What is a Game?

I met some folks who ran a “Passive Multiplayer Online Game.” I got to hear them speak recently, and I’ve started playing it myself. But the problem was that I keep saying “this is not a game.” Someone who started it long before me will have massively more points than me and, unless they go on vacation, will always have more points than me. What’s the point? Furthermore, there’s no winning or losing, and there’s not much player interaction. I can blow people up with mines, and I get points for doing it, but it doesn’t really change their behavior. They do what they’re gonna do, and then they happen to discover that something blew up while they did it. This defied my definition of a “game” at a gut level. But the problem was that I could not express my gut. What is a game?

Well, I’ve decided that I have to take various multi-player recreational activities (the term I’m using for the superset of all this stuff) and sort them into buckets. My current working theory has 5 buckets, which is really more than I wanted. Thank Sean for the 5th bucket. Amusingly, the “game” bucket is still the least defined, but I now have places to put things and I can clearly say “these are not games.”

The Categories


Play is just fun for fun’s sake. When you’re running around the yard with kids, throwing balls at each other, wrestling, tickling, etc. That’s just play. There’s no particular rules, no stopping time (except dinner time), no end goal, etc. No one wins, no one loses. Throwing a frisbee is play.


Contests have rules and end goals. They might be loosely defined, or very strict. There are winners and losers. The biggest thing that distinguishes a contest from the other types of activities is the fact that you are independent of the other players. Nothing they do essentially influences whether or not you win. Classic contests are fundraising and pine-wood derbys.


The major distinguishing thing behind a sport is the physical skill required. Having read the discussion of a contest, one might conclude that bowling, golf, and archery are contests, not sports. I’m making the distinction that, in a sport, you might know what to do and know how to do it, but you might not succeed as a result of physical limitations. Either you are not physically capable of bowling a strike (e.g., you’re inconsistent), or you have a superior opponent who prevents you from making the most advantageous moves that you (intellectually) know you should make. Tennis and wrestling (i.e., Olympic-style wrestling) make good examples of where you can know what to do and be a world-class player of the game, but be defeated by a physically superior opponent.


This is the weird fifth category that emerged in my discussions with my friend Sean from OWU. For right now, competitions are essentially open-ended contests. They have rules, strategy, and perhaps even a means of determining the winner, but there is no clear end. Thus any determination of a winner is simply a snapshot in time. “The current winner is Fred with 1000 points”” One could argue that most kinds of collecting (stamps, baseball cards, fine art, etc.) fit this definition. You can measure a collection by how many rare items it contains, how much money it is estimated to be worth, or many other attributes. There are obvious rules, too, such as which items are authentic and which ones are not. There is no end, however, and thus you can only state which collections are the best at a given moment in time. In many competition situations, you can even have unknown winners or people who have not declared their full score. They could be winning, but nobody realizes it.


I had to save the most important for last because I was mainly determining what a game was through subtractive reasoning. I removed everything I could think of that was NOT a game, and what’s left must be games, right? OK, given that, what do these things have in common?

  • Multiplayer games have rules and the actions of one player have a significant influence over the decisions and strategy of the other player(s).
  • There are clearly defined winning conditions.
  • Unlike sports, if the move you want to make is legal, then you can make it. Making a free throw shot might be legal in basketball—a sport—but the player might miss it. If the move you want to make in chess—a game—is legal, then you can make it.
  • I believe that games have an element of resource constraint, not just a time limit or number of turns before the end of the game. In some games, e.g., Monopoly®, poker, Scrabble®, you might not have a time limit, but there’s a limited number of properties, money, and letter tiles respectively. In other games, you have both time and resource limits.

Visualizing Whirled Peas

How can we see this a little bit graphically?

Criterion Play Contest Sport Competition Game
Definition of winner/loser nn yy yy yy yy
Clearly defined end of activity nn yy yy nn yy
Clearly defined rules nn yy yy yy yy
One player influences strategy of another nn yy ?? yy
Constrained resources ?? ?? ?? yy
Player's physical prowess matters ?? yy ?? nn

Surprising Classifications

If we take my classification system to be something useful, and then we start looking at various multiplayer recreational activities, we will apply some surprising labels to the activities.

Billiards, Darts, Archery, Golf

These are all sports. Archery and golf probably don’t surprise, but billiards and darts might. The distinguishing fact about sports in my classification system is that physical dexterity and skill determine whether or not you succeed. The strategy in darts is essentially the same for all players, but some are more consistent and capable than others.


This video game is a contest. It’s you against the computer. Maybe you and your friends will play and see who gets the highest score. But it’s just a contest where everyone plays by the same rules and we see who scores the highest points. The physical dexterity thing might be a question here, right? Could Pac-Man be a sport? Interesting question, huh?


Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are either sports or competitions. Many of them are totally open-ended. You can just keep accumulating gold, skills, hit points, whatever. The current “winner” is just a snapshot in time. Some of the first person shooter (FPS) games, like Halo (or Doom for my generation), are sports. There are clear rules, clear beginning and ends, and a clear winner. Whether or not you win, though, is a combination of strategy and physical dexterity.

Blackjack (as played in a casino)

This is a competition. The casino’s dealer is a robot, executing an unvarying set of actions. It’s just you against them. Given the research on blackjack, in fact, it’s just a competition of luck. Professional players execute pretty robotic strategies themselves. Whether or not you are currently winning is just a measure of the money in front of you.

Slot machines

I just had to put a dig in here against slot machines. People who play them are idiots. It’s not a game. No action that you take has any influence over the outcome of the game. In fact, that’s the law. Bring all the lucky rabbits’ feet you want. You’ll lose your money every time.


Not any kind of game at all. You have no decisions. You just do what the cards say. You can basically shuffle the cards and determine the winner immediately. It’s completely deterministic.

Olympic figure skating, gymnastics, “Dancing with the Stars”, etc.

At best, these are subjective contests. All rely on judges to issue subjective judgments. In the case of a TV show, it’s obviously based on ratings and popularity and such. In the case of figure skating and gymnastics, judges make an effort towards objectiveness, but concerns like “style and individuality” (from US Figure Skating Rules) just cannot be measured objectively. So they’re close to sports because of the physical rigor and athleticism of the participants. However, unlike a sport (e.g., golf or bowling), not only is it uncertain whether the athlete will be able to do what they intend to do, but it’s unclear how much credit they will get for what they actually did.


So, has this helped me? Yeah. I think I know what a game is now. What about bud.com, the “game” that got me into this in the first place? It’s a competition. It’s like stamp collecting. It’s a recreational activity, but it’s not a game. I welcome comments and thoughts about what is or is not a game. Have I left out any categories? Is there something you can’t classify? Is there something I’ve misclassified?

Update: 2010

Apparently “gamification” and “pointsification” are taking over as marketing schemes. Anthony Highsky has an interesting discussion on it.