What is a computer game?

There are multiple lenses through which to focus on computer games, each giving a useful, albeit partial view of the medium. We can view them as cultural artefacts, commercial commodities, entertainment media, software programs and design products. They offer solitary or social experiences and enable people to take on new identities and play out fantasies in other worlds. They are made up of exciting verbs such as race, jump, dodge and shoot. They can be used almost anywhere by way of a great many devices. They involve pattern, colour and motion. They are things which people play.

Given their ubiquity, the question ’what is a computer game?’ appears on its surface to be simple to answer. The average person is likely to be able to offer a functioning definition involving a computer and a means of interaction, and they could probably name some well-known examples, such as Space Invaders (Taito, 1977), Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) or Angry Birds (Rovio, 2009), from which we can infer certain things about the properties of games.

Whilst considering the difficulty in reaching a clear definition of the concept of games, Wittgenstein (1953) remarked that the various activities we refer to as “games” (board-games, card-games, ball-games, etc.) do not have a particular set of universally common features — some are amusing, some competitive, some have skill at their heart whilst others are down to chance — yet there remain overlapping threads and similarities amongst them. Wittgenstein likened these to “family resemblances”, and through looking for these resemblances we are able to recognise members of the family of games.

Looking at our earlier three examples of computer games, there are similarities apparent: 2d representation and movement along a horizontal plane; control over an on-screen object; numbers on the screen denoting a score and other information — but the actions and objectives differ in each game and the control methods are distinct. So we can see that whilst there may be common features, as Wittgenstein suggests, none of them are defining of an inherent ‘computer game-ness’. Ernest Adams summarised that games are ‘agnostic with respect to genre, content, input devices, and play mechanics’ (Newman & Simons, 2004, p.31), which is a useful comment in stripping away some of the surface features, which would intuitively appear important to the nature of games but don’t really help to answer the question succinctly. It is therefore necessary to consider “what is a computer game?” at a more fundamental level.

Games have a very close relationship with play: they are both a subset of play and at the same time contain elements of it (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p.72). It is therefore worthwhile to develop an understanding of this term when attempting to define computer games. Huizinga (1949) described several important features of play which set it apart from other activities; broadly speaking, he described a temporary mode of behaviour, standing outside of ‘normal’ life, through which we freely enter an absorbing illusion (indeed, Huizinga points out that the literal translation of “illusion” is “in-play” (1949, p.11)). These features seem fully applicable to the experience of playing computer games — to press start or insert coin are free choices, and we remain in the mode of play until ‘game over’ flashes across the screen and the playful interlude ends. But whilst games are things that we play, they are not purely play; there are further distinguishing details, which numerous academics and practitioners have attempted to pin down.

Crawford (1984) sets out characteristics which he uses to define the term ‘game’, including his ideas of representation, interaction, conflict and safety. There is certainly crossover here between some of his points and Huizinga’s concept of play, but as Crawford builds his framework and states the requirements he holds for something to be a game, it brings into relief some notions which separate games from other types of free play. One key distinction Crawford makes is that games are interactive: they respond and their state changes according to the input of the player. He contrasts this with puzzles, which he argues are passively operated rather than actively responsive; puzzles are to be solved rather than played. Costikyan (2002) agrees that this active/passive dichotomy is useful, but believes that in his conclusion Crawford has ‘overstated the case’ (p.10) when demanding that some so-called games are really puzzles. Costikyan contends with this game or puzzle dilemma via a discussion of the early adventure game Zork (Blank & Lebling, 1977). He concludes that adventure games, in opening up avenues of progress as the player makes choices or completes tasks — whilst not interactive in Crawford’s sense — should not be relegated to the status of ‘not a game’.

Whilst certainly providing insights, and elucidating concepts of game design, Crawford’s requirements do appear problematic to an overall definition of a game. His idea of conflict, which states that all games necessarily feature an intelligent agent (human or artificial) which actively obstructs the player from their goal, is rejected by Adams (2010) due to its exclusion of creative or cooperative games. Adams’ own understanding of a game is distilled into simpler requirements: rules and a goal.

