Saturday, November 13, 2010

Defining Game

Roel Cantada

The following post in an excerpt from my masters project proposal Exploratory Approaches to the Design and Development of a Game for a Distance Education Course in Philippine History (2010).

Katrin Becker asked a profound question about the definition of the term game: Is a game still a game when it is not being played, and can anything become a game if we play with it? (Becker, 2008) My answer to the first question is yes, but only in the sense that the playing of it could be imagined or abstracted as a general human activity. People do not have to actually play it right now, right here; as long as it is conceived of as an activity of people (players) who identify such activity as a game in their culture, then it is a game. My answer to the second question is no. The thing being played with is an artefact, a toy, not a game. In this sense a video game in the form of a CD-ROM on a store shelf is not a game but a game artefact or toy. If we rephrase the question into, “Can any human activity that we play around with be considered a game?”, then my answer is yes. We can actually turn the most mundane activity into a game. For example, luto-lutuan (play cooking) is a role playing game.

Let me discuss the meaning of game and related concepts in the Tagalog language to make my operational definition of game clear. The Tagalog word for game is larô, a noun that is synonymous with libangan or gawain bilang pag-aaliw (amusement, pastime or leisure activity); and paligsahan (competition) (Diksiyunaryo ng Wikang Filipino, 1989; Almario, 2001; the English translation is mine.). It could also mean a combination of the two -- i.e. a leisurely competition. This definition seems to resonate with Siitonen's distinction between casual playing and competitive playing (2007). Both meanings are in the English definition of the word game. But the word larô does not carry the meaning “animal hunted for food or sport” or “the game equipment needed to play a game” (Zheng, 2005). The last will fall under the word laruán, which means “anumang bagay na ginagamit sa paglalaro... (Almario, 2001). In English this refers to anything used to play a game. In this way the Tagalog larô is more discriminating than the word game. It is also more consistent as the Tagalog word for play is maglarô. So when I talk about a game, I am thinking about larô.

However, I think the dimension of leisure activity in the term ‘laro’ needs to be narrowed down. Walking in a park can be considered a leisure activity or pastime but it is not a game. A leisure activity that is a game would require something (laruán) or someone (larô) to play with. The toy could be something that is culturally reserved as a toy or something turned into a toy (pinaglaruan). What I mean by being culturally reserved is that a thing has no other function in society except to be played with like commercial dolls or action figures. In addition, games seem to be activities with specific rules. These rules may be written, unwritten, fixed, negotiated, or even emergent. Rules are negotiated and they are emergent when the rules change as the game is being played.

Two games for children will give us an example of games as leisure activity and games as competition. Bahay-bahayan (playing house) is a non-competitive game. Players usually use toys like cooking utensils and a doll representing a baby. It may also be played (and preferably) with others. No one wins in bahay-bahayan. One can think of it as a children’s simulation of family life. The simulation will depend on what family the child is aware of. If the child's model is an extended family, then the game could include a role for grandparents. The rules for playing house are unwritten, negotiated and emergent. In this way we can also look at bahay-bahayan as storytelling. The players create imaginary events about a fictional family. A series of kunwari (pretend) statements about the roles are negotiated as rules while the performances of the roles are done at the same time. For example, when someone says “Kunwari may sakit si baby (Let's pretend the baby is sick.)” and the other player responds “Kunwari ako ay doktor (Let's pretend I'm a doctor.)”, this means that the other player accepts the proposition of the first player, accedes to this rule by playing a role, and moves the story forward accordingly. The other players could have also said “Hindi...kunwari ... (No, let's pretend instead...)”, followed by an alternative proposition, which could be considered a new and contrary rule of role playing. It appears to me that in this type of game, fantasy is a stronger motivator than game mechanics.

A common example of a competitive game among children is Jack-and-Poy (rocks-papers-scissors). The rule is that rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, and paper beats rock. No artefact is used. There are no real rocks, papers, or scissors. A fist represents a rock, two fingers extended for scissors, and an open hand for paper. Usually players will make a fist and move the fist up and down to rhyme “Jack and Poy, halehalehoy, sinong matalo mukhang unggoy” (Jack and Poy, halehalehoy, whoever loses looks like a monkey.) At the last syllable the hand is revealed. When the hands are the same, then it is a draw. In this game there is a win. There could even be scores, like best out of three, etc. Let me emphasize the fact that this is a game we play with others rather than with objects. Here the game mechanics dominate, as the rocks, paper and scissors could be replaced by lighting, rain, sun or something else.

In the educational game literature there is a debate as to whether games and simulations should be classified together or apart. Becker believes that games are simulations (Becker & Parker, 2009), to which I agree. I define a game as a leisure activity that may or may not involve competition, and is played with a toy or/and with others. Playing a video game involves the use of a digital toy. I would like to emphasize the video game as activity, not the artefact or equipment needed to play this activity. The term digital toy will include digital games (artefact), simulations, and virtual worlds (contrary to Klopfer, et. al., 2009) in computer, console, or mobile phones. Embedded in this definition is the interaction between an agent or player and the environment, in terms of learning between the learner and the learning environment which is covered by affordance theory.


Almario, V.S. (Ed.). (2001). UP diksiyonaryong Filipino. Philippines: Sentro ng Wikang Filipino; Anvil.

Becker, K. (2008, January). The invention of good games: Understanding learning design in commercial video games. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved May 19, 2010, from

Becker, K. & Parker, J.R. (2009). A Simulation Primer. In Gibson, D., & Baek, Y., Digital simulations for improving education: Learning through artificial teaching environments (pp.1-24).  Hershey & New York: Information Science Reference.

Diksiyunaryo ng wikang Filipino. (1989). Linangan ng Wika sa Pilipinas.

Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., & Salen, K.  (2009). Moving learning games forward. Obstacles, opportunities & openness.  The Education Arcade, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved January 22, 2010, from

Siitonen, M. (2007). Social interaction in online multiplayer communities. Doctoral dissertation, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Retrieved May 10, 2010, from; Available at

Zheng, H. (2005). WordNet dictionary for StarDict version 2.4.2 [Software]. Available at

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