Theory: What Is a Game?

Is painting a game?

It’s a more interesting question than you might think. Most people intuitively reject the idea. They’ll accept painting as an activity, perhaps as an aesthetic pursuit, but not as a game. Yet, painting has many of the traits we often associate with games: the ability to develop mastery, a requirement that the person doing it make decisions about how to proceed, judges who evaluate success and failure. Depending on what traits one thinks are important in defining a game, painting might make the cut.

What about writing a sonnet? There are rules defining what does and doesn’t count as a sonnet, but most people don’t consider following those rules a “game.” Does that mean rules don’t matter, or just that rules are a necessary–but not sufficient–condition?

There’s academic literature grappling with the question of how to define games. Yet, the question still seems open. Greg Costikyan argues that games require decision-making, but thinks Candy Land is a game even though the players never decide anything. The Wikipedia page on the definition of games (with apologies for citing to Wikipedia) notes that Chris Crawford doesn’t consider car racing a game–but then cites it as an example later. Do all definitions ultimately start with a preconceived notion as to what counts as a game, and then manipulate the definition to include and exclude activities based on those preconceptions? Is the notion of “game” so inherently emotional that trying to compare activities to a Platonic “game” is doomed to failure?

I don’t have the answers. I do, however, have some reading to do.

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