain how and why games truly are such a thing, then you’ll have to wait until the next post about competition itself.


Part 5: Defining The Word Game

Now, however, it is time to describe, and therefore define, the word game, in and for itself.  Based on the descriptions above, this is easy:

Game n. an activity in which people compete in a structured environment by doing something for themselves.

But, of course, describing such a thing in isolation is not enough, especially when we are still using the word thing directly.

So, with what we know now, we can therefore describe it differently, and, as I said, in some ways, even more precisely:

Game n. an activity in which people compete in a structured environment by writing their own stories.

Or, to put it as succinctly as possible:

Structured, competitive story-writing.

So, why is this more precise?

Because it describes the basic behaviour itself in a more precise manner – by using the word writing, we therefore know that such a thing must be created while the game is played, and therefore how and why it is, and can be, related to the other applications of story, but also different, and maybe incompatible – after-all, a person or entity cannot both write and be told the same story, simultaneously – in fact, any story that is told that replaces the story that is written, therefore replaces the game itself!

As an application of behaviour, it helps to use a suitable verb to describe the behaviour itself, rather than another word representing another application of behaviour, (such as expression in the former definition of art). 

It is also more precise, because it describes the word game as representing a process, which, based on how it is used, is also true – games can therefore be, and are, open-ended – they do not have to end in order to exist.  The word game, therefore represents a journey, rather than a destination.  To fully understand how and why that can be the case, again, the next part, about competition, is also necessary.

Games are therefore defined by the stories that are, or can be written.  Stories that are told, (e.g. plot/narrative), therefore have no place whatsoever in such a definition, since games exist independently of such things.  cRPG's can be no exception!


The story of a game must never exist until it is played - if it does, then it ceases to be, or isn't a game in the first place.  Cheating is of course part of that - breaking the rules to tell a story to the other competitors, instead of letting them compete by writing their own.  When people cheat, it ceases to be a game.


Part 6: Basic Elements of Games

In order to exist, games therefore require:

A set of rules, which all competitors agree to, which may add an element of competition if it doesn’t otherwise exist.  Games require a set of rules that ALL of it's players/competitors must agree to, and obey. The rules do NOT have to be the same for all players - (it can depend on the games application etc. - (i.e. handicaps in golf)) - but they need to be agreed to as such.

A setting – time and space - within which to happen.  (The word story, (because of the word events), automatically implies the presence of such a thing).

Someone, or something for someone, to write a story with.


The set of rules is the only element which is required to be created – for this reason, games are naturally of human creation – (though we don’t know much about the thoughts or perceptions of other animals) - (and are therefore individual works of art - see later post on art).  The use of the word game to represent things we do not create, or have not created, is therefore usually an act of anthropomorphism.

The setting can be created, but is not always necessary - (many games merely use the environment as it already exists) - instead either being  merely used to play a game within, or applied upon by whatever rules the game has - (e.g. a couple of trees for a goal in football). For many types of game it is often required to be fully created, however - (such as board/computer games etc.).  A setting can be made to act on its own behalf to add an/the element of (maybe direct, though usually indirect) competition if required, but must be careful not to restrict the player’s behaviour too much – lest it no longer be a game, since a setting, by its very nature, is also a story that is told.

Obviously a person is all that is required to write a story with, though many games use various objects or other ways of representing them.

One of the most important lessons left for all concerned now, is therefore this:

The basic behaviour the word game represents, along with its applications, do not change just because we are using a computer, anymore than any other medium or object!

The (very) last lesson that needs to be learned, is of course that the use of the word game to represent the objects or media that can be used to enable a specifc game to be played, is therefore directly derived from the definition here.  Since many objects that can be used to enable such a game, are not considered to be games in themselves, however, such a definition is not very important for games in general.  A box containing all that is required to play a specfic game, might be considered as a game in itself, but only because of the behaviour and application thereof it is designed to enable.  Recognising and understanding the difference, aswell as the relationship, is therefore important.  Defining and describing the word game in such a manner is also, therefore, important.

EDIT: I know that there are two more uses of the word game (one as a noun, one as a verb), than what I've covered so far - but I'm deliberately leaving them for later when I'll be examining a few activities as examples for how such applications of behaviour are truly related - (to represent wild animals hunted for sport/food etc. and as a verb, to indicate gambling (for money)).

Part 4: Competition and Competitions

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