We find that many of these frameworks and definitions of games adopted by various writers contain similar elements, but as outlined above, there is also often conjecture. Salen & Zimmerman (2004) consider a game as ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’ (p.80). For McGonigal (2011) goals, rules, feedback and voluntary participation are the indicators of game-ness. There are many variations on a theme. The absurdity of reducing games into a pithy maxim is well illustrated by Molleindustria (2013), via their Game Definitions website. This uses a syntactic algorithm to generate an dictionary-style definition of the word ‘game’ by stitching together various motivations, constraints and characteristics. Users can then either disagree with the proffered construction and receive a new, equally unsatisfying formulation, or adopt the definition and send a Tweet to champion the cause.

The usefulness of robust concepts and clarity of expression should not be questioned, but the stitching together of ideas in search for an absolute definition — sometimes a box-ticking exercise — may see us lose things which are otherwise helpful to our understanding. It is also interesting to note how a definition can afford something a privileged status. We are well used to the debates throughout history of a music/not music type, and this has been true of recent titles which operate in a game-like context, such as Proteus (Kanaga & Key, 2013), which certainly had a rule-based system, by virtue of being a computer program, but the ‘goals’ were a lot less explicit that in typical computer games. As such, exclusionary definitions such as Crawford’s have been avoided by writers keen to maintain a wider conception of computer games, and to allow for the changes and potential of the medium. Flanagan (2010) concerns herself with possibilities for computer games outside of a solely entertainment paradigm, and seeks to bring into discussion those who subvert the norms of game design (and the games industry), by moving discourse towards use of the games as a tool for creative expression, conceptual art or social change. Flanagan chooses not to provide a firm definition but offers the description of ‘situations with guidelines and procedures’ (p.7) as a productive way of thinking about games. This attitude is useful as it seeks insight and enables a broad discussion of the medium, rather than being bound by strictures. Of course, being so inclusive a definition means that it can still be compatible with some of the broader schemes developed to understand the fundamentals of games, and might be used in conjunction with them.

Juul (2005) provides only a loose definition of games ‘formal systems that provide informal experiences’ (p.120) but attempts to provide a model by which all games can be identified. His ‘classic game model’ seeks to define the properties of the game as a formal system, but also takes into account the relationship between the player and the game, and the game and the rest of world. He covers rules, variable outcomes (some of which are held to be of greater value than others), the need for a player to invest effort and be attached to the outcome, and the need for the consequences to be negotiable – i.e. that their real-world effects can be determined on a per-play basis by the individuals involved. He is seeking to describe the general properties of games.

Juul’s model is perhaps a fussier version of that outlined by Suits (2005), who refutes Wittgenstein’s conclusion that games have no commonalities. He accepts that some things are definable and some are not but admonishes Wittgenstein for seeing only family resemblances amongst games, and goes on to identify three elements which he sees as fundamental to the form: a ‘prelusory goal’ (an achievable state of affairs), ‘lusory means’ (the agreed rules and system of the game), and a ‘lusory attitude’ (an agreement to adopt the agreed rules/means). This type of framework enables us to understand games without excluding game-like things on technicalities, as other definitions might.

So, what is a computer game? Computers are objective systems which provide the goal and the means under Suits’s conception, but perhaps it is only when they are experienced subjectively with the lusory attitude that the game part comes in. They are things that people play.


Adams, E (2010). Fundamentals of game design. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders Publishing.

Costikyan, G. (2002). I have no words & I must design: Towards a critical vocabulary for games. [Internet]. Available from <http://www.costik.com/nowords2002.pdf>. [Accessed 21 October 2013].

Crawford, C (1984). The art of computer game design: Reflections of a master Game Designer. Berkeley: Osborne.

Crawford, C. (2003). On Game Design. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing.

