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3 July 2024

What makes a game? – I don’t think I’ve written very much about computer games here, if at all, but they have been a favorite pastime of mine since I was young. I cut my teeth on old Atari and Intellivision games as a child, before we got our Commodore 64, which ran games off of cassette tapes. Then there were the games that came on multiple floppy disks (the big 5.25-inch ones); I remember getting the first Might & Magic game on floppies for Christmas and spending way too much time in front of the computer downstairs. How much time, you ask? Well, put it this way: I woke up in the middle of the night once and found myself sitting in my usual position in front of the computer, having sleepwalked from my bedroom upstairs.

“ probably won’t surprise you to hear that the answer is not going to be simple or straightforward.”

I don’t play games nearly as much now, mainly due to the demands of being an adult, but I still like to sit down in the evening for a bit to relax with a game when I can. A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded the demo for a game I had wishlisted on Steam called “Tiny Glade.” I say “game,” but I would be more inclined to call it a “toy” rather than a game. (It has taken me so long to write this entry that the demo has since been disabled, so unfortunately I can’t provide you a link to it.)

Tiny Glade is a set of tools that allows you to build a variety of castle- or cottage-style buildings in the titular tiny glade. Structures include walls, rectangular buildings, and round towers. To these structures you can add features like windows, doors, and lanterns. You can also draw paths of varying widths and paint flowers and greenery onto the map. To provide some variety in the landscape, there is a terrain tool that allows you to raise or lower the land. This may sound a little basic (keep in mind it is a demo, too), but there are two things that make Tiny Glade fun to play around with. For one, each tool allows for a wide variety of shapes and configurations. Perhaps more importantly, Tiny Glade relies on procedural generation, so objects interact with each other in interesting and aesthetically pleasing ways.

But it would be easier just to show you the sort of thing you can do with Tiny Glade, so here are the first three buildings that I created in the demo.

This was my initial experiment, just a simple building to see what the demo could do. If you look closely, you’ll see a few oddities (the window on the gable side of the building is lower than the windows on the front, for example, despite ostensibly being on the same floor), but otherwise I think it looks pretty nice. The thing about Tiny Glade is that it is almost impossible to build something that looks bad; you figure out what shape you want your building to take, and Tiny Glade makes it looks pretty for you.

This is my second attempt. You can see that I’ve gotten a little more advanced in my technique (notice the balconies, for example, or the double-level tower on the right, or the crenelations around the base of the roof of the tower on the left). I like this one quite a bit, and it was fun to build.

This is my third building, and the first one that I started with a very specific idea of what I wanted to create. I was aiming for something that resembled a church; being able to put a cross on top would have sealed the deal, but I think I managed to get something that at least vaguely resembles a church.

That’s just a sample of some of the very basic things you can do with Tiny Glade; if you want to see much more impressive structures, just do a YouTube search for “Tiny Glade.” Once you’ve completed your structure, though, that is about it. Tiny Glade has an intricate camera mode that allows you to take pretty pictures of your creations (like the ones above). You can change various aspects, such as depth of field, field of view, and exposure, and you can position the camera wherever you want to take just the right picture. You can even adjust the time of day and the angle of the sun, as you can see in my above screenshots. What you can’t do, though, is furnish your buildings, populate them with residents, or do anything really meaningful with them other than take screenshots. There is no “gameplay.” Mind you, this is not a criticism of Tiny Glade. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and I find it fun and relaxing to play around with. I just don’t think it’s a “game.” Yet I watched a few videos from YouTubers who were playing around with the demo, and that is invariably what they called it—possibly because “toy” sounds less... serious, I guess?

This made me wonder: Why exactly does Tiny Glade not feel like a game to me? What makes something a game as opposed to a toy? As an academic, I am constantly dealing with definitions and categories, so my mind leaping to this question could be considered an occupational hazard. I’ve done this before here on Liminality, when I pondered how one might define “bread” (as opposed to, say, “cake”). If you followed me down that rabbit hole, you know that it didn’t necessarily end up at a satisfying conclusion. Today’s entry aims for a more coherent answer, but it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the answer is not going to be simple or straightforward.

