I’ve recently begun a bi-weekly column at a new tech blog – http://betavanguard.com.  I started with this post and will be cross-posting my columns here, for your convenience.

To start this series, it seems apt to cover what I consider makes something a “game” – since it’s a term tossed around pretty loosely nowadays.  I’m inspired largely by the podcast RadioLabs; they host an interesting discussion on the power and purpose of games during this podcast.

I believe games must have two components:

1)  A clear set of rules agreed upon by all parties and unchangeable until all parties once again agree.
2)  Established goal(s) or “winning” situation(s).  A “winning” situation need not indicate an endgame; a new goal can be established during or following a completed one.

To give a game lasting entertainment value, it requires one more variable:

3)  The ability to create a unique and personal experience.  This allows us to personalize each game session, and to apply our own creative interpretations and ideas to the game play.  Board games like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan have enough rules that we can safely play with others without too much dispute, but enough freedom to allow each person to create a unique strategy based on that specific game and how things develop.

Without the first two characteristics, something may be a hobby or activity, but it is not a game.  Without the third, it lacks any lasting power in our adult lives.  As children, games like Sorry and Memory help teach turn taking and the purpose of rules and how to create them.  They give children safe ways to learn important social behaviors: being a good winner or loser, cause and effect, planning ahead, etc.  However, as an adult these titles tend to lose our attention, since most of us have those things figured out.  We gravitate toward games where we can create a more personal experience (like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons), where we can apply a unique strategy based on regularly changing situations (like Starcraft or Poker), or where a puzzle reveals a variety of solutions or possibilities (like Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies).

Many of the most popular Facebook games, like The Sims Social and Cityville, dance the boundary of “game,” based on how I’ve defined it.  They are heavily influenced by the third point, but they tend to lack any established goals or endgames, a required aspect of any game.  To improve this, designers have set small goals into the games: Build a Barn, Find a Spouse, Collect 5 Gems.  Without these, many of these “games” would become only hobbies, much like gardening or cooking: equally valid as an experience and interest, but no longer game.  In fact, if companies had called these “hobbies” from the start, perhaps gamers would not have disregarded the platform and true games would’ve had more opportunity to develop on Facebook.

How do you define “games” in our increasingly gamified world?  Let me know in the comments, or send me a message @webwallflower on twitter.