game / gejm / n.
- activity engaged in for diversion or amusement
- A playful activity that may be unstructured; an amusement or pastime.
- from Proto-Germanic *gamaną”, literally: “participation, communion, people together”
- The Oxford English Dictionary Online
- An activity which provides amusement or fun; an amusement, a diversion, a pastime.
These dictionary definitions don’t accurately describe “video games”. The ideas of “diversion” and “amusement” could be expanded to refer to all art. And the idea that a “game” must be “playful” or “fun” runs counter to horror games such as the Amnesia series or “empathy games” such as Papers, Please; these games are trying to evoke fear or discomfort, not necessarily “fun”.
Wikipedia‘s editors have compiled a litany of definitions from academia. You may click this link to view them. They tend to broaden the definition to exclude other activities (such as drama or music) as well as include other emotional responses. Below is my favorite:
- Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman
- “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” (pg. 11)
This definition limits a “game” in these ways:
- It is systematic.
- Players must engage with an “artificial conflict”.
- The results of a player’s interaction must be quantifiable.
This cures the above problems of defining a required emotional response as well as narrowing down the medium into something interactive and rule-driven.
This definition from Salen and Zimmerman concludes that more activities can be games than just board and video games. This would include:
- Audience participation at a live event, such as a magic show.
- Training exercises, such as practicing payments as a cashier.
- Psychological experiments.
Should those activities be excluded? Also, what role does narrative play into this definition? Should the definition be narrowed down in order to exclude activities that aren’t intentionally designed to be “played”, or should we take a harder look at activities that don’t appear “game-like” in nature to see what they can reveal about the human experience?