Keep in mind that this is just me musing on the subject—it isn’t mean to be an exhaustive study of the definition of “game.” There has been a lot written on the topic, and many scholars have proposed a wide variety of definitions, but I am going to forgo a review of those definitions. I’m more interested in just puzzling through this on my own as an intellectual exercise, even if it does mean reinventing the wheel to some extent. It’s not a bad idea to have a starting point, though, and I usually like to start with the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has quite a few definitions for “game,” although most of them are either too general or too specific for our purposes. (I’m not providing any links here because the online version of the OED requires a subscription.) Definition 1.2.a., for example, reads:

An activity which provides amusement or fun; an amusement, a diversion, a pastime.

This is obviously too general, as it would include anything that we do for fun. By this definition, watching television could be considered a game, as long as we derive amusement from it. Definition II.6.a., though, seems to be a lot closer to what we’re looking for:

An activity or diversion of the nature of or having the form of a contest or competition, governed by rules of play, according to which victory or success may be achieved through skill, strength, or good luck.

I find the inclusion of “strength” here to be a little odd, as most activities that I associate with the term “game” do not rely on strength to determine the outcome. This would seem to apply mainly to sports, but even in sports pure strength is rarely the key factor in determining the outcome. In fact, I would say that intelligence, rather than strength, is far more often a decisive factor in games. At any rate, this definition is a good enough place to start.

Let’s begin by framing the question this way: What is Tiny Glade lacking that disqualifies it, in my mind, from being a game? The OED mentions “contest or competition,” but that seems too narrow to me. Instead, I would say that what a game needs to have, and what Tiny Glade lacks, is some challenge or obstacle to be overcome. A game’s challenge can come from a number of possible sources, depending on the format of the game. Very roughly speaking, a game is either single-player or multiplayer. In a single-player game, the challenge is presented to the player by the game itself. That is, the game is a series of challenges to be met, obstacles to be overcome, puzzles to be solved, mysteries to be uncovered, etc. One game that I have been playing recently (though I am on a bit of a hiatus from it right now—I only have so much time, after all) is Subnautica, a game that casts you as a survivor of a spaceship that has crashed on a watery planet. Your ultimate goal is to somehow escape the planet, but there are many obstacles that stand in your way: physical limitations (how do I dive deeper or reach certain locations?), antagonistic entities (namely, the terrifying leviathan-class sea monsters), mysteries that need to be solved (who are the precursor aliens?), etc. Like any good game, Subnautica has challenges galore. I would also include cooperative games in this category. Even though they have more than one player, all the players are working together to overcome the challenges presented by the game systems—like the tabletop game Pandemic, in which players work together to battle world-threatening diseases.

Multiplayer games pit players against each other, whether individually or in teams, and these operate in a very different fashion. A game like chess, for example, merely provides you with a board, pieces, and a set of rules. Chess skill is largely a matter of memorizing openings, understanding structures, and recognizing patterns, but the challenge of the game comes from the player sitting across the board from you. The game might always be the same, but the experience of the game is going to be very different if you are sitting across from someone who only knows how the pieces move as opposed to sitting across from Magnus Carlson. The Civilization series of games—which I have played since the first installment back in the previous century, although I never did manage to get into the most recent installment—can technically be played as a single-player game, but all that means is that there is only one human player; the other players in a single-player game are AIs. The game systems do require the player to tackle a number of tasks (founding and improving cities, growing populations, building armies, researching technologies, etc.), but without competition from other players trying to achieve the same goals, these tasks lose much of their actual challenge. Team games, like baseball, football, basketball, ultimate, etc., combine the head-to-head challenge of a two-player game with the challenge of cooperating with team members to defeat the other team.

However, there are plenty of things that are challenging that are not games. A jigsaw puzzle is challenging, but it is not a game. For that matter, I’m not even sure you can say that Tiny Glade lacks any sort of challenge at all. After all, I set myself the challenge of building something that resembled a church, and I had to figure out how to use the various tools and manipulate the available structures to overcome that challenge and achieve my goal. That is certainly not the same kind of challenge I faced in Subnautica, but it was a challenge. Come to think of it, many toys do present challenges to their users, even if that challenge is not inherent in the toy but of the user’s own creation. I spent hours as a child building various structures, vehicles, and imagined worlds with Lego, for example, and that did indeed involve challenge. I wanted to create certain things from my experience or imagination, and I had to figure out how to use the materials at my disposal to achieve that, learning about the affordances and limitations of those materials along the way. This may be too broad a definition of “challenge” to be truly useful, though, and there does seem to be a distinction between the challenge presented by a game and the challenge presented by a toy. But I’ll come back to this distinction in a moment.