Flanagan, M. (2009). Critical Play: Radical game design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Translated by J. Huizinga. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Juul, J. (2005). Half Real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. London. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kanaga, D. & Key. E. (2013). Proteus. [Computer game] PC. Cumbria: Twisted Tree Games.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Jonathan Cape.

Molleindustria. (2013). Game definitions. [Internet]. Available from <http://www.gamedefinitions.com>. [Accessed 22 November 2013].

Newman, J. & Simons, I. eds. (2004). Difficult questions about videogames. Nottingham: Suppose Partners. pp.29-64.

Nintendo. (1985). Super Mario Bros. [Computer game] Nintendo Entertainment System. Kyoto: Nintendo.

Rovio Entertainment. (2009). Angry Birds. [Computer game] Apple iPhone. Espoo: Rovio Entertainment.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Suits, B. (2005). The Grasshopper: Games, life and utopia. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Taito Corporation. (1977). Space Invaders. [Arcade Game]. Tokyo: Taito Corporation.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. 3rd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Staging An Exhibition – First Draft

The installation of Staging Disorder, a major exhibition at the London College of Communication, was conspicuously lavish. Over a few days the normally functional white spaces were transformed, with no insignificant amount of paint, into elegant colour, and text was transferred onto the walls; meticulously aligned with laser spirit levels. It all serves to give the impression of a real gallery. Until you inspect the edges; the unfinished seams.


This very deliberate construction of the space is as integral to the understanding of show as the work displayed.

Curated by Esther Teichmann & Christopher Stewart and designed by Studio Hato, the exhibition presents a range of work concerning spaces and environments, simulated for the anticipation of conflict. The work of the seven photographers on show, working independently around similar subjects since the turn of the Millennium, documents these non-places, calling into question both the nature of the subjects, and the possibility of capturing them through photography.

An-My Lê’s Twentyninepalms series documents the US military’s copy of the Middle East in the Californian Desert. A sprawling facility where training scenarios are played out in an approximation of villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose footprints have been taken from satellite imagery, recreated and repurposed. Actors are employed to play locals, and the public may attend tours to watch the battles unfold. It’s the missing link between Disneyland and Westworld.

Large scale transfers of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Chicago series function more as installation than photography, inviting the eye to be tricked by a large corridor or a blast hole in the wall — until closer inspection reveals a skewed perspective, or the double fakery of stick-on rubble that appears to be made from polystyrene.

A reference to Jean Baudrillard’s 1991 collection of essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place in the gallery text is particularly telling, and explains the majority of the exhibition. The mediated spectacle of these postmillennial conflicts, as experienced through the endlessly looping news coverage, presents something entirely separate from the reality of whatever events are taking place on the ground; where real human lives are lived and lost through bloodshed and suffering.

Target Camera

The works on display call attention to the artifice by exposing the similarities; a world where the consequences are merely part of the acceptable noise blaring from a television or a set of speakers. A war taking place in the abstract space behind the screen.

It seems, from this safe distance, that the experience of the simulated and the real is indistinguishable, especially with regard to modern conflict, and the exhibition does well to draw attention to this all too comfortable relationship.

The commingling of war and mediation of war appears to spread in all directions. Militaries consult television networks about communications technology: how the video feed from a weapon used drone could learn something from so many live sports broadcasts. Meanwhile most NATO military partners have now bought expensive licences for Bohemia Interactive’s Virtual Battlefield Simulator 3, whilst the public settle for getting their wargames from the same studio’s slightly more action-focused ARMA series.

The sound work in the exhibition, produced by members of UAL’s CRiSAP group, reinforces the complexity of our relationship with modern conflict; at times providing a grounding effect to all the static by focusing on consequences for individuals, and elsewhere demonstrating the easy acceptance of rhetoric; winning hearts and minds with a shrug of inevitability.

