What is a Game?

art by mazeo

art by mazeo

According to Wikipedia a game can be considered an organized activity in which the participants engage in activities aimed at achieving a goal, either in competition with others, or in cooperation with them. The article in question notes that games often have elements in common, such as goals (victory conditions), a limited arena or playing field, and often a time limit. What about roleplaying games?

Note that in the case of an RPG most (there are exceptions) do not have formal goals, have an expansive playing field, and no real time limit. In the case of the last, play can be considered unending, with the group deciding when a particular campaign will come to an end. In short, you don’t need to end the game at a certain time and then assess victory and defeat. Nor do the players have to end a session when certain conditions are met and then determine victors and losers.

Instead, the players may suspend play at any time, then resume later. Thus the typical RPG is an endless game. Indeed, in some cases groups have made their games multigenerational, with the successors and heirs of the original characters carrying on after them.

Where time limits are concerned, they aren’t always adhered to. One group may solve the problem inside a few minutes. Another may take months of play just to get the adventurers together and hired to explore an ancient set of ruins. That is the thing about the great majority of RPGs, the players don’t have to complete their tasks in a certain set time, despite what certain parties would have you believe. In that sense RPGs are open ended.

The same applies to the arena. In a typical game – Parcheesi or Go or Chess – the field of play, pieces and terrain, are limited. This make mechanical balancing relatively easy. In an RPG the arena and the available actors are expansive indeed. When you consider an RPG environment is a largely active one, you come to realize the typical RPG cannot be mechanically balanced except in the most limited of fashions and for the most limited time. Look into Chaos Theory for further information regarding this.

Following the above we have the fact that things in any comprehensive world can not be equal in any real way in any but the most restrictive RPG. There is just too much going on for RPGs to be substantially balanced or to stay balanced.

So what do we have with RPGs? No real objective, no real time limit, and an unbalanced situation that relies on initiative on the part of player and GM alike for matters to work. And let’s not forget the opportunity factor. In a traditional game the player only has so many options he can follow. In an RPG there may be limits, but the choices available can often be wide ranging, and often there are occasions when even those choices can be expanded upon. When you get right down to it, RPGs really don’t qualify as games in the traditional sense. An RPG is more an exercise in imagination, exploration, and interaction. You have the freedom to solve your problems in a wide variety of ways, not just a few.

More could be said on the subject, but I think we’ll stop here. Unless something happens we’ll be taking a look at players in RPGs and what they do next week.

Alan Kellogg. I am a blogger and a gamer, and I opine on various subjects and topics. I live in San Diego CA, have been gaming since 1964 (board games) and 1975 (RPGs). Have credits in Dangerous Journeys: Mythus and have helped out with a few other projects (Charlemagne’s Paladins for TSR for instance). Currently working on a revision of Mythus for possible publication.

15 thoughts on “What is a Game?

  1. I would argue that an RPG is indeed a game (and not just because the “G” in RPG stands for game… 😉

    I will use traditional D&D as my RPG of choice for the examples:

    Time Limit: I would argue that many (not all, but many) don’t have a concept of a time limit, merely a goal criteria. I don’t think anyone would argue that the classic board game Monopoly or Risk are not games, so use those as examples–they can be played for hours if not days if the conditions are right. The goal/victory is what traditionally what makes the conclusion of those games (domination of your opponent.) So for our D&D example I would say, the absence of a time limit does not make it any less of a game.

    Participation with Others: D&D does typically have this. While you can play D&D with a single PC, it is most often played with multiple players working together to achieve a “goal.”

    Victory Conditions: I think this is the criteria that puts the most “fuzziness” around is an RPG really a game. I would agree that there is no clearly defined “victory condition”, but there are “goals” to be achieved which the player typically knows about (level up your character, explore this area, defeat this known marauder, etc.) In it’s simplest form, one could argue that mere survival is the goal; it would be easy enough to play an RPG where your job of your PC is to just till the soil on a farm (Farmville RPG anyone?) but it probably wouldn’t be much fun.

    As an aside, I have asked similar a similar question to my friends (especially when I want to get them riled up) when I ask them, “What is a sport? Is xyz really a sport or it just a hobby?” What makes Baseball a sport vs. Camping? Is pole vaulting a sport? That might be your more interesting question: Is D&D a sport? Why, or why not?

    • Yet you do have those elements arguing against RPGs being a traditional game. The lack of required competition for one, the lack of a required time limit or victory condition for another. Could we say that RPGs are something other than A game, only we call them games because we don’t have anything else to call them?

  2. This has been going around in my head for a while. RPGs, as a product, typically lack most of these features.

    It doesn’t become a game until the RPG product is matched with PC’s setting and situation. Each adventure is a game, developed by the GM with player input.

  3. I think this is one of the issues with Wikipedia. Current game research would suggest a definition of game would include;

    Games are entered willingly
    Games have goals
    Games have conflict
    Games have rules
    Games can be won and lost
    Games are interactive
    Games have challenge
    Games can create their own internal value
    Games engage players
    Games are closed, formal systems

    Meaning you could safely use something like a problem solving activity approached with a playful activity. Current research does not suggest a time frame which would mean the above definitely fits the definition of an RPG although the notion of won and lost might be the most controversial. I think that it could fit though as there are wins and losses in each story overall.

    • Let’s go over the following where they apply to RPGs

      Games are entered willingly: Yes
      Games have goals: Not really
      Games have conflict: Not really
      Games have rules: Not always
      Games can be won and lost: Not really
      Games are interactive: Yes
      Games have challenge: Not always
      Games can create their own internal value: Yes
      Games engage players:Yes
      Games are closed, formal systems: Provisionally

      Interesting, according to my assessment RPGs don’t qualify as games. What are they, and what do we call them?

    • Um, just because someone offered a definition does not mean it is valid. Did you continue reading the Wikipedia article? Almost 100 years ago Wittgenstein pointed out that “game” is an example of a word with NO precise definition.
      From the Wikipedia article on “family resemblance”, his term for such situations:
      Wittgenstein’s point was that things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to all. Games, which Wittgenstein used as an example in order to explain the notion, have become the paradigmatic example of a group that is related by family resemblances.
      So honestly this looks like big deal, here’s another game that fits some parts of the definition and not others… Exactly what will changing the name from ‘game’ to ‘activity’ accomplish? I mean, which parts of the rejected definition of game were RPGs chafing against, in your opinion?

  4. I tend to agree that literal interpretations of definitions can lead to unusual consequences. I am inclined to agree that RPGs are certainly games. I think I like @Dan’s observation that the mechanics of RPGs in and of themselves might fall further astray from the game definition, but once you add players, a setting, and a “scenario” it falls much closer to aligning with a game definition.

    Interesting post.

  5. Much like Jeffrey I liked the comments, for they gave me grounds to think. I can see we’re going to disagree on this, and that’s fine.

    So why am I challenging the “RPGs are games” paradigm?

    To see if I can get people to see RPGs as something more than classical games, and so encourage people to expand what they do and what they pursue in an RPG.

    Meaningful, Me? 🙂

    • I think it’s more that they (rpg products) are less than a complete game, which opens the door for a large number of play possibilities.

      Much like you need more than “roll 2 dice, and move your token that many spaces, do what the space you land on says” to make a board game (though I just described the system for ton of board games).

      This freedom makes it difficult for people to to get into rpg’s (because most of team need work to get to the table), but it also gives us unlimited possibilities for the choices and competition for the game that gets played.

      • Does it have to be a game? Instead of, say, a roleplaying activity (RPA)? Does calling it a game limit what we can, or will, do with it?

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