What is a game?

Upstart Theatre makes theatre playable – which means we use game design skills to make our shows. So exactly is a game, anyway?

One of the weird things about making games is that, although people have played them for thousands of years, we don’t have a single agreed-on definition of what a ‘game’ is.

A quick dictionary definition (thanks, Google) says that a game is ‘an activity that one engages in for amusement or fun.’

But we do loads of things for amusement or fun that aren’t games. A short list of things I do for fun might be:

  • Read a book
  • Hang out with my partner
  • Go out for dinner
  • Go for a run
  • Watch TV
  • Go to the theatre (theatre is fun, right?)

And obviously there are loads more.

So what makes games, er, game-y?

Greg Costikyan was one of the first game designers to really think about this question. His essay I Have No Words And I Must Design was one of the first things I read when I started thinking about making playable shows. (Check it out for some serious game design wisdom!)

Greg defines a game as: an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal.

We’ll talk about this more in some future blogs, but the quick things to note about it are:

  • Games are interactive – players engage with them, and by engaging with them the game changes, causing players to make new choices.
  • Games have structure – this will be really different from game to game, but from the simplest playground game to the most complex AAA console game, there’s a set of rules and structures which define the experience
  • They have endogenous (self-generated) meaning  – the game creates its own meaning, we do it for its own sake
  • They require players to struggle toward a goal – this was a gift to me as a theatremaker the first time I read it, because it’s so fundamental to the modern understanding of how character works in plays. We talk about objective and obstacle for actors, and conflict for writers.

Interestingly, Greg’s definition of a ‘game’ doesn’t include the idea of ‘fun’. There are certainly games out there, like Brenda Romero’s Train, or Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please which aren’t exactly ‘fun’ to play; just as there are plays like Oedipus Rex or 4:48 Psychosis which are definitely not ‘fun’ to watch.

But even if they’re not ‘fun’ in the conventional sense, all four of these examples are engaging and compelling experiences, which help us understand new things about what it means to be human. Which is maybe a deeper kind of…fun, perhaps?

What do you think are the main ingredients of a game?




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