Famously the Sims and similar games have been described by some designers as Toys and not "really" games.

I'm curious if there is a good answer to what makes something a game.

For example many companies sell Sudoku games - EA has an iPhone one, IronSudoku offers a great web based one, and there are countless others on most platforms.

Many newspapers publish Sudoku puzzles in their print editions and often online.

What differentiates a game from a puzzle? (or are all Sudoku "games" misnamed?)

I'm not convinced there is a simple or easy answer - but I'd love to be proven wrong. I've seen some definitions and emphasize "rules" as core to something being a game (vs. "real life") but puzzles have rules as well - as do many other things.

I'm open to answers that either focus only on computer games (on any platform) or which expand to include games and gameplay across many platforms. Here to I'm not fully convinced the lines are clear - is a "game" of D&D played over a virtual tabletop with computer dice rollers, video & audio chat a computer game or something else? (I'd lean towards something else - but where do you draw that line?)

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This question seems very subjective. \$\endgroup\$
    – ashes999
    Apr 23, 2011 at 1:34
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The Sims is a game; just a very open ended, sandbox type game. If the sims is not a game, then I doubt something like Minecraft is at all. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23, 2011 at 8:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree that this is subjective, but I think it fits the six subjective question guidelines. Formal studies of forms of play go back over 70 years and the question of what makes a game are central to discussions of serious games / gamification / gameful design. I would like to see it made CW though. \$\endgroup\$
    – user744
    Apr 23, 2011 at 9:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that this might be best as a wiki - but I can't set it as such myself. Glad to see it has sparked a smart discussion - and the distinctions between toys, puzzles and games that people have written is what I was looking to get at \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23, 2011 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wiki should really only be used for questions where the answers have no intrinsic value in relation to the person giving them, namely questions that basically ask for a list of things that exist. Subjective questions that require a bit of expertise in the subject matter should have reputation awarded appropriately. Subjective questions that are "bad subjective" should be closed. I'd argue this question is the "good subjective" kind. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetrad
    Apr 23, 2011 at 18:29

8 Answers 8


Previous posters have pretty well nailed down the difference between a "toy" and a "puzzle or game"; puzzles and games have a goal, whereas toys are just meant to be played with until you're sick of it.

I would define the difference between a "game" and a "puzzle" as the element of competition. In a game, you're competing against something: another player, an AI, time pressure, &c. Essentially, you might lose a game through the action of another agent, whereas with a puzzle the only way you fail to win is by giving up.

This definition automatically implies that competitive puzzle-solving becomes a game, which makes sense to me. Also, puzzle-solving against a countdown timer becomes a game, which is again fine with me.

Stated another way, my distinctions among these three terms are their ending conditions.

  • toy: give up
  • puzzle: win OR give up
  • game: win OR lose OR give up before completion

Note that altering your perspective can move a particular artifact among these categories. Generally, expanding your time scale will tend to move an artifact up the chart. For example, each life in Portal is clearly a game; either you beat the level, or GlaDOS kills you. However, Portal as a whole is more of a puzzle, since in the end you WILL either figure out the way to beat the level, or you'll give up; GlaDOS never permanently prevents you from trying again. Completing a shelter before the monsters get you in Minecraft is a game; eventually completing your shelter, possibly with many respawns, so that you'll be safe from monsters in the future is a puzzle; Minecraft as a whole is clearly a toy (it has no built-in permanent end condition).

This classification isn't perfect, of course. Dwarf Fortress is an interesting example. As a game, your objective on a single embark is presumably to create a fortress that can... something. Hmm. As a toy, the possibilities are limitless; I've seen a 4-function calculator implemented in DF (yes, this is insane awesome). The problem with my classification is that any given DF fortress clearly has a lose condition, or you can stop playing (give up), but it has no obvious win condition. You can set your own win condition, which clearly makes it a game, but without doing so it doesn't really fall into any of these possibilities. Possibly I need a 4th category for "toys that menace with spikes of evil" to fit a single DF fortress into.

