RPP-100: Defining Game

Black King (c) Michael Maggs
Black King (c) Michael Maggs

Roleplaying Philosophy Series:

Last time, we covered the tendency of some roleplayers to disparage the choices of others and why elitists should be strung up by their nipples, or some similar form of punishment.  In these next sections, I want to define some terms and elements found in roleplaying games.  I think that before you can really discuss and quantify a topic, that topic must be explicitly defined.  Without a clear definition the audience will not know which context to place the discussion in.

These definitions are merely theory and are not meant to be the absolute final word on the definition of any given term.  I am open to suggestions and willing to engage in civil debate about any proposal I make.

Current Definitions of Game

The problems with trying to define elements within the roleplaying universe are that 1) the elements comprising said universe are very fluid and can change over time and 2) no official regulatory body has come to the front to research, define, and standardize anything so therefore 3) no one can agree on anything.

The term, roleplaying game, indicates that it classification, type, or genre of a game.  So before moving forward with a definition of a roleplaying game, it would benefit us to first define what a game is.  Merriam-Webster has several definitions, but only one of them truly appeals to me:

Main Entry: game
Pronunciation: ‘gām
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English gamen; akin to Old High German gaman amusement
Date: before 12th century

1 a (1): activity engaged in for diversion or amusement: PLAY

Dictionary.com offers fifteen definitions for the noun, game, but number three seems most compelling:

game [geym]
noun, adjective, gamer, gamest, verb, gamed, gaming.

3. A competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.

Origin: bef. 1000; ME gamen, OE gaman; c. OHG gaman glee

The Webster definition is too loose for an accurate definition of a game.  I sometimes sleep as a diversion, or watch movies, or read books, but these activities are not games.  Dictionary.com proposes a definition that is more in line with my views of what a game is, but I think there is still room for improvement.

In 1994, Greg Costikyan wrote an excellent article for issue #2 the British Roleplaying Journal, Interactive Fantasy.  His article, “I Have No Words & I Must Design,” probably contains the most coherent definition of a game.  It still has flaws, which the author identified.   Costikyan even encourages others to build upon his work.  This is exactly what I am going to do.

What a Game is NOT

A game is a form of play, as we play games.  We could also define play as entertainment.  When attempting to define an object, it can sometimes prove useful to define what the object is not.  So what are some forms of entertainment that are not games?


Stories are a narrative of events conveyed through words and images.  Stories are static because we cannot interact with the story.  Stories are also linear, they go from the same beginning to the same end with the same choices being made every time we read or watch them.  Games are separate from stories because games are dynamic and demand active participation.

Examples of stories: novels, movies, plays, reenactments.


A toy offers interesting behaviors or properties which may be explored.  A toy may be used as a tool within a game, but the game is not intrinsic to the toy.  A toy may provide feedback and can be interactive, but there are no inherent goals built into the toy.  Games are separate from toys because a game has goals.

Examples of toys: dice, football, miniatures, SimCity.


A puzzle offers a logic structure, or rules, that can be solved with the assistance of clues.  Puzzles can often be found in games.  A puzzle has a goal, to be solved, but does not offer any interactive opposition.  Games are separate from puzzles because they have opponents.

Examples of puzzles: crosswords, Rubik’s cube, jigsaws, cryptograms.

What a Game Has

By defining what a game is not, I was able to extrapolate what makes a game distinct from its brethren in the realm of entertainment.  A game is dynamic and has goals and opposition.  This definition is a step in the right direction, but is still not complete.

I could use this definition to describe war or robbing a bank, which may be approached by its participants as games, but clearly are not (though that could be debated on another blog).  The key separation between a war game and a true war is that the game is a form of play, and thus artificial.  So games provide artificial conflict.  However, I feel we need more requisite elements as well as clarify current elements to accurately define what a game is.

Active Participation

Many forms of traditional entertainment accommodate a passive audience.  While there is an amount of internal interpretation and introspection on the part of the audience, the entertainment is clearly created by others and the audience is reduced to merely receiving.  A game requires input by the participants.


The input provided by participants changes the state of the game.  When the game state changes, the participants are given feedback which helps them react and respond to the game.  Thus the game becomes dynamic, or interactive.