In the meantime, I think it is safe to say that challenge by itself is not sufficient to define a game. We need to add something else, and the “victory or success” mentioned in the OED definition seems like a good candidate. Thinking back to Subnautica for a moment, the game does have an end goal—you as the player managing to get off the watery planet. In other words, the game has a “win condition.” Civilization also has very clear win conditions: You can achieve a science victory by researching the end of the tech tree and launching a spaceship, a domination victory by defeating your opponents militarily, a culture victory by spreading your cultural influence across the world, etc. You win a chess game when you checkmate your opponent or when your opponent resigns. Most teams sports are won if your team has more points than your opponents when the game ends.

Does a game require a win condition, though? Instinctively I want to say yes, but I can think of some examples of things commonly called “games” that do not have predefined win conditions. The first game that comes to mind is Minecraft. Technically, Minecraft does have a win condition: you can “win” the game by defeating the Ender Dragon. While this serves as a concrete goal for speed runners, I would wager that most Minecraft players don’t concern themselves with the Ender Dragon. This boss enemy lives on a plane known as the End, which is completely separate from the other planes on which the game takes place. In order to get to the End, you have to find a special structure and then activate a portal by placing special items in blocks surrounding the portal; these special items are dropped by one specific and somewhat uncommon enemy. In other words, getting to the End requires a concerted effort and an investment of time and energy, and I’m pretty sure that most players play Minecraft for other reasons—to explore the procedurally generated terrain, to build grand structures, to fight hordes of mobs, to go spelunking in the massive cave systems, etc. So you can play Minecraft without ever even acknowledging the win condition. Does this make it any less of a game? I don’t think so. There is actually a specific type of game, a category to which Minecraft belongs, that often plays fast and loose with the concept of a win condition: sandbox games. These games give players a “sandbox” to play in, providing them with a wide variety of tools and the freedom to use them in whatever way they see fit. These games might have a win condition, but that win condition is often a secondary consideration for many players.

I should mention that the above only applies to the “survival” game mode in Minecraft. There is also a “creative” mode that removes all of the “challenging” aspects of the game (the ability to take damage from various sources, the need to eat, the need to gather materials to craft and build, etc.), essentially turning the game into a computerized version of Lego. It’s still Minecraft, and it’s still a sandbox, but in creative mode it is more of a toy (albeit an extremely complex one) than a game.

I can think of another game series that allows players to ignore the win condition indefinitely—and which does not even end after the player has “won”—the Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim is the latest installment. I haven’t played Skyrim in years, but I do remember that I spent a lot of time in that world very deliberately not making any progress at all toward the win condition of defeating Alduin. Instead, I might go out into the woods with my bow to hunt deer, the meat of which I would then take home and cook into a stew over my fire. I might then sit down with my bowl of stew on the porch and watch the river run by below. For all intents and purposes, Skyrim often functioned as a simulation in which I role-played my character living his somewhat pedestrian life (ignoring for the moment the fact that he had magical powers that allowed him to, among other things, knock people off of cliffs in extremely entertaining fashion by shouting at them). Yet there was no denying that it was still a game, not merely a toy.

It occurs to me now, as I write this, that if games have win conditions they may also have loss conditions. This is straightforward in multiplayer games, particular two-player or team games, which overwhelmingly tend to be zero-sum games—so, in essence, if one player or team wins, the other player or team loses. Games with more than two players can be a little fuzzier. A game like Civilization is pretty straightforward in that one player wins and all other players lose. But tabletop games that award the win to the player with the most points at the end—like Wingspan and Tokaido, to name two games I really like—do not have a single “loser.” Instead, players are ranked first, second, third, etc. Single-player games are a different story. For single-player versions of tabletop games, cooperative tabletop games, and solitaire card games, the win and loss conditions are straightforward. But single-player computer games are usually more about the player completing the game and not about the player winning or losing. The one exception here would be games with “hard-core” modes, which have a very clear loss condition—usually the death of the player character—and will end the game and wipe your save file when that condition is met. (There is also a type of game called a “rogue-like,” in which hard-core mode is usually the default.) As long as we’re not in hard-core mode, though, you can have failure, such as the death of the player character, but the penalty for that failure varies in intensity and is never permanent. So, for example, Subnautica has failure conditions—namely dying by running out of air while underwater or taking too much damage—but the game does not end and the player does not lose. Instead, the player character “wakes up” at the last base they visited, having lost all the items collected since that visit. Other games, like Skyrim, simply have you reload a previous save (and Skyrim at least places no limits on the number of save files you can have—I remember having hundreds of save files in my playthroughs).

