Not A Game


Semantics, the gift that keeps on giving.

If there is something that absolutely pisses me off it’s the line “Well, now you’re just arguing semantics!” as a way to dismiss an argument.

Yes I’m arguing semantics, and since I’m arguing semantics, you should be interested because apparently we are having a problem in communication.

Language, and with it semantics and taxonomy, is there for communication (excluding, when its used for artistic expression; poetry) and if we can’t find common ground because of conflicting definitions, we can’t make progress. We better arrive at some kind of consensus on what something means when you say/write it or all we are doing is just creating ambient noise.

Here lies my problem.

The words our community, and by extent the industry, uses are notoriously ill-defined and lead to a general confusion when discussing varying subjects. Sandbox, Themepark, Game, FPS, all these words have 50 different meanings to 50 different people. Having a constructive discussion with someone becomes a chore, bogged down in qualifiers, long winded explanations and a non-constructive back and forth of concepts the other person does not understand.

Here, I want to talk about the word “game” specifically.

I already had a relatively exhausting, but by no means exhaustive, discussion with @anjinanhut and @InsertDiskII on Twitter.

We did not come to a conclusion or, well, I failed to present my arguments and convince them. Let’s hope I can do this better here without the 140 character limit. I will address some of their specific arguments.

First Things First

I’m not here to present a universal definition of the word “game”, in fact, my opinion is that there would be a substantial benefit if we were to tighten up the definition of the word instead of continuously expanding it as we do now. All-inclusive definitions have a problem that they become so broad as to mean nothing at all. If your definition does not exclude something (an attribute, etc), what good is it in describing or actually -defining- the thing.

Simple example:

“square” [A plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles]

This defines a square as being these things -and- excluding the things it is not (f.ex. three, non-straight sides), simple first order logic. Now of course other words aren’t this clearly and precisely defined with a bit of gray area as it’s often the case with higher order concepts.

Game, as a word, however is -all- gray area.

@anjinanhut uses his definition(s):CaptureCapture

1. This is already problematic for me because this defines “a game” as an activity instead of a “thing”. If you say “I released a game”, did you release “an activity in which the benefit of accomplishing something lies only with the game”? No, you released a “thing”. Now we need to know what the definition of that “thing” is, we need to know -what- it is and if it is conductive to facilitating “an activity in which the benefit of accomplishing something lies only with the game”.

We can both agree that a potato is conductive of “an activity in which the benefit of accomplishing something lies only with the game”, i.e. you can play a game with a potato, but a potato is not a game, its a potato (ad absurdum).

We can release rules for a game (PnP RPGS) or a software product (video game), we can play “a game” but that doesn’t really tell us what “game” is.

2. We do not define things solely with their associated activity or their purpose.

A car is not defined solely by its ability to be driven, music isn’t defined by listening, nor can a game be defined solely by its ability to be played (as @Campster correctly observes in his video).

3. We already have a word describing something similar: play

4. By @anjinanhut‘s own admission this encompasses all conceivable activities except for the definition of “work”.


And thats perfectly fine as my gripe isn’t with the relationship of “play”/”work” but the word “game”.

We are using “game” to describe too many things, QED by this discussion. Anjin uses it to describe the -result- of any play activity, marketing and companies use it as a product descriptor, later on Anjin uses it as a descriptor of genre, I’ve had people use it as a description of a medium, others are using it as a descriptor of a general “thing” that they do (Game Designer, what exactly are they designing?).

So the answer, again, eludes us.

@anjinanhut continues


I’m afraid I can not agree.

A movie (or text) is relatively well defined, and the activity associated with it (watching/reading) is clear as well.

Were I to define it, a movie is [a series of pictures of theatrical length in a format that can be projected by a device as to create the illusion of movement]. This is as precise as I can get, as long as we are talking about movies, not “film”. The content of the movie at this point is irrelevant and so is the activity of watching it.

It excludes a series of photographs loosely strewn on the floor. A movie stays a movie when its in your DVD-box. A movie is a movie when you turn off your monitor or are blind (although you will not be using the term watching then). It also excludes a black screen with Bach playing in the background, you can call that experimental audio-visual experience, a screen-saver, a visualization, whatever, it’s not a movie.

I couldn’t dare to give a similarly specific definition to “game” without pissing off a large amount of people.

As a side note, Campster mentions in his video John Cage’s 4’33” (4 minutes 33 seconds of silence) and implies it’s “music” which is a bit of misdirection, since 4’33” was composed to make a point about the concept of music (ambient sound as music, automaticism) and the silence itself is not the music. It’s a high-brow “joke”.



