Defining games

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I held a presentation on games in the National Seminar for Philosophy Students (Filosofian opiskelijoiden kansallinen seminaari, FOKS in Finnish) last saturday. It was mostly just basic stuff on (the study of) games, with some quotes from Wittgenstein, Suits, Juul and Salen & Zimmerman.

As an ending I presented a loose argument that a minimum definition of games has to include only three points: separation, conflict and rules.

Separation means that a game is in some sense separate from the surrounding reality usually both spatially and temporally. (The line of separation is commonly called ‘the magic circle’.) This can also be extended to cover the concept of artificiality commonly associated with games, and Juul’s demand that games must have “negotiable consequences”.

There must also be conflict. Since there cannot be conflict without opposition, there must at least two participants. These don’t need to be two human players, as a set of rules or a computer can also be a source of opposition. Conflict also presumes that there must be a goal worth pursuing, or else there will be no conflict. Conflict also requires effort from the players.

Games must have rules, or they are simply general play. These rules don’t need to be explicit, but they tend to be or tend to become such. Rules also limit the choices available for the players and participate in creating the magic circle. In doing so they set the temporal and spatial limits of the game, as well telling the players how to pursue the goal, and what counts as winning.

Most of the elements commonly used in defining games (at least the most important ones) can be derived from these three, so they constitute what I’d call a minimal definition of games.