A game must have one or more objectives or goals.  Without goals, the game becomes a meaningless activity with no direction; it is merely a toy to experience.  Participants will quickly lose interest and there will be no replay value.  Goals are the only way to maintain interest in a game.


A game requires participants to struggle towards their goals.  The opposition, or the origin of this struggle, can be provided by real people or artificially.  Without obstacles to impede the path to achieve the goals provided in the game, there is no sense of accomplishment.  Competition between participants is a common method to implement opposition.  The key to opposition in a game is that it must react to participant input.


A game must be structured, possessing rules to provide resolution for actions.  The rules are the glue that holds the other elements together, providing a framework of acceptable actions and measures to resolve conflicts from opposition so that participants may reach their goals.  The rules also provide the information necessary for players to participate in the game.

Mad Brew’s Definition

So after this query into what a game is, I have formulated my own definition of what a game is.  A game is a dynamic form of play, structured by rules, where players participate to overcome opposition in order to achieve a goal.

This definition is not watertight and could probably use some good word-smithing to hammer it into something that is more eloquent and able to stand the test of time.  I do believe that I have presented a very good foundation of what a game is.

The  next chapter in the Roleplaying Philosophy series will actually tackle the definition of what an RPG is, which I am sure will not gain any sort of consensus at all.

Listening to: Mastodon – Leviathan – Iron Tusk

7 thoughts on “RPP-100: Defining Game

  1. @SuperSooga: Thanks! I really want to look at design & playing style philosophies with this series, but I realized I really needed to start at ground zero and work up to that.

  2. Hi,

    Defining roleplaying is always an interesting endeavor. You state that no offical regulatory body has stepped forward to define RPG’s, and as such I agree with you, but none the less, there are some attempts. You don’t adress any research, and I am therefore uncertain as to wether or not you are aware of the following products:
    International Journal of Roleplaying: http://marinkacopier.nl/ijrp/?p=45
    First Person: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=9908
    Second Person: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11000

    The Scandinavian Conventionbooks, The Knutepunkt Books (in English):
    Vol 1.: http://www.laivforum.dk/kp03_book/
    Vol 2.: http://www.ropecon.fi/brap/
    Vol 3.: http://knutepunkt.laiv.org/kp05/
    Vol 4.: http://jeepen.org/kpbook/
    Vol 5.: http://www.liveforum.dk/kp07book/
    Vol 6.: http://solmukohta.org/pmwiki.php/Book/Book

    Also will your definition of RPG’s include Larps and Computer-based RPG’s such as World of Warcraft?

  3. @Marten Greis: In working up for the next article, I had come across the International Journal of Roleplaying, but missed the MIT and Scandinavian sites. Thanks for the links to those!

    I do believe that LARP and computer RPG games fit in my definition of a Roleplaying Game. They are just more specific genres. Look for RPP-101: Defining Roleplaying Games to post early next week.

  4. I like that concept “true roleplaying games” and thus there are “false roleplaying games” 😉

    I haven’t really seen any satisfying definition yet, that can rule out CRPG, but perhaps we would need to put up some definitions regarding computer games, as not all computer labeled as roleplaying games are what I would consider rpg’s? I’m still in favor of considering games such as WoW and MUD’s for roleplaying games.

  5. @Morten: This is definitely the way I am leaning. I think that single player adventure games try to simulate roleplaying games by using familiar settings and mechanics but pretty much eliminate the free improvisation and player interaction allowed in “true” roleplaying games.

    I think the MMOs, be they graphical or text come far closer, and could facilitate roleplaying with one caveat: you cannot freely interact with much of the digital representation of the game world. In WoW, you can only interact with the environment as much as the programmers have allowed, and even then, it is not permanent.

    It is hard for me to put into words, but a WoW character can pretend to interact in a fashion not covered by the game’s programming by declaring in chat that he is doing so and the involved players then imagine these actions occurring, then you have achieved roleplaying.

    But if you take RP down to a pure chat level, as in those involved imagine the actions you describe, then WoW becomes mere wallpaper at a virtual table top.

    Some MUDs, specifically of the MUSH and MUU variety, do give players programmatic control over objects though. Players can modify the descriptions of their surroundings without bounds, which I think provides a true roleplaying experience, as well as one the game actually supports.

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