The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

My Entire Waking Life

Kevin Maroney

May, 2001

What Is a Game?

Let's start at the beginning, with a topic that underlies pretty much any detailed discussion of games: What is a game?

Not to keep you in suspense: A game is a form of play with goals and structure.

The three major terms in this definition—structure, play, and goal— are each important to understanding games. Let's look at them individually.


Every game has a structure of play. The actions that players can take are defined and a method for resolving the consequences of each action is also defined. Usually, so are the sequence and timing of actions, but not always.

At one end of the spectrum is Piet Hein's Hex, where a player can take exactly one action (place a stone on the board). There are only two possible consequences to each move: (a) the player wins or (b) the game continues with the other player taking an action.

At the other end of the spectrum are role-playing games, where players can usually attempt any action their characters can plausibly undertake. A role-playing game provides a more or less flexible set of rules to let the players and the referee decide what the consequences of each action are, whether minor (closing a door without the occupants of a room noticing) or major (accidentally destroying the world).

Some games have more flexible structures than others. A monster wargame like John Astell's Grand Europa, with its board of 100,000 hexes and its 40-step turn sequence, is at a far remove from John Cooper and Andrew Looney's Icehouse, which has neither a board nor turns. But both have carefully defined sets of actions a player can take.

"Structure" is more than a Latinate word for "rules." Free-form role-playing games (such as Jonathan Tweet's Over the Edge) have relatively few rules, any or all of which can be set aside if the referee feels it necessary. Greg Costikyan's Toon actively encourages the referee to set aside the rules if it's funny to do so. Structure in these games is provided, finally, by the referee; the printed rules are guidelines for the referee's authority.

A different approach to structure comes from Peter Suber's game Nomic, which is a rules structure for creating rules structures (my college gaming group used Nomic to define the group's official charter). Kate Jones's board game Lemma starts with no actual rules for placing pieces on the board, yet it can only be won by placing pieces on the board. In both games, the structure is a set of meta-rules: rules for creating rules.


The actions that players take in a game are directed toward achieving a goal.

In most games, the goal is a higher score than the other players at the time the game ends—whether that score is represented as money, points, control of key spaces on the board, spaces advanced along a track, or points remaining from a starting pool (as in a combat game). But goals can also consist of trapping an opponent's crucial piece (e.g., most forms of chess) or reaching a point before all other players (e.g., a race) or aligning pieces into a particular pattern (e.g., tic-tac-toe). These can be viewed as "scores" only by torturing the definition of that word. The key point is that the goal be clearly defined and that it shape the actions of the players in trying to reach it.

A game's goal does not have to produce winners and losers. Cooperative games (such as the games in Sid Sackson's Beyond Competition) allow every player to win if the goals are reached, and in Earthball, a noncompetitive sport invented in the 1970s, play continues indefinitely until the game is won.

Role-playing games (which stretch the definition of games in so many ways) usually have neither winners nor losers. An individual player can achieve his or her own goals without preventing other players from achieving theirs. Players' goals tend to be ad hoc (succeed in a particular mission for the Emperor) or long-term milestones in a career rather than ending points (become a high-ranking noble). A referee's goals are even more nebulous— presenting a credible challenge to the players, advancing a storyline, bringing a particular object into play—and usually revolve around creating an entertaining atmosphere for the players. A referee who views the success of the players as a personal failure and vice versa is not likely to get a lot of repeat play.

Whether the game has winners and losers, reaching the goal of a game is not trivial—or, more correctly, if reaching the goal is trivial, the game is trivial.


Three senses of the word "play" inform the definition of games.

"Play," as in "perform," tells us that the players are active participants. The game does not simply happen but is created by the players' actions. If the players don't decide the actions of the game, or if their decisions are irrelevant to the outcome, it's not a game but something inflicted on the players rather than played by them.

"Play," as in "pretend," implies that the actions of a game are a stand-in for reality. You're not really ruling a nation in Francis Tresham's Civilization or commanding a Panzer company in John Hill's Tank Leader; you're playing at it. Of course, in some games, your play can have real-world effect—notably Poker, which is usually played for cash rather than abstract points, or major-league sports, where a successful game can mean hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for a player, or Russian roulette. But the games themselves are far from reality and occur completely within a bounded game space. If they aren't, they're no longer games—they're life.

In many ways, though, the key sense of "play" is "the opposite of work." A game is an entertainment. Games are fun. It's amazing how many people forget that. Oh, certainly a game can serve other purposes, such as education: a historical simulation teaches the players about a battle; a business training activity encourages good management practices. But, in the end, if it isn't fun, it's not a game; it's training or therapy.

Or, unfortunately, a waste of time and money.

Of course, there are many forms of play that don't have structure or goals there's nothing wrong with that. I used to while away the hours with a friend by playing at Free Association, ping-ponging whatever popped into our heads as we drove around town, occasionally pausing the game to trace the chain of chance associations backward as far as we could. The play had a structure but no goal except to keep us amused.

Other Forms

There are two further definitions I find useful within the general field of "game."

The first is "puzzle." Many people differentiate a puzzle from a game, but I think that's somewhat ill founded. A puzzle is a game that has a specific final state at victory (the puzzle has been "solved"), but puzzles are a sub-species of game since they fit the definition of a game as giving a structure and a goal to an active player. Most puzzles are solitaire, and most can be played only once—having solved a crossword, why return to it? However, the solitaire card game Freecell clearly belongs in the puzzle camp, but can be played over and over with a random setup, with each layout allowing multiple paths to the final, solved, state. Many multiplayer games are puzzle-like; Ravensberger's The A-MAZE-ing Labyrinth is remarkably similar to the sliding-number puzzles invented and popularized by Sam Loyd in the 19th century.

The second definition is "sport." My definition is idiosyncratically inclusive: A sport is a game with an element of physical challenge. This can take the form of a feat of dexterity (hitting a ball accurately with a stick), strength (pushing past an opponent to get to a goal), or speed (punching the clock with a practiced rhythm in a two-minute game of blitz chess), but the physical challenge is an essential part of the game. One working definition of the distinction between a sport and a non-sport game is that you can't play a sport just by telling someone what "moves" to make; you have to make them yourself. As I said, this is a deliberately inclusive definition, since it includes games such as Tiddley-winks, Jenga, and Slapjack along with games more widely viewed as sports, such as baseball, boxing, and Ultimate Frisbee.

So. There's the definition of "game." Is it complete? I think so. Are there odd border cases? Probably—I know I've listed some of them here. Are people going to send me long, articulate, and passionate e-mails challenging every step of my definition? I certainly hope so!

- Kevin Maroney

Horizontal line

About | Link to Archives | Links | Search | Contributors | Home

All content © 2000-2006 the respective authors or The Games Journal unless otherwise noted.