Defining “Game”

Recently, a friend of mine was deciding a topic to write on for a university essay. One choice that he had was a discussion about a “serious game”.

For those of you who are unsure what the term “serious game” means, or what one is, its generally accepted to be a game thats educational, raising or making a moral or ethical point, or a reflection on events past or present. Perhaps one of the most well-known “serious games” is Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which gained alot of publicity (good and bad) a few years ago for its depiction of the events of the massacre.

The discussion with said friend seemed to centre around one key point: How to define a serious game. After all, without defining it, then you can’t really analyse how a given game fits into that category and what sets it apart from a non-serious game.
On an even lower level, perhaps he should have also been asking: What is a game, and how can we define it? Terms like “Serious Game” and “Art Game” get bandied around alot, and the general public seem to have a gross misconception about what these games are and indeed what they can represent.

This has been a point of discussion for academics for many years now. I remember having the discussion many times at university. But does it really matter if we can or cannot define what a game is? Because games are more of an art than a science, its probably not as important for game designers and developers to have a strict definition of vocabulary as engineering or other science-based disicplines.
Defining the term “Game” probably won’t help you make better games, or make better decisions as a designer or developer. But I do think its an interesting exercise to get people thinking about the elements that actually make a game and how games are differentiated from toys and other enjoyable activities that people engage in.

Lets go back to that wonderful book “The Art of Game Design” by Jesse Schell. The definition of “game” is something that Schell addresses nice and early in his book – Page 26, in fact. Schell defines a bunch of categories, goes over old definitions of “play” and “toys” and “games” to eventually come up with his own meaning:

A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

I’m sure most people reading this will instantly be able to think of a game that doesn’t fit under this category. Clearly the term “playful” doesn’t cover serious games such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG. But even in non-serious games, my friend thought of one example himself – two people playing Grand Theft Auto and just doing crazy tricks in cars and on motorbikes.
Its true that this isn’t a problem solving activity, but can it really be called a game? Or is this simply “play” or “fun” using a game as a medium? Does that even matter?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m sure that the debate will continue to rage amongst academics for years to come. However, it can be useful to keep these things in mind the next time you’re explaining Super Columbine Massacre RPG to someone.

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