EDIT: I think Joe Wreschnig nailed it in the comments. The essential difference between a game and a puzzle is that a game can be lost, whether through competition, a timer, or whatever. I was kind of working toward this but couldn't quite articulate it. Thanks Joe!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you almost nailed it, but see my answer - I think failure and not competition is what separates a game and a puzzle. Competition just happens to be a good way to build failure into systems. \$\endgroup\$
    – user744
    Apr 23, 2011 at 9:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ nice job with that \$\endgroup\$ Apr 24, 2011 at 6:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ but when playing with toys you often DO have conditions for winning or losing even if they're not as formal as having a "game over" screen - when playing the sims some want to have the best career or family or whatever, IRL little girls will sometimes tell others that they're "cheating" when playing tea party and such which is as "toy play" as it gets. You always play by strict defined rules and goals even if they're just in your head! Maybe a toy is a bunch of mechanics that allow you to create a game with your own set of rules within it? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 24, 2011 at 11:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zaky This is exactly my point; by imposing objectives and termination conditions (or artificially reducing the time scope) you have converted your toy into a puzzle or game. See my Minecraft example; although Minecraft as a whole is a toy, if you impose the goal of creating a monster-proof shelter it becomes a puzzle. \$\endgroup\$
    – Paul Z
    Apr 25, 2011 at 20:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you play chess by yourself is that a game or a puzzle? Technically you can lose, but you win at the same time. I guess it's probably a puzzle, maybe I'm over thinking this :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Bob
    May 15, 2012 at 22:19

A toy is an instrument with which you play.

A game is a system of rules for structured play.

A puzzle is a type of game where completion results from discovering a hidden solution.

Obviously the "computer game industry" and most of its customers calls any sort of software entertainment product a game, and thus it is one. However, if you choose to be more specific, the definitions above can help.

(Yes, these are a bit vague and can overlap. Most things in life cannot be clearly segregated into one pile or another. If I show you something red you'll agree it's red, and if I show you something orange you'll agree it's orange, but there are infinite shades in between.)


A discussion on the B&CGSE meta site over what is on-topic proposed a distinction that I like:

A single-player activity with a goal and legal moves is a game, as opposed to a puzzle, if it also possesses a clear losing condition; that is, a game-state under which the goal can no longer be achieved.

So sudoku is a puzzle but not a game - you can't lose sudoku, only give up before solving it.

Klondike solitaire is a game, not a puzzle - even though there's no competition, you can lose it, when you can't make any more moves.

In Minecraft, The Sims, D&D, and so on, losing/winning is a more analog spectrum. But getting your work blown up by a creeper, having your Sims die alone and miserable, or getting killed before finding the artifact are still clear cases of loss, I think. Winning, on the other hand, is more about personal goals - I built that thing, I reached level 20, etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This notion of the possibility to lose being a defining feature of games is interesting, I wouldn't have thought of that. \$\endgroup\$
    – jhocking
    Apr 23, 2011 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ With that logic, Minesweeper is not a puzzle despite its many similarities to Sudoku and Nonograms. There certainly are games that blur the lines. It's funny that I say that, because I firmly believe that Tetris and Match 3 are not puzzle genres and are instead arcade games where the point is to rack up as much score as possible before the inevitable end of the round. You don't "solve" tetris. You don't "solve" match 3. But you DO solve Minesweeper. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 4, 2018 at 18:35

There are two very different questions here.

All puzzles are games to some extent. Not all games are puzzles. Calling Sudoku a "game" or a "puzzle" doesn't seem to make a difference to me, and I don't think it's a very interesting question. Unfortunately it seems to be the bulk of your question. Maybe there's an argument that a specific instance of a sudoku board is a "puzzle" whereas the sum total of the rules and the concept of sudoku is the "game".

What makes a game a "toy" is a bit more interesting to me, if only because some of the iconic games of recent times have very toy-like qualities. Minecraft is a toy. So's The Sims. So's Garry's Mod.

Toy-type games are typically heavy on some kind of emergent behavior. Often times it's physics related, sometime's it's AI related, but there's a pretty common theme of a lot of user direction. The idea is that you're not trying to hit some specific game-designer-given goal, but instead you're put in an environment with certain rules and playing around with those rules is what gives you your enjoyment.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Sudoku is just one case I can think of easily to illustrate my question. Chess puzzles (as printed in newspapers or in books) vs playing the game of chess - either against a human or a computer - might be a more elegant illustration. What I'm wondering about is what makes one thing clearly a puzzle and the other clearly a game (or is it clear at all). Many computer games feel very puzzlelike - but some seem gamelike as well - often but not always due to repeatability or some other features. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 22, 2011 at 22:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not entirely sure I agree that all puzzles are games (what makes a jigsaw puzzle a "game"?) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 22, 2011 at 22:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ What makes it not a game? Or more specifically, what are you trying to get out of your definition of "game"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetrad
    Apr 22, 2011 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @shannon: Well a jigsaw puzzle has rules for how it operates, a defined end goal, and people solve them for entertainment. Perhaps your definition of "game" includes multiple players? Would you classify Solitaire as a game? \$\endgroup\$
    – jhocking
    Apr 23, 2011 at 14:44

I think this can be rather simple or rather complex.

