What is a Game?

At the beginning of the second chapter in Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games it’s foreshadowed that later in the chapter a definition of “game” would be presented. “Oh great, another lengthy description of a simple word,” I thought, jaded college student that I am. Near the end of the chapter the anticipated description was given, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was not only brief, but relevant. Fullerton describes a game as having three elements: “[1] a closed, formal system, that [2] engages players in structured conflict, and [3] resolves it’s uncertainty in an unequal outcome.” (48) Though they are separated into three parts I feel that each of these elements share some similarities.

One of the most striking similarities was the connection to the player. In a game, players agree to and are aware of the challenges that come with each of these three elements. Players willingly choose to enter a formal system, to engage in conflict, and accept an outcome that is unequal and uncertain. Taken out of context, this seems like an irrational thing for someone to agree to. However, players agree to it because they are conscious of another similarity between the elements: their relevance to the game’s world, or “magic circle.” (37) The closed, formal system establishes the game world as distinct and unrelated from the real world, while the later elements set up the rules by which the game world is governed and what the players will do while in it.

After reading this chapter, I have a far greater appreciation for how the different elements that make up a games are interconnected. It’s almost as if a game is an amalgam of multiple interconnected symbiotic relationships. Fullerton sums it up best (albeit in less flowery terms): the elements that make up a game rely on each other, and a game is really the sum of its parts. (47)

This post is based on Chapter 2 of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games by Tracy Fullerton.


Fullerton, Tracy. “Chapter 2: The Structure of Games.” Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.

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