In terms of the challenge of a toy versus the challenge of a game, this is precisely where I think the distinction lies. With a toy, there is no penalty, even a temporary or limited one, for not achieving exactly what you wanted to achieve—you just try again until you’re satisfied. If you build something in Tiny Glade that doesn’t look quite right, the little sheep that wander the landscape don’t condemn you. The same can be said for a puzzle. If you fail to solve a puzzle, you just try again until you get it right. If there is a penalty for failure, I would say it has stopped being a mere puzzle and started being a game. (Although even here I will have to make an exception, which I will come back to shortly.)

It’s worth discussing for a moment how players overcome the challenges or obstacles presented by the game to meet the win condition(s). The OED says that success can be achieved through “skill, strength, or good luck.” I already mentioned above that I find strength to be a somewhat odd thing to highlight here, and that other attributes (like intelligence) generally play a greater role. Strength only really applies to sports, but even there I am hard-pressed to think of a sport where strength is the deciding factor that is also considered a game. Weight lifting is the sport most obviously connected with strength—although, even here, strength is only part of the equation—and I don’t know of anyone who considers that a “game.” Outside of sports or other physical activities, strength usually plays no part at all. Endurance, both mental and physical, can be a factor in a classical chess match. Dexterity is important in twitch shooters or for micro in real-time strategy games like Starcraft. Strength, though, is the one attribute that is conspicuously ignored in board, tabletop, and computer games.

Skill is a far more important attribute in such games, and that’s another thing that Tiny Glade doesn’t really demand. It helps to know how to achieve certain effects—for example, knowing that you can lower the roof of a tower to its minimum and slap it on the side of another building to create a balcony—but there isn’t really any “skill” to this, per se. It’s just a matter of learning and experimentation. The same could be said for puzzles; familiarity with a type of puzzle can help in solving it, but generally that solution requires an application of intelligence or knowledge rather than skill. Of course, like “challenge,” you could define “skill” broadly enough that it encompasses the ability to solve puzzles or manipulate toys, but such a definition would be too broad to be of much use.

The third attribute in the OED triumvirate, luck, is another element that plays a significant role in many games. There are games like chess or checkers that have no luck in them at all, but any game that uses dice or cards involves an element of luck. This is something else that toys like Tiny Glade do not have. There is an element of randomness, in that the procedural generation algorithms will insert random decorative elements when you add windows, doors, or other such features to your buildings, but this is not significant because 1) these elements are purely decorative and 2) they can be “rerolled” simply by clicking on the feature in question until you get the decorative element that you want. Puzzles also do not require the player to rely on luck to figure out the solution. When it comes to pastimes, luck seems to be associated solely with games, although not with all games.

I mentioned above that I would come back to an exception to the idea that a failure condition is what turns a puzzle into a game. In many cases, this is true, but I can think of a puzzle—or a series of puzzles—that has a lot of the traits (including failure conditions) that I would normally associate with a game yet which I have never thought of as a game. The weekend before last, I tried an escape room for the first time with HJ, her sister, and the Tornadoes (aka my twin nieces). It was essentially one puzzle after another, with each solution leading us to the clues that would help us solve the next puzzle. It was certainly challenging (we ended up failing miserably, despite my confidence going in), it required us to draw on our intelligence and dexterity (although I soon realized that familiarity with the type of puzzles you find in escape rooms would have been just as helpful, if not more), it had a set of general rules that we had to follow (we had to put all of our belongings in a locker before entering the room, we had an hour in which to escape, we could ask for hints using a phone that they gave us, etc.), and there were clear success and failure conditions (you succeed if you escape in under an hour and use no more than three hints—you fail if you don’t). But are escape rooms games? It was an experience, for sure, and a humbling one at that, but I don’t think I would call it a “game.”

