My ‘What Is a Game?’ Game

What is a game? That’s a question thinkers from different disciplines have tackled ever since Aristotle. Most notable definitions of a game have been formulated by Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois and lately by Chris Crawford and Jesper Juul (for links see the end of this post).

I hosted a session in Play4Agile 2011 on the basics of game design. I started with a look on game ontology – that is specifically the question of ‘What is a game’. Instead of just talking about it I thought that a better way to make the participants think about the potential problems of defining what games are would be to play a game that would help us in search of a usable definition.

The game we played wasn’t that polished as I made it up while stepping in the room the session was in. But I’ve thought about it more since that. So here’s the second iteration of the game:

What is a Game?

a game about the ontology of games

The objective of the game

The objective of the game is to come up with a usable definition of games that every player agrees with.


  • A marker board or a black board (or some index cards, some tape and a wall)
  • post-its
  • pens
  • Any number of players (a group that can share thoughts easily (4 to 9 people) is ideal)

How do you win

You win when everyone is satisfied with your written definition of games.

The game ends

  • When somebody wins or
  • all of the players give up.


  • Divide the board into two areas.
  • Write “Is a game” as a title for one area and “is not a game” as a title for another.
  • Write names of games and other activities, things etc. onto a couple of post-it notes, examples of things to include:
    • boxing
    • mind games
    • Hamlet (the play)
    • Texas hold ’em poker (for money with friends)
    • Chore Wars
    • Simcity
    • Lego
    • Dungeons & Dragons (the tabletop role-playing game)
    • Playing with dolls
    • Playing guitar
    • Monopoly
    • Snakes & Ladders
    • Solitaire
  • Write the preliminary definition of games into an index card and put it up on the board
    • You could use something like “games are fun” to start with.

Game rules

Player moves

Each player has an arsenal of couple of moves to try and reach the objective of coming up with a satisfactory definition of what a game is. The players can:

1. Move a post-it note with something written on it to either area on the board.

The player must then describe the other players the reason why the player considers the thing written on the post-it to fit into that area (i.e. why the player thinks that the thing is a game or is not a game). The decision and the reason for it must be made on the grounds of the current definition of games.

2. Take a blank post-it note, write something on it and optionally make move 1.

The player can introduce a new thing to be considered a game or not a game.

3. Make a new definition of what a game is.

The player writes down his definition of games into a post-it note and presents it to the other players. He then replaces the previous definition of games on the board with the new one.

Play procedures

There are no turns and the players are free to make turns whenever they like. There are a couple of important moments in the game, however:

A new definition is introduced

Whenever a player introduces a new definition, it is up to the other players to test it. They can do this by moving the post-its between the “game” and “not a game” areas on the board (move 1) and introducing new things to be considered as a game (move 2).

If the other players are content with the post-it arrangements, the player who came up with the definition can request a vote on the definition. If someone submits a new definition before the vote is requested, the old definition can no longer be voted on.

Voting on a Definition

When someone requests a vote, there are usually two possible options:

  1. All the post-its are arranged according to the current definition, but the arrangement of some post-its conflicts with some of the players idea of which of the things are games and which are not or
  2. all is well (post-its arranged correctly and everyone’s satisfied)

Each of the players voting (not the one who came up with the definition) must decide which is the case at the moment. You can use thumbvoting: Thumbs up means the defitionis good and thumbs sideways or down means that the definition is lacking.

After voting, discuss on the merits and weaknesses of the current definition and continue playing (unless you all voted for the definition in which case the player who came up with the definition just won the game).

Last words

Remember that the game is about the discussion on the ontology of games. Discuss freely about all the moves happening in the game and make a move as soon as you disagree with something on the board.

If, after you’ve played, you feel the need to read more about the ontology of games, these links (or books) might help:

Rules of Play (by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, 2003) has a compilation of definitions of games up to the time of publication of the book.

Half-Real by Jesper Juul has an ambitious attempt at a definition.

Chris Crawford gives a definition of games in his 1982 classic The Art of Video Game Design.

For a more historic look Roger Caillois has a definition and typology of games in his book Man, Play and Games (1958, Google Books). Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1950) is another book that gets a lot of mentions.

And finally, I guess Ian Bogost’s DIGRA2009 keynote is the most in line with what I think about games at the moment.


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