My Response To Mark Rosewater’s “What Is A Game” Article

The official Wizards of the Coast Magic site posts lots of articles worth reading, but one today is possibly the best to come out in the 15 odd years I’ve read it.

It’s Mark Rosewater asking the question – “What is a game?”

Go and read it now if you haven’t.

It got me thinking enough to write Mark a response, which I’ll make public.


Hi Mark

Your article today was a fascinating read, to a question I’d never have thought to ask.

I do disagree with one point, however, and have an alternative definition for your consideration.

You raise the condition “Lack of real world relevance” as part of your definition of a game.

Magic is often played for stakes. When I started ante still hadn’t gone away, but even today, a match in a tournament can decide small stakes (e.g. ‘whichever of Alice and Bob wins this match gets the cool promo card’).

Tournament matches can be played for medium stakes (finals of an event where the winner gets a box of boosters, or a dual land).

Sometimes they are even played for almost life-altering stakes (the grand final of a Pro Tour, where USD 30000 rides on one match outcome on top of the USD 20000 each player is guaranteed to win).

In my opinion Magic remains a game whether the stakes are nil, a cool promo, a booster box, a dual land, or even a five digit sum.

My proposed alternative to your definition is as follows:

“A game is an activity with a goal, a failure condition, restrictions, agency, and that is participated in willingly and deliberately, usually for entertainment”.

The ‘failure condition’ clause is minor, but required to clarify that you can, in fact, ‘lose’ a game. A ‘game’ you cannot fail at is, in my opinion, also a toy or a puzzle.

For example, the Rubik’s Cube is an activity with a goal – solving all six faces. It has restrictions, agency, and is participated in willingly and deliberately (or has no real-world consequences to use your criteria instead).

But it has no failure conditions other than abandoning the puzzle because you tire of it. I do not feel that this makes it a game.

On the flip side, the much harder puzzle of attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded does have a failure condition – you declaring incorrectly that the puzzle is solved – and I feel this makes it more like a game.

(And yes, there are people that can perform this feat, including at least one truly awe-inspiring seven year old kid)

The ‘willingly and deliberately, usually for entertainment’ clause is intended to weed out elements of life like your suitcase packing example, or other optimization puzzles that we come across, such as asking “I am in Melbourne and want to get to Sydney. Should I drive, fly, catch a bus, or do something else?”

I feel it achieves this without the issue of also excluding Magic tournaments, games of Poker, or anything else where more than just bragging rights are on the line.

Best Regards

– (real name redacted from this web post, but it’s sirgog)

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