Here’s an odd thing, though: I was thinking about the escape room when I started pondering why I didn’t consider Tiny Glade a game, and I realized that if the escape room experience had been recreated inside a computer—if I were playing Alice and trying to solve puzzles in order to chase after the White Rabbit inside a computer program—I would most definitely consider that a game. So why is a puzzle game on a computer a game but an escape room in the real world not? I’m starting to suspect that I might have a rather arbitrary idea of what does and does not constitute a game, but there is one key difference between the real-world escape room and the computerized version of an escape room, other than the obvious real/virtual distinction: In the escape room, although I am ostensibly in the fictional world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I am still playing as myself, but in the computer game, I am playing a character.

Of course, not all games require the player to take on a persona. Most real-world two-player or team games have no inherent narrative and thus no “characters.” I emphasize “inherent” here because we love to create narratives about games and the people who play them, but while the match in which Ding Liren defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi to win the title of world champion gave birth to many compelling stories, the game of chess itself has no built-in narrative. Narratives and characters are not even a requirement of computer games—I’m sure most people who have played Tetris, for example, have just approached it as a reflex-heavy spatial puzzle game, not as the story of a harried builder desperately trying to fit weirdly shaped bricks into place in order to not leave any gaps in a wall.

I have talked a lot about various computer games and occasionally thrown board games and sports into the mix, but what about the “games” that children make up while playing? When my brother B and I were young, we made up quite a few games that were little more than exercises in violence. We played one “game” that we grandly called “Clash of the Titans” (something that I only just remembered now, as I was rummaging through my memories). It involved us starting at opposite ends of the yard, running toward each other at full speed, and crashing into each other as violently as possible. The player who was able to get up first and make it to the opponent’s side of the yard won a point, although points generally mattered less when determining the victor than simple incapacitation. We played another game that consisted of us taking turns chucking a frisbee at each other as hard as we could. The person being chucked at had a long staff with which to deflect the projectile; I don’t remember there being any points or winners, but we still thought of it as a game. Then there was the “game” that involved one of us being blindfolded while the other tried to sneak up and tackle the blindfolded person. We stopped playing that game when I, as the blindfolded player, managed to grab B, execute a full hip throw, and toss him onto his head, briefly knocking him unconscious. For one terrifying moment I thought I might have killed him, but fortunately B was pretty tough. These activities were “games” in the sense that they were contests of strength or skill played according to a set of rules, but really they were just roughhousing in somewhat organized fashion.

One might argue that certain sports are slightly more sophisticated versions of games like this; American football comes to mind. I’ve also mentioned sports like baseball or basketball as typical examples of games, but while the categories of “sport” and “game” may overlap significantly, they are not identical. Tennis and wrestling, for example, both pit two players against each other in a contest of skill, agility, and strength that must be conducted according to a set of rules and which is won by scoring more points that one’s opponent (although in wrestling, of course, you can also pin your opponent). They are both sports, but only tennis is called a “game.” Why is wrestling not considered a game? Well, the one difference that comes to mind is that tennis requires special equipment, namely rackets and balls, not to mention a net, but wrestling can theoretically be done anywhere without any equipment at all (as B and I proved on a regular basis when we were younger). Yet this distinction falls apart under even the most cursory of scrutiny. Sure, running and swimming are other sports that don’t require any equipment and are not considered games, but what about pole vaulting (or any other track-and-field event that requires specialized equipment, like shot put or discus throw), or archery, or skiing? Well, we might be able to say that these sports evolved from activities that have practical (often martial) applications, and thus were traditionally more “serious” than games. Come to think of it, wrestling falls under this category as well, as a martial sport. (Incidentally, this may be another reason why strength is often not the primary deciding factor in a game; strength may be mainly reserved for martial or other such activities.) This brings to mind the first OED definition I quoted earlier: “An activity which provides amusement or fun; an amusement, a diversion, a pastime.” It would seem that games are activities that generally do not have a practical purpose, things that we just do for fun.

With all of the various activities I’ve discussed above laying claim to the title of “game,” trying to come up with a strict definition would seem to be a doomed effort. I know I said I wasn’t going to bring up previous attempts to define games, but I can’t help but think of Wittgenstein’s use of the concept of “Familien√§hnlichkeit” (“family resemblances”) to explain the relationship of various diverse games to each other. That is, while the wide variety of activities that fall under the umbrella term “game” may not all share the same traits, certain activities will share different traits with various other activities, and this set of traits ties them all together. Note that this doesn’t mean that a definition of games is impossible, just that there is probably no single trait common to all games—instead, there may be a collection of traits, not all of which will apply to every game. Based on my rather unorganized and rambling musings above, here is a tentative (and no doubt incomplete) list of traits that apply to games.

