Story... Narrative... Game... Toy
Neo-retro Game Design

What is a game?

Where are we to put the limits of what constitutes a game? I follow Roger Caillois because his system for examining games across all cultural contexts is, in my opinion, superior to anything else that I have seen. Caillois identifies four categories of games (or play activities) - Agon (competition), Alea (chance), Ilinx (vertigo) and Mimicry. He also identifies another dimension of the sphere of games - from ludus to paidia, meaning from rule-based games to spontaneous play.

When I hear people talk about games, there are a few common views that recur, but which I believe are not enormously helpful. Corvus characterises them quite nicely in a recent post:

Games, in general, can be defined many different ways. If you include board and card games, and sports, into the mix, it would seem that the task becomes even more difficult. I think it would be pretty safe to say that all games, from a game of chess to a game of tag, have a few things in common. A) Games have rules which you must follow. B) Games have a “win” state which at least one participant is able to reach, signaling the end of the game. C) Games put you in conflict with other players, devices within the game, or with the rules themselves.

Corvus A) describes games of ludus - games with rules which you must follow. Many people like to restrict the word game to the sphere of 'ludus', and language is flexible enough to do so. But it would be great if we didn't do this. By doing so you exclude all manner of play activities which are gamelike and deserve to be considered. I consider making a sandcastle - and destroying a sandcastle - to be within the widest sphere of interpretation for games, but these activities do not display ludus. (I also freely recognise that most people do not consider these activities to be games).

Close to this is the marvelous game of Sink, as immortalised in the Principia Discordia. This comes clearly within my experiences of games, but it would be a disservice to the game of Sink to say that it consists of "rules which you must follow". Rather, it is a conceptual game which is spontaneous and intuitive (very much a game of ilinx and paidia). Not dissimilar is the abstract game of Mornington Crescent (The I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue version). Discussion of this would be quite a tangent, however.

Corvus B) describes games of competition - Caillois' Agon. Games do not need an end condition, nor a win condition. Sim City is a classic example, but I prefer to cite tabletop role-playing games since these strike me as being quite clearly within the domain of games, but they do not need end or win conditions.

Similarly, Corvus C) seems to describe games of competition/agon - conflict with other players, game entities or the rules themselves is not a property of games of pure ilinx or mimicry. It may or may not apply to games of alea (chance) - but I believe we can have risk without conflict.

Corvus seemed to think it was "safe to say" that these three properties described games. Yet I claim that the three properties do not necessary apply to games at all. Why should this be so?

There is a significant proportion of people for whom when games are talked about, they mean primarily ludic games of agon. That is, rule-based games of competition. Of course, we are all free to form our own definitions - and I am not going to argue that the Ludic-Agon camp should not believe this. There are many more of them than there is of me (only one of me last time I checked). But I would ask them to recognise that there are those of us for whom ludic-agon is too narrow a definition for what a game can be.

Why does it even matter? Because we believe that games are important because they meet the play needs of people, and we believe on the basis of our research (and Caillois' for that matter) that not everybody has their play needs met by ludic-agon. Consider what Nicole Lazzaro has called "Easy Fun", which can be as simple as the enjoyment of a new and wondrous environment in a video game. This needs neither ludus nor agon.

I want to underline this point by mentioning Animal Crossing once again. It lacks conflict, it lacks strict rules (although one can choose to take the abstractions of the game world to be 'rules' - let's not get too sidetracked on this point, if possible) and it lacks a goal condition or end point. But it's a fantastic game - one of my favourite of recent years. It's a game of paidia and mimicry - hopefully something we will see more of in the coming years.

Let us cast our net wide in how we think about games so that we can come up with entirely new games, and new forms of play.


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Excellent points. I was intentionally restricting my definition of "game" to exclude activities that I'd primarily call "play" and/or "exploration."

Keeping in mind that I think play and exploration are equally important, let me think a while on why I was taking that approach and post about it later...

Well, it appears the trackback didn't work. My response can be found at:

Please note that the location of the SINK article linked in the above post has now moved to

Really sorry about this, I mistyped the URL, here's the corrected URL.

Thanks for letting me know, Ahdkaw! I've updated this post.

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