The entirety of Staging Disorder is perhaps more important than any of its individual elements. As such, the curatorial approach could be taken as the real work on display, and the staging of an exhibition the real purpose, with the work hanging on the wall becoming a secondary element. Like background props on a large film set.


Staging Disorder runs from Monday 26th January – Thursday 12th March 2015

Monday – Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 11am-4pm, Sunday closed

London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle, London, SE1 6SB

Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects

Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby are professors at the RCA and University of Applied Arts (Vienna), respectively. Their work is described on their joint website design as “design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies”.

In the chapter on their ‘Placebo Project’, the authors conduct interviews with a number of people, each of whom had applied to ‘adopt’ a design object for a period of time. The subjects were told nothing about the objects themselves, nor the wider aims of the research, except that it related to electromagnetic fields. Following the period of ‘adoption’, the subjects participated in interviews in which they shared their thoughts and experiences about the products they had lived with, and about electromagnetic fields. Some of the objects did indeed contain sensors which stimulated some frivolous function when detecting electromagnetic fields; others were placebos. The participants described their various ponderings, experiments and attempts at making meaning of their experience.

Photograph of woman with Dunne & Raby's 'Compass Table'

The purpose of the research was not to glean anything concerning the products themselves (which ranged from a portable loft, to a satellite tracking table), but rather, to gain insight into the way that these objects impacted life in the homes of the people living with them — using design as a vehicle to encourage people to engage with a subject through their own lived and felt experience. If there was an aim or final product of this research, it was the active contemplation of electromagnetic fields by the subjects.

The interviews resulted in a broad and nuanced series of responses, displaying the richness of concerns and considerations brought about by the project. The topics of conversation included the perceived character of the objects, how one object can have a totemic quality which redefines relationships with others, and even a metaphysical query about a table having ‘misrepresented itself’. Perhapst had fallen off the edge of ‘tableness’.

The process was one of discovery by the subjects — as much about themselves, their homes, and the world around them as it was about these objects they had lived with. The notion of ‘critical design’, which questions rather than answers, affords the opportunity to consider design as a medium, a vehicle of enquiry, and a starting point for dialogue.


Dunne, A., Raby, F., 2001. Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. August/Birkhauser. Section 05: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects

Beyond metaphor in product use and interaction

Thomas Markussen of the Kolding School of Design (Denmark), and Elif Özcan & Nazli Cila of TU Delft (Netherlands) explore in this article the need for greater sophistication in our understanding of ‘product metaphor’ in order to engage in more productive discourse over the meaning of objects.

Taking their own product analysis of Alessandro Mendini’s Anna G corkscrew for Alessi, the authors demonstrate that complex, and even contradictory, readings of an object emerge over time, through the continued interaction between users and objects; yet the existing notions of product metaphor often stop at the level of (often overt) visual metaphor, where one concept (the source) can be ‘mapped’ onto another (the target) owing so some common trait of appearance. In the case of Anna G, that the corkscrew looks like a woman is obvious, but this alone offers no insight.

Cila’s interpretation of the object occurred on the visual level, expressing the associations she makes between the object and the mixture of gothic style and American suburbia to be found in the films of Tim Burton.

Image of Anna G corkscrew by Alessi

Özcan’s reading of the product takes a step further and considers how the use and movement of the corkscrew converge to create meaning — the anthropomorphised Anna G expresses delight as she comes closer to opening a wine bottle, perhaps reflecting or signalling the possible mood of the user.

Finally, Markussen’s experience of using Anna G shows the most marked development as he delves into possible meanings of a full range of interactions with the product. The first meaning he maps onto Anna G is a simple visual metaphor — that of a saintly woman; seeing the ‘hair’ as a halo. After using the product, he then finds that his initial response is at odds with the use of the corkscrew, which entails the act of removing the pulled corkscrew from under the skirt of the female figure. This leads him to draw all manner of associations between alcohol, gender issues, and sexual activity.