1. Games are played for fun or amusement, rather than for any practical purpose or with any real-world application as their primary goal.

I’m putting this first, even though it was the last trait I talked about above, because I want to elaborate on it a bit. I think everyone intuitively understands that we play games because we want to have fun—even if we (yes, I am definitely including myself) sometimes forget this in the heat of competition. This does not mean that I think games are trivial or unimportant, though. On the contrary, I think games are a very important part of the human experience. For one, while games may have leisure, amusement, or fun as their primary purpose, that is rarely the only thing that we gain from them. The games we make up and play as children often teach us valuable life lessons. Games can also hone our reflexes or problem-solving ability; games can make us smarter, faster, stronger, more perceptive, and quicker. But even if games offered none of these secondary benefits, if all they offered was fun and a brief distraction from the trials of life, that would still be enough to justify their existence.

At the same time, of course, it is dangerous to devote too much of our attention to games, especially when that attention comes at the expense of other important things in life. The 19th-century American chess master Paul Morphy famously said, “The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman; the ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.” I’ve known people who have become so absorbed in games that their relationships, their finances, and their social lives have suffered. I know this isn’t really part of what I wanted to write about today, but I thought it was important to keep everything in perspective.

2. Games present the player(s) with challenges or obstacles to be overcome.

As I discussed above, the challenges and obstacles in games can vary greatly depending on the game. I discussed above how the format of a game determines where the challenge comes from, but different types of games offer different challenges as well. Many game types are named after the challenge they provide, such as puzzle games (as mentioned above) and strategy games. Sandbox games generally provide less structured challenges, while simulation games require a player to demonstrate certain skills. Real-world games that fall into the category of sports test players on their strength, speed, agility, skill, spatial awareness, and many other things. There are, of course, computer versions of most of these sports; in these games, the physical challenges are generally translated to manual dexterity challenges, although things like spatial awareness and strategy remain important.

3. Games have win or success conditions that decide the winner or determine when the player has beaten the game; they may also have loss or failure conditions, although penalties for failure vary.

One thing that distinguishes a game from other fun activities that present a challenge is the fact that games typically can be won. This is why playing table tennis against an opponent is considered a game, but raising one half of the table to the vertical and hitting the ball against is not. It can be fun, it can certainly present a challenge, and it can be very good practice for playing the game of table tennis, but the activity itself is not a game. As noted above, though, there are activities that we consider games but which are not necessarily won. I gave Minecraft as one example, but I think tabletop roleplaying games would qualify as well. While your party can of course finish a module or defeat a boss, winning is not the point of the game so much as simply playing is. I remember playing one RPG campaign in university that lasted for an entire year and only ended when the group fell apart. None of us ever gave much thought to “winning,” and I’m not sure our DM (the dungeon master, or the person who runs the game) even had a specific “win condition” in mind. It was all about meeting the next challenge and building a world together. So, even though we call tabletop RPGs “games,” I’ve often thought of them more as rules-based collective storytelling activities.

As discussed above, games are also distinguished by having a penalty for failure, whether that be outright losing in a zero-sum multiplayer game or a setback in a single-player game. To stick with tabletop RPGs, for a moment, the failure condition here is the player character losing all of their health (and then usually failing a number of dice throws), which results in the player character dying. While this may seem like quite a severe penalty, it is rarely permanent, since characters can be brought back to life. Even if a character should die and not be resurrected, though, the game does not end for that player—they just create a new character and continue playing. One of my favorite tabletop RPG stories actually involves the epic loss of a beloved character. So tabletop RPGs, like many single-player computer games, certainly have penalties for failure, but they are only meant to provide motivation and make the challenge more meaningful.

