There are many many definitions of a game, most of which differ only subtly. Some are dependent on the definition of play, but that’s a whole other discussion. Maybe I should have written about that first, oh well. Anyways, here are a few ways to define a game, accompanied by thoughts:
Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define a game as a “system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome”.
Conflict, rules, and a goal are the driving factors in about all definitions I’ve read. I think the unique part of this one is “quantifiable outcome” which would mean a goal. But saying “outcome” instead of goal, seems like you could get there without necessarily meaning to. I guess technically, there are games (like the card game War) you could win by just following the rules with no ambition.
Greg Costikyan says games are a “form of art in which the participants, termed Players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in pursuit of a goal.”
It’s interesting to explicitly point out resources – I didn’t notice many other definitions alluding to tangible aspects of a game (I guess “quantifiable outcome” could count). Managing resources through tokens, as said here, makes me think of buying weapons or purchasing property, but if you look at the definitions of ‘resource’ and ‘token’ they don’t necessarily mean an exchange of goods or equivalent. Although it’s the second definition listed for resource, the dictionary says it can be “an action or strategy that may be adopted in adverse circumstances”. Token is defined as “a thing serving as a visual or tangible representation of a fact, quality, feeling, etc.” With these in mind, Costikyan’s definition refers to Players using game pieces, characters, or avatars – something visual, the tokens – as a means to reach an end goal.
Bernard Suits identifies a game as “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.
At first, this seems a very vague definition. In Level 1 of Game Design Concepts, Ian Scheiber elaborates a bit and points out the implied concepts in “voluntary effort” and “unnecessary obstacles”. “Voluntary effort” indicates a goal, you would only volunteer and exert effort in order to reach some sort of outcome. “Unnecessary obstacles” implies an inefficiency caused by the rules on purpose, Ian writes. This results in the “voluntary effort” becoming an experience lasting more than the time it would take to complete the goal with no restrictions.
Finally – in improv – there is the notion of Game and How to Find It.
Of course, this entails a completely different set of definitions and is somewhat controversial (maybe something for a future post). A basic way to describe Game is a pattern of heightening initiated by a character’s wants/needs. For example, my character wants to please another character. So I bring him/her a plate of cookies, followed by a new car, then 1 million dollars, then immortality.
Overall, the definition I’ve found to be most accurate and relevant to (everything above, improv and otherwise) is (source):
Game (games) is (are) a pattern of interactions.
Sort of anticlimactic and vague as hell, right? The point is that all meaning is indisputably derived from pattern and interaction in any sort of game (also vague).
P.S. This is more or less a response to Level 1 of Game Design Concepts (by Ian Schreiber).