What is a game?

The Cambridge dictionary defines a game as an “entertaining activity or sport”, which is a pretty vague description. If a game could be anything as long as it is entertaining, why is our concept of a video game comparatively narrow? Sure, there are plenty of genres out there that provide vastly different experiences: Online MMOs emphasize a social component, puzzle games emphasize cognitive activities, and loot heavy games emphasize the nature of gaming addiction and what it's like to hate the world.

But most commonly, our perception of video games is mostly a perception of a digital activity that is exclusively entertaining. Maybe we can appreciate that a certain game calms us down (if it weren’t for the turnip exchange rate) or that a certain game touches us emotionally. But most people don’t really expect games to be anything other than pure entertainment in its core. Well, the world of digital gaming is pretty young and I already chose to write “most people” and not “all people”, because the meaning of video games is in the process of change. It is not necessarily an activity that has the sole purpose of being entertaining, but an activity that is entertaining and more.

two elderly men playing chess I've seen all good people turn their heads each day.

In psychology research, games that are designed to fulfill other purposes are most commonly known as serious games. Personally, I’m not quite sure what to make of this expression. It doesn’t mean serious in the sense that these games are more game-y than others. But they are also not supposed to be serious in an un-fun way, because that would contradict the only definition of games we have. These games are not really serious, they just are designed with an additional purpose.

The biggest field of application is education. Games have been used for a long time to make learning fun and engaging and they are quite effective at it (Clark, Tanner-Smith & Killingsworth, 2016) . These are very promising numbers – I would even be comfortable saying that educational games have a serious potential. I learn French everyday with a game and I can already order my girlfriend to make breakfast and say sorry for being such a misogynistic slob (maybe in simpler terms). It doesn’t stop at teaching your kids math or learning the basics of a language or an instrument for yourself. The whole area of business games combines educational tools for industry with a fun simulation framework. All these areas are growing and there is no reason to assume that there are limits of what you can learn or teach with games. Right now, we are only limited by what has been tried.

In the clinical realm, digital games have been repeatedly found to promote healthy behaviour (DeSmet et al., 2014) and to work effectively as interventions against cognitive decline (Ballesteros et al., 2014), mood disorders (Richards & Richardson, 2012; Li, Theng & Foo, 2014;), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD; Lim et al., 2017), and many more (Lau, Smit, Fleming & Riper, 2017). Compared to non-digital intervention methods, there are a lot of advantages especially for mobile-based interventions, like feasibility, flexibility, and efficiency. Whoever you are, mobile games can easily be integrated into a daily schedule and do not require constant supervision.
Additionally, gamification methods are quite popular for interventions that need a boost in motivation, learning performance, or long-term engagement (Flores et al., 2008; Krebs, Prochaska & Rossi, 2010; Su & Cheng, 2015). All these advantages hold true not only for interventions, but also diagnostics (Lumsden, Edwards, Lawrence, Coyle & Munafò, 2016). If you can make the diagnostics of cognitive decline symptoms fun and more accessible, that can only be good, right?

There are many reasons to play a game, many arguments that can be made for looking differently at the whole gaming industry. But there is no precise concept of what a game is and what it can be. Understanding that and having others understand that could reshape our perception of entertainment and fun. Just because something is fun, does not mean it cannot have another (serious?) purpose. And just because something has a serious purpose does not mean it can’t be fun.

Written by Maximilian Croissant