I don’t think that this statement can be made, the “play activities” are just shifted to another word that better describes them, nothing is stopping people from exploring these concepts. Second, I think if we want to treat “game” as a genre, we need to be even more precise what we mean by it. Nothing is lost in the long run by hypothetically saying that games are now only “systems of rules with a goal condition”. Do we exclude things like Minecraft from it? Yes, of course, but that doesn’t mean that Minecraft is any less valuable. It would just shift Minecraft into another niche, maybe called “Simulation” or “Gnorblok”.

By separating certain things from the definition we gain more clarity and precision in our expression.


I understand that “game” can be seen as an umbrella term like “furniture” and then split up into sub-categories.

However the problem is that some of the things currently falling under the umbrella term already have their own definitions that are partly contradictory to what the umbrella term means (hence the confusion with sandbox, simulation, etc ). If we want to fit them into the category, we must expand the definition of the umbrella term. It would be like adding “shadow puppetry” to the category “film” because on a superficial level they are similar (you can have a movie with shadow puppetry, but shadow puppetry is not a movie).

I think the benefit is non-contradictory language clear enough to communicate condensed information through well defined concepts. We can not achieve this with adding terms contradicting the original definitions to the top-level set. Currently -everything- is, or can be, a subset of game, this is not a good place to be at.


My arguments are largely centered around language and not marketing.

We can’t go around deciding if a definition is useful for language because it doesn’t sell as many copies of something. But I’ll bite, the benefit would be that the consumer, in the long run, could more clearly select beneficial products for themselves.

Right now, if the consumer wants to properly assess the purpose of the product (game), he needs to read extensive reviews and needs to educate himself about the product.

Obviously most people don’t have time to do this for every product they buy so we would provide a more precise way to assess and evaluate products at a glance. Someone hearing about Minecraft and Skyrim has no way to assess what kind of products they are in relation to each other. They would first need to actually know what “sandbox” or another 30 terms that can be attached to both games (free-roam, first-person, action, adventure, etc. pp) mean.  The consumer would need to already understand the difference of context for “sandbox” used by both Minecraft and Skyrim, or even GTA and EVE.

Our taxonomy makes currently no sense, and it starts with “game” which has become a non-word. It means everything you want it to mean and hence it means nothing at all. This is an inherent  problem with words that have definitions relying on subjective frames of reference or using looping definitions.

How many times did you experience going to the store with someone, buying a movie, sitting down, watching it, and someone saying that “this isn’t a movie!”?

With games we have this problem constantly. It’s not even a problem of the internet, after all, there are enough communities of film and movie enthusiasts, and they don’t seem to have this problem at all. Nobody claimed that Tree Of Life wasn’t a movie. Nobody questions that Core/Gabber is music (maybe out of ignorance or jest).

Any Suggestions?

I don’t have any suggestion for a definition. As I mentioned in the beginning, I do not want to expand the definition, I want to simplify it.

It would help if we would stop perpetuating the further blurring of the term by defending the virtues of how everything can be a game. Yes, everything can become a game, in a hypothetical sense, nevertheless we need to define what it actually is that it can be.

All I’m asking for is a consistent definition. If we want to say that “game” means “a play activity” I’m a-ok with that, but then we need to stop selling games, because we are not selling “play activities” we are selling some kind of tools/systems/concepts/software conductive for that play activity. If we on the other hand want to define “game” as a thing, we need to define it separately from the bananas and oranges that are not being sold as games and figure out why they are not games. We need to figure out what Game Designers do, because if we define “game” to be a  subjective play activity depending on personal context, we sure as hell aren’t designing those.

Notch designed Minecraft, did he design the play activities that come from it?

I understand, we want as many things to be games because it makes us look cool if we say we are Game Designers. After all “2010-2012 Zynga – Slot Machine Designer” doesn’t look as good on your CV (ad absurdum).

I know that this will incite some very emotional responses, but I think it’s time we talked about it.

In the meantime, why not play a game.



2 Responses to Not A Game

  1. Pingback: Reads of the Day | Tomatoes & Espresso

  2. faggotborn says:

    Much like John Cage’s 4:33 being a bit of a high brow joke, I feel Campster’s exhibit B on the same matter, i.e the whole “THE GAME” meme-thing also falls into a similar category. It’s just a joke. Not a prime example of how you can have game that’s not meant to be played (which paradoxically implies it IS, in fact, being played). Regarding what discerns a video game from an abstract virtual thinga-ma-bob I feel I should quote a post I once read on the matter, and decided to keep a copy for times like these. Feel free to argue on it:

    “To paraphrase a friend who has the art training to verbalize the idea better than myself, a game at least needs enough rules and structures to form a metanarrative through play. Otherwise it is probably a simulation, a choose-your-story visual novel, or a virtual sculpture garden (none of which are necessarily pejorative, though they can be).”

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