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I was doing some reading for college and I searched for

  • "Main characteristics of games"
  • "Main characteristics of video games"

and other similar ones, the result were a bunch of psychological studies and some non totally related links. The bottom line there was no real definition. I can see why, however I m suprised there are no attempts

I m going to think I m looking for the wrong thing, so can you help?

My purpose is to try to understand what is a video game and what isnt. ie: bad games are still games, so fun and immersion are not characteristics of a game ( before I started thinking about this I thought that was the case)


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Asking "what is a game" around here is like asking a fish "what is water?" You're not going to get a lot of fin waving and you'll just annoy the fish. – Patrick Hughes Mar 4 '12 at 19:51
I m sorry I annoyed the fish, :) at the same time the purpose of this site is to ask and answer questions. It seemed like something that people should be able to find online easily. I don't mind the conflicting opinions – Miau Mar 4 '12 at 20:06
@Miau: That's the thing: we do mind conflicting opinions. Stack Exchange and SE sites exist to answer answerable questions. Not every question is answerable. Answerable questions generally have a single, factual answer. They're not matters of opinion or debate. Even when sites accept more subjective questions, there remains a difference between the good kind of subjective and the bad kind. We don't take any sentence that ends in a question mark. – Nicol Bolas Mar 4 '12 at 20:30
up vote 8 down vote accepted

My purpose is to try to understand what is a video game and what isnt.

There isn't one universally accepted definition of what constitutes "videogame" and what doesn't. Here's my take on it.

First, let's separate the definition of "game" from "videogame". Yes, really.

A "game" is an activity with one or more objectively-determined victory conditions, whereby one or more players attempt to achieve these conditions with their actions governed by a series of objective rules. This covers table-top games, most sports (though the objectivity of referee rulings can be in question), and most things we call videogames.

This definition arises from comments made by Will Wright, about the differences between a "toy" and a "game". Games have goals; toys don't. You can do various stuff with a toy, and you may find that stuff fun. But the toy doesn't say whether you win or lose; that's up to you to decide. It makes no value judgements about how well you used the toy.

Games do have goals. Games do have built-in victory conditions. Games put values on certain actions above others; those that come closer to achieving the victory conditions are better than those that don't.

A "videogame" is a computer program of some form designed specifically for the entertainment of the user(s).

That last part is the key for me. You can have fun with Photoshop and you can have fun with Mario Paint. But these are two very different applications. The former has a clearly defined purpose: to create and edit images. If you find using Photoshop fun, it is only because you like creating and editing images.

Mario Paint is designed to be an enjoyable, fun experience. You poke at it, and exciting things happen. That's why it has a music editor. That's why it doesn't have a lot of the features Photoshop does. So while you can certainly do more with Photoshop, the experience of using Mario Paint is more geared towards user pleasure. You're not creating anything you possibly could or something specific; you're creating fun pictures of stuff. Not particular stuff, but stuff in general. It's a restricted environment, and the restrictions speak to a certain kind of image.

The same goes for web browsers. A web browser itself is not a videogame, even if all you use it for is personal enjoyment. That is not its designed purpose; it's purpose is to feed you information. If you find that information enjoyable, so be it. But it could just as easily feed you Goatse.

You may notice that the definition of "game" and "videogame" have little in common. Mario Paint is very much a videogame, but the lack of explicit goals (built into the rule system of the program) mean that it is not a game.

It's important to make that distinction. Just as you can have games that aren't videogames, you can have videogames that aren't games. The term "videogame" only originated because the early videogames all were games. Space War, Pong, Pac-Man, Defender, all of these had rule-bound action and objective victory conditions (score the most points, hit the other guy, etc).

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Very interesting, +1. – jcora Mar 4 '12 at 20:14
Would you say MMORPG are games then? I was thinking what objectively-determined victory condition there is in World of Warcraft? (I think it has none by design, yet being somewhat of a game) – moooeeeep Mar 4 '12 at 21:30
Actually MMORPGs have pretty well defined victory conditions. I'm not saying they're same for all players or that they're truly final winning conditions. But look there are lots of victory conditions. Get to top level? Sure! Defeat all bosses and get best gear for your character? Sure! Be best player in PVP leader boards? Sure! Now if you mentioned things like Simcity or Minecraft... hmm those are more questionable. They have some victory conditions, like survival aspect of MC or missions in Simicity, but they're not core (at least to me) core means of enjoyment in these games. – BlueWolf Mar 5 '12 at 16:47
@BlueWolf, that's what I meant. It's more like a bunch of individually weighted motivation factors (superiority by gear/ranking/cash/skill, social acknowledgement, etc.) that the user tries to maximize. I mean it's designed to not have a single objective victory condition, but rather to have kindof pareto frontier of an unspecified set of variables, some of which are soft factors that don't even apply to objective quality metrics after all. Which is part of these games' success. Plus, a victory would imply a game over, restart, I think. (Which does not apply here either.) – moooeeeep Mar 5 '12 at 20:23
@moooeeeep Actually you may be right... in this kind of sense even life could be viewed as game. It has sort of goals. You can decide to be best sprinter or visit 10 biggest cities in world. And yet, what reasonable person would call life a game? Hmm... well one other definition classifies game as voluntary activity which doesn't create economical values. It sometimes redistribute them, but never create them. – BlueWolf Mar 6 '12 at 15:34

If you're essentially looking for what the definition of a 'game' is, then there are many different definitions.

You will find some of those definitions on this page, under the heading "So, what is a game, anyway?"

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Just what I was thinking, great answer! +1 – jcora Mar 4 '12 at 12:41

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