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What is a game?

As Epic and Apple confuse the courts with their explanations, we reached out to developers and publishers to establish what defines a video game once and for all

What is a game?

It's a debate that rears its bemusing head every now and then as developers push the boundaries of the medium, and this month it has been brought back to the fore by a group arguably less qualified to give a concrete definition: lawyers.

The Epic Vs Apple trial has seen both sides arguing as to what is and isn't a game, depending on what suits their purposes, with some truly bizarre explanations now officially part of a court record.

To Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, Fortnite is not a game. It is, instead, a metaverse, a "phenomenon that transcends gaming." To Apple marketing director Trystan Kosmynka, Roblox is not a game. It is content, because (as we all know) games "have a beginning and an end... [with] challenges in place."

Let's just overlook the fact that both are classified as 'games' when it comes to App Store categories, shall we? (At least Fortnite was before it got pulled. #FreeFortnite, etc.)

The point is if Fortnite and Roblox aren't games, then what is? To find this out, and to get an absolutely final, unarguable, lawyer-thwarting ultimate definition, we reached out to a mix of developers and publishers to tell us, for the final time, what a game is.

Brenda Romero, CEO, Romero Games
"There are as many definitions of games as there are game designers. Games involve a player operating within a provided rule set in pursuit of a goal. Games need not have an end. D&D doesn't. If we stopped Ticket to Ride before we had a winner, does that make what we have played not a game up to that point? Of course not."

megan

Megan Fox, Glass Bottom Games

Megan Fox, CEO, Glass Bottom Games
"A game is a box you scream into, or not, as the mood strikes you. If you feel better after screaming into the box, that is known as an Achievement."

Philip Oliver, managing director, Panivox
"A game is an entertainment experience that offers choices to the players and changes according to the choices made. Now obviously there are many variables, including quality, genre, number of players, speed, graphics, types of input, types of display and so on. It's absurd to suggest that Minecraft or Roblox are not games. Surely such a statement undermines the credibility of the person, the company and the side that said this."

Thomas Løfgren, game designer
"Attempting to define a game is like trying to define humor; as you finish presenting your definition, somebody will already have made a joke that it failed to predict."

Jon Ingold, co-founder, Inkle
"A game is defined by having players, as distinct from viewers or readers or participants. Players take actions within a set of rules without real-world consequences: so war is never a game; gambling for money is only a game until it becomes an addiction and you lose all your money; love is a game until you lose your heart. Chess is not a game as far as my children are concerned, because it's too boring to bother to remember the rules.

"TL;DR? It's the experience of the human beings involved that decides whether something is a game or not."

paolo

Paolo Percini, Molleindustria

Paolo Percini, founder, Molleindustria
"Well, I made a website precisely about that -- hit disagree to generate a new one. It's a random generator based on various canonical definitions from the field of game studies (it was a big debate in the early to mid 2000s). It looks a bit like satire but I'm actually quite serious about it: what if the definition of a non-linear, rule-based cultural form was only possible through a non-linear, rule-based statement?

"Ludwig Wittgenstein 'famously' used games to explain his idea of family resemblance. Games, meaning anything from board games to sports, from video games to ARGs, don't share many essential features, but rather they are connected by a series of overlapping similarities.

"Think about a conceptual network in which a fantasy LARP is linked to both soccer (played in a field) and a tabletop RPG, and the latter is connected to WoW and Monopoly. Soccer and WoW may not have a lot in common besides being governed by rules, but we instantly recognise them as part of the same family. A cooking recipe may have rules and enable a fun experience but it's much less connected to such network, so calling it 'game' would be more of a stretch."

bird

A game

Mike Bithell, founder, Bithell Games
"A game is a form of bird primarily bred to be killed for entertainment/sport. As a vegetarian, it's my feeling that this is an ugly and honestly pretty weird activity. My favourite game is the ptarmigan."

Sam Barlow, director of Her Story and Telling Lies
"A game is any entertainment that involves participation. Usually there are rules to help direct the audience so it's not just random. Video games are games that revolve around digital technology and the cool thing about them is that the computer handles most of the rules. So the participant is freed up to immerse themselves and everything feels more intuitive. In the very best video games this creates magic (see: Gorogoa). Watching expensive lawyers tag-team LGBT content as part of a high-profile corporate spat is not a game, nor magic."

Licia Prehn, player experience specialist, Next Games
"A game is a wish your heart makes. It's the friends you make along the way."

Dan Marshall, founder, Size Five Games
"To me, this always feels like a trick question because whatever parameters you come up with, some clever know-it-all sod will come at you with 'AHA, but what about [X]??! Is THAT not a game under your brilliant so-called 'system'" and you've got egg all over your face.