  • You don't really 'play' a toy, but you can play with a toy. Pretty similar for the sims. You can make situations that are games, but it is more open-ended.
  • Puzzles are totally goal-driven. To 'win' you must solve it. Toys on the other hand have more of an intended use than a goal and you typically can't win at a toy. Sometimes a game can be a set of puzzles that tie coherently together (like chess) but it can be much more and the path to the goal is not generally a static set of state changes.
  • Not always, but games are usually designed to entertain or otherwise engage players. Not to say other models do not also do this... This point is tough for me to describe but it is at least partly obvious. All three examples can be fun..differently.
  • It may be possible to say that all games are puzzles in that they all rely on some degree of problem solving, even reaction-driven games. The programing certainly makes it feel like you are setting up puzzles. I think there is a difference in there somewhere though.

Sorry that half of this is a bit vague, that's quite a brain teaser, lol :) I will try to come back to this if I can think it through a bit further.


Everyone already got bits and pieces right. This is the only difference:

Puzzles are made with an objective, a goal in mind. The "win" scenario in a puzzle involves you "cracking the code", so to speak.

Games do not have that only goal. Almost all games are competitive, so there´s that. There are points involved, various sorts of ways of solving it.

For example. A chess puzzle is a puzzle using the pieces and board of chess to achieve a certain solution. That´s what makes it more a puzzle, than a game.

But Chess itself is not a puzzle - mostly - when you play against another human being, or machine. It´s a game. Because there´s no definitive way of going about a game of chess. You can start by this side, by that side, you can bargain, you can lose pieces, etc. You can win, you can lose, and it can even be a draw, but there´s no way a chess game needs to "play out" in order for it to be solved. There´s lots of different ways to play and lots of different things that can happen, and that´s a game.

That´s the difference.


For myself, I think there's a spectrum that goes like this

Pure Toy ------ Pure Puzzle ------ Puzzle w Limited Time ------ Pure Game

And it follows human existential phenomenas of:

Exploration ------ Problem-Solving ------ Competitive Problem-Solving ------ Competition

A pure toy represents exploration. No strict goals, you just explore and do what you like. This is why people get bored with toys quickly once they figure them out and adults have no use for toy cars in the sense that a kid might (adults still can collect them which is a form of competition).

With a pure puzzle, you have a cognitively demanding goal and an unlimited amount of time to come up with a solution. When we add limited time, we're introducing a pseudo-competitive element. You can now lose, whereas before you'd be able to work on a puzzle indefinitely. This is why something like Tetris is fairly close to a game, which is the source of confusion. Especially in the case of Tetris, where you not only have a limited time, but also alter the conditions, making it harder to solve further puzzles if you mess up rather than having one rock solid grid of Minesweeper or Sudoku. Tetris, therefore, is sitting firmly between a game and a puzzle.

With pure game, the goal usually becomes simpler and the challenge shifts from a cerebral obstacle to overcoming a living system competing against you. You can lose or win to another player or an AI. So, in a game of chess, you need to move your figure over the enemy King, but another player does his best to prevent that and take your King. Instead of only you altering the conditions yourself, another player is now also altering the conditions to screw you, using a strict set of same rules. If you want to win, you need to learn a variety of strategies, you need to learn to foresee possible outcomes, and, as a result of tons of repeated games, you might hit a plateau and discover your embodied limit that you won't be able to overcome, but get much better than the majority of new players anyway and therefore get respect from the competition (as well as additional bonuses of human connections and friendships).

If you take something like Doom, which is commonly thought of as a game, under my classification it dances between Toy, Puzzle and Game depending on the difficulty and your experience with the game (and maybe participation in something like a Speed-running community). At first it's a toy with game-like elements, but when you familiarize yourself with enemy's patterns, maps and mechanics and raise the difficulty it becomes a kind of a puzzle where you have to come up with the strategy and execute it right. However, the enemies lose the allure of being actual opponents they seemed at first and become predictable robot obstacle which shifts Doom further to the left from "Pure Game".


Suppose the difference is that a game requires you to interact with another player - i.e. with a proper feedback loop, i.e. something you do will effect something they do which will then effect something you do etc.

A puzzle does not (cannot?) contain the same level of interaction, even with the puzzle setter.

The mechanism of a puzzle is therefore to work towards a solution - rather than to interact with, and try to do better than, an opponent.


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