4. Games have elements of chance and/or choice that determine the outcome.

I thought about making this two separate traits, and practically speaking I do think “chance” and “choice” qualify as separate traits, but I’m grouping them together here because I only discussed chance above and didn’t directly address player choice. It’s also hard to talk about one without mentioning the other, as they are two sides of the same coin—the coin of “player agency.” That is, does the player have any control over the outcome or not? At one end of the spectrum are games that involve no chance at all. In chess, for example, the outcome of the game is determined entirely by the choices made by the players. Now, you may sometimes feel lucky to have won a game because your opponent failed to take advantage of a blunder, but random chance had no role to play in that. At the other end of the spectrum are games that are entirely chance. The card game War is a good example of this, as there are no choices to be made by the players and the outcome is determined entirely by chance (unless players are allowed to return cards to their deck in the order of their choosing, which would technically qualify as a choice). Most games, though, rely on a combination of choice and chance. RPGs—especially the tabletop variety—offer the players a wide variety of choices in where to go, what to do, how to act, etc., but they still require players to roll the dice when performing certain actions to determine success.

One interesting thing to note here is that games of pure chance cannot present the player(s) with a challenge; if the player(s) cannot make choices to affect the outcome of the game, there can be no challenge to it. For this reason, there are some theorists who say that games like War don’t qualify as true games. We are taking a broader view here, though.

5. Games have a set of rules or mechanics that determine what the player(s) may do.

“Rules” and “mechanics” are not necessarily the same, but I am using both terms here to cover both real-world and computer games. In real-world games, like chess or tennis, players are (or should be) aware of the rules before playing and must consciously follow these rules while playing. No competent chess player will attempt to castle out of check or move a pawn two spaces forward from the third rank. Every competent tennis player understands that if the ball lands beyond the baseline the current point is over. Computer games are often different, though. If the computer game is based on a real-world game (like computer chess), obviously the same rules apply, but in a game like Subnautica the player starts with very little knowledge of how the game works and what can and cannot be done. It may be possible to rely on real-world knowledge—for example, the knowledge that humans cannot breathe unaided underwater—but the game has its own logic and hidden rules (aka, “mechanics”) that determine how the game must be played. For example, although the player is equipped with a scuba tank and can upgrade that tank to give them more time underwater, these tanks do not work like scuba tanks do in the real world. Instead, they automatically refill whenever the player enters an environment that contains oxygen. If the player does not figure out the mechanics in a reasonable amount of time, they will not last long in the game. In fact, in many single-player computer games, figuring out how the game works is often an important part of the challenge that is presented to the player.

6. Games present a non-real world for the player(s) to inhabit, in which the player(s) may adopt fictional personas.

Roleplaying games are the obvious example here, but conceived more broadly this (or at least the first part) can apply to most games. For example, chess takes place on an abstract and symbolic level that is completely removed from the real world. However, many (if not most) real-world games do not require the players to adopt fictional personas. The adoption of a persona is much more common to computer games, especially those not based on real-world games. (Like #4 above, this would probably more accurately be two traits, but I am grouping them together here because of the non-real or fictional element.)

7. Games require special equipment to be played.

Whether it be cards, dice, counters, tokens, or pieces in board and tabletop games; balls, pucks, shuttlecocks, or discs in sports, or a computer, monitor, keyboard, and mouse for computer games, games generally require some sort of special equipment to be played.

So that is my tentative list of seven (or ten, if you want to separate out the pairs in 3, 4, and 6) traits that are usually found in games. I’m sure there are others that could be added to this after further thought and reflection, but to be honest this entry has already taken me far longer to write than I ever intended it to. At any rate, the point is that there is no single definition that will cover all possible games, but we might be able to explain why some things feel like games and some things don’t by applying this list. In the case of Tiny Glade, I would say that traits 1 and 7 apply fully, and some of the other traits may apply partially. What is lacking, though, and what I think might be central to what I think of as a game (especially a computer game) is the combination of traits 2 and 3—a series of challenges that will lead to victory or success if overcome but come with penalties if failed. While this is not enough in itself to define a game, I think it serves to distinguish games from toys and puzzles.

Interestingly enough, as I was writing this entry, a friend of mine posted online about a game that wasn’t really a game but more of “an interactive experience where you click things to advance the story, but don't really have to do much puzzle solving or other gameplay.” This sort of experience probably checks more boxes than Tiny Glade but still didn’t feel like a game to my friend, and it sounds like it all boils down to the same reasons. There are no doubt many other “experiences” out there that might bill themselves as games but just don’t feel like games for one reason or another. As with most concepts, the concept of “game” tends to get rather fuzzy around the edges. I have a lot of fun playing around in those fuzzy edges, and it was in that spirit that I wrote today’s entry. Hopefully you had some fun reading it as well!

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