Forum: here's entertainment

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 37
Digital Citation

What is a game?

Dennis Wixon

In the last column, I gave a quick, and hopefully fun, overview of the history of video games and their importance. I also pointed out that gamers are a diverse, socially engaged, and physically active community. My aim was to contradict the widely held prejudices about gaming and gamers.

In this article, we’ll explore the definition of games. Like another well known but generally underground form of entertainment, games are hard to define, but you know one when you see it. That’s one way to define games by example or enumeration. Unfortunately, the list would be very long. Overall, philosophers have identified over a dozen ways to define something. Looking up "game" in the dictionary could help, but Encarta offers 18 definitions of "game" ranging from "the meat of wild animals killed for sport" to a "business or occupation, e.g. the advertising game." However, exploring one of the dictionary definitions of "game" can provide us with an effective starting point for thinking about games in terms of design, research, business, and pleasure.

Game: an activity that people participate in for fun (from Encarta).

There are some key aspects of this definition worth noting. First there is a focus on "activity." In a game you do something. Watching a game (or a movie) may be fun, but it’s not a game. Similarly, any activity is not a game. Most activities that are the subject of study in HCI have an economic purpose (e.g., reviewing a budget), organizational purpose (e.g., evaluating employees), or personal purpose (e.g., making a vacation reservation). Stated another way, they have a result that is of value to either the actor or someone who pays the actor. In games the results—the final score, a trophy, the prize money, the resulting fame—all serve to enhance or enliven the activity in some way, but they are not the primary purpose. When critics bemoan the commercialization of sports they are bemoaning (in part) the shift from activity to result, e.g., "Money has taken out all the fun."

The crucial elements of the definition: Activity and fun have important implications for game design, research about games, and the way we conceptualize games.

1. In games we don’t focus on results or outcomes the way we do for productivity applications. It would be simple to design games that are error free and produce a result. Consider the ancient game of "brick out," a kind of solitary pong where the object is to knock down all the bricks of a wall by hitting a bouncing cursor with a paddle. A "productivity" version of "brick out" would be a one-click application. Press the button and all the bricks in the wall come crashing down; highly productive but not very satisfying. In contrast, I’d be overjoyed to complete my income taxes at the click of button.

2. In games we don’t use traditional scenarios. Even in a simple game like brick, the number of scenarios is potentially infinite and doesn’t help in understanding, researching, or designing the game. Instead, game design and research focus on mechanics, i.e., the objects and the rules by which they interact. A game with ideal mechanics is "easy to learn, difficult to master" (quoting Nolan Bushnell). Chess is a good example. The mechanics are pretty straightforward, but it can take a lifetime (or a really big team with a really powerful computer) to get really good. An important implication is that games aren’t improved by arbitrary rule and indistinguishable elements. Chess would not be a better game if you couldn’t tell a rook from a bishop and the rules changed completely on every third move. Just as the one-button version of "brick out" is ridiculous, the obscure and ever-changing chess is also ridiculous as a game.

3. Many games can chance elements. Some games, such as those played with cards and dice, thrive on their chance elements. Similarly, electronic games like Missile Command or Asteroids (in which you can’t predict when and from where the asteroids and missiles are coming) or Nintendogs (in which your pets may disobey or forget what they have learned) may have chance elements, but these occur in a well-defined and rule-based context, e.g., once your hand is dealt, you play it as best you can. These chance elements or other players or wide choices offered to a single player make uncertainty an inherent element of games. Uncertainty and randomness in productivity applications is usually a serious bug and not part of the design.

(For a complete overview of Nintendogs see )

4. Games are their own reward. We play games for the feelings we get from them. Like other forms of entertainment, the intended feeling is highly varied. Some games like Doom or Condemned are intended to be frightening, just like scary movies or disturbing books. Games have the potential of evoking stronger feelings than other forms of entertainment because they require activity. It’s scary to watch a character walk through a dark, dank, seemingly empty building while unidentified sounds occur in the environment. It’s even scarier to have to navigate that space yourself.

If you are seeing games and productivity applications a little differently, that’s great. I’d welcome any reactions to this column; just email me at

Life is short, have fun.


Dennis Wixon
Microsoft Game Studios

About the author

Dennis Wixon leads a team of over 20 at Microsoft Game Studios which provides consulting and research to make games fun. He is also a member of the User Experience Leadership Team, a corporate steering group. Dennis previously worked at Digital Entertainment Corporation and has been an active member of CHI. He has authored many articles on methodology and co-edited Field Methods Casebook for Software Design (John Wiley & Sons).

©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0300  $5.00

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