The authors use these varied and conflicting meanings to elucidate on their concept of ‘product blends’, which affords more than one meaning being attributed to the object, each possibly deriving from a different interaction with it, or perhaps simply developed over time, as an individual lives with it.

It is true that we constantly recontextualise information in light of changing circumstances or perceptions, and so a model which recognises that meaning is not fixed by our first impressions seems not so much a great conceptual leap, as a pragmatic offering based very much on an understanding derived from continued, multifaceted experience.


Markussen, T., Ozcan, E., Cila, N., 2012. Beyond Metaphor in Product Use and Interaction. Presented at the Design and semantics of form and movement (2012), p.110.

Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things

A psychologist and engineer by education, Donald Norman has been greatly influential in the field of Human Centred Design, and has offered insights for designers on the interaction of people and objects. He has previously written on aesthetics, practicality and usability of products, but in this book he expands on the need for other, less logical needs to be fulfilled: namely, the importance of emotion in design. In the introduction to the revised and expanded edition of The Design of Everyday Things (Norman, 2013) , he cites the critical importance of pleasure and fun to the overall experience of a product — an idea which is introduced in the Prologue by way of a discussion on three teapots that he owns and enjoys, but whose appeal does not lie in plain function and utility. In fact, he states that he uses none of them on a daily basis. Of the three tea pots, one is deliberately unusable; the second is more attractive than practical; the third is highly practical but complicated.

Photograph of Donald Norman's symbolic teapots

Norman uses the properties he enjoys in each of these three objects to introduce a model of design, which he later expands as three discrete, but not independent, levels of processing present in the human brain: Visceral, Behavioural, and Reflective. These result in our instinctive, routine, and contemplative responses to stimuli, respectively.

The author goes on to explain how certain traits of these three levels might be beneficial for different circumstances by detailing how they influence the state of an individual’s psycho-physiological ‘affective system’ — broadly speaking, a state of positive affect, brought about through relaxation, happiness, etc. is more conducive to the reflective layer, enabling creative thought, learning and curiosity. Conversely, negative affect — caused by the instinctive, visceral emotions such as fear, anger, excitement — are more likely to bring about focus in an individual.

These insights can be used by designers when considering the effect they intend to have on the user. It is an intuitive model, but one that is particularly useful to consider when considering how one might design to elicit particular emotion in an audience, or when designing for users who might be in a particular affective state.



Norman, D. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty

In this article the authors, from the department of Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art, consider the most beneficial use of ‘cultural Probes’ – a design research method first outlined in 1999 by Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti, which involves the completion of a series of ‘evocative’ activities by numerous subjects, providing the designer with oblique insights which might inform and inspire their ideas. The intent behind the Probes, as a research tool, was to embrace the playful, irrational & surprising, as well as to accept and make explicit that designers are bound by their own knowledge, experience and preferences. The Probes would offer an opportunity to explore routes to new perspectives and which were, by necessity, open to interpretation; however, the authors note an increased tendency for researchers to miss both the point and the potential of the approach.

They argue that any attempts to extract hard, comprehensible facts from this process, which is based on highly personal expressions and interpretations, will lead to important information being missed – the kind which cannot readily be quantified, but exists in the images and characterof the subject which somehow emerges in the mind of the designer. The value lies not in rational, scientific, ‘objective’ results, but those fleeting, messy asides which can’t easily be quantified but in which might exist some of the deepest truths.

There are many ways in which to meaningfully analyse data but there can also be a compulsion to draw broad, normalised conclusions from information. The article suggests there is value in the activity of ‘Probology’, which lies in fancy rather than facts. It brings to mind Thomas Gradgrind in the novel Hard Times (Dickens, 1854), a man ’ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you exactly what it comes to’, but cultural Probes offer an opportunity to engage in a personal dialogue, and reject the assumption that a certain result can, or should, be held up as the most valuable aim of design research.



Gaver, W.W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., Walker, B., 2004. Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. interactions 11, 53.