"I guess to me, the most basic description is it's coded software that takes frequent player input to change information displayed on a screen. As soon as you start adding things like 'win / lose' state or 'graphics' you're probably discounting a whole heap of experiences that should definitely fall under 'video games.'

"Some clever sod will point out that pressing 'play' on Netflix is technically a game under my definition. The only winning move here is not to play."

ian

Ian Livingstone, Hiro Capital

Ian Livingstone, co-founder, Hiro Capital
"A video game is the digital form of play, a natural human pastime which challenges, entertains, excites and rewards players in multiple ways."

Mark Backler, founder, Sketchbook Game
"The best definition of a game I know of is Raph Koster's one from his book, A Theory of Fun, which I believe is 'The voluntary overcoming of a series of unnecessary obstacles.' It sounds like the main essence of that was from a 1978 book called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia though. I think whatever your definition, it is generally better to be generous with what's inside the 'game' label (unless you have a lawsuit hinging on it, of course)."

Jesse Schell, CEO, Schell Games
"A game is a problem solving activity, approached playfully."

Raul Rubio, CEO, Tequila Works
"A game -- in terms of video games -- is a combination of toy, entertainment, art and tool in the shape of an interactive experience. Traditionally games were competitive, challenging, skill based and their narrative was merely a visual support (the decal on the arcade, or the splash screen). But games were also pure narrative-driven adventures powered by your imagination (text-based games), and of course, we know some games are pure artistic immersion, deconstructed, abstract and everything in the middle. You know, some games are endless and have no end, and some have no beginning. And definitely some have no challenge.

"The thing that makes a game apart from other audiovisual mediums such as theatre, cinema, etc. is interactivity. There's no passive audience but active participants (even that's outdated now with eSports but whatever): you enjoy an experience, and 'enjoy' can be fun, fear, laugh or any blend of emotions, based on a reaction to you actions. That's why even laserdisc interactive movies were considered games. That's why tabletop and board and card games are games and we call video games just 'games.' Because a game is always about that interaction with the system or others. Solitaire, Pac-Man or Monopoly, it does not matter. The rest is up to your imagination."

SteveGaynor_Headshot_2021

Steve Gaynor, Fullbright

Steve Gaynor, co-founder, Fulbright
"A game is a system of rules you engage with for enjoyment."

Kent Gambill, studio head, Winterborn Games
"I used to have a very strict definition of what a video game was: it needed win and loss states, skill progression, an explicit set of rules, and more. After watching my one-year-old daughter derive such incredible joy from playing and making up her own simple games, I've thrown my previous definition out the window and replaced it with a very simple one: a game is an interactive experience that you have some level of control over. As long as there is some kind of reaction for every action you can take as a player, and you are able to draw any kind of enjoyment or emotion from it, I would consider it a game. So whether you're fighting your way through hordes of undead, enjoying your time with a walking simulator, or collecting all your toys in a bucket just to dump them out again, you're playing a game.

"As far as providing examples of what is or isn't a game, there really isn't much that doesn't fall under the game category by my definition. As far as my examples, I would think about Dead Rising, pretty much any walking simulator, and a bucket."

Dom Ford, PhD Fellow at IT University of Copenhagen
"I know it when I see it."

David Corless, vice president of publishing at nDreams
"First and foremost, a game is interactive entertainment. That's the primary difference the medium has vs. other forms of entertainment (film, TV, books, etc.). You interact with a game (whether it be moving the 2D blocks in Tetris, or inhabiting a fully immersive, persistent world such as Fortnite), but you can't do that with other forms of entertainment as they're scripted, you can't change the outcome, the ending.

"So perhaps a game is about having a choice -- everybody who watches a film all sees the same film, but you're not scripted to play the game in the same way as everyone else does: you can press left instead of right, or X instead of Y. It's about interacting as you see fit within the game you are playing."

Tobias Kopka, head of developer relations, Reboot Develop
"A game is what three lawyers agree on what a game is."

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Latest comments (3)

I always felt that the term "game" was a bit loaded and even a little demeaning. So, I always use the description "interactive multimedia entertainment software application" in the contracts I write. Who says lawyers are pedantic?
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James Batchelor UK Editor, GamesIndustry.biz4 months ago
@Tom Buscaglia: IMESAindustry.biz just doesn't have the same ring to it
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Yi Zhang Gameplay Programmer, Netease4 months ago
To me, a game is a series of goals and rules you need to follow when achieving these goals. This definition also applys to traditional board games, sports, and even game theory, I suppose.
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