3 What makes a game a game?

Carrie Lewis Miller

Learning Objectives

  • Categorize elements of games in order to apply those elements to educational gaming

What is a game?  We can probably think of many types of games, but in general, a game is an activity with a specific goal and a defined set of rules that is usually completed for the amusement of the players.

Any game has one or more game elements such as rules, goals, rewards, challenges, competition, or chance.  Games take many forms such as digital, board, card, physical, computer, hand-held, mobile, sports, and paper.  Games can be for fun, for pleasure, for education, or for competition.

One of the fundamental elements of any game is providing a common experience to any player.  This is not to say that all players will have the same experience or the same outcomes, but that within the confines of the game, each player will have at least some sort of shared experience and vocabulary. All games must also allow for the individual freedom of the player within the boundaries set up by the rules of the game.

Games generally have a system of artificial conflict built into the rules or elements of the game.  This may be between players, between the player and the computer, or between the player and his/herself.  Conflict in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean fighting or direct competition.  It means challenges and obstacles that must be overcome to beat the game.

Almost any game also has a story.  It may be rescuing a princess, finding your way out of a swamp, collecting jacks, or creating a successful farm, but a story is there that lives in the background of the game and drives the game play forward.

A game also has a resolution.  At some point, there is an end to the game, presumably because someone or a group of someones have “won” the game.  How a player wins depends entirely on the goal of the game.  Some games may not have clear winners at the end of the game.  Tic Tac Toe is one such game where chance or strategy can often dictate a draw where neither player “wins” the game.

Games can be social or collaborative in nature or they can be designed for single players.  Most commercial digital games currently available are single-player games that offer the option to have “co-op” (co-operative) play online.  While often we think of this type of gaming behavior as isolationist, preliminary studies would seem to suggest that a good deal of socialization occurs in the online gaming environment and players tend to build their own social networks complete with social rules and norms.

Think of a game you play often.  What are the game elements?  What are the game mechanics?  What freedom do you have as a player within the game?  What is the story of the game?

Question for Discussion


  1. If you don’t currently play a game or simulation, do a google search. Choose a game or simulation that you can play for a period of time. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on it, you just need to play it consistently at least once a week for several weeks. This can be a video game, board game, real or digital simulation, app, educational game, a game you play with your kids – in short, anything. Identify the game you have chosen to play. Why did you select that game? Is it a game, simulation, virtual world, or an adaptive learning experience?



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Game Based and Adaptive Learning Strategies Copyright © 2021 by Carrie Lewis Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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