What Is a Game?

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that there are no such things as essences. He claimed that when we group things together into classes, we are doing so because there are “family resemblances” among the objects of the class. The objects grouped together do not share a common essence. They merely share some similar characteristics.

His most famous example is of the word “game.” Wittgenstein argued that there is no common definition or essence of what a game is.  It is just a word that groups some things together in a class that have “family resemblances” to each other. If we can’t find an essence for a word we use so frequently as game, then surely essences don’t exist. We think we know what a game is, but we really don’t. It’s that way with all words that name objects in the world, argues Wittgenstein.

It surely is hard to define what a game is, but is it true that nobody has ever been able to give a definition of the word game? Is there no essence to games?

David Oderberg, in his book Real Essentialism, cites the philosopher Jesper Juul as arguing that there is an essence to games. Juul offers the following definition:

Jesper Juul, for one, has argued with some persuasiveness that games do indeed have an essence, and that the essence is given by six features: (1) rules; (2) a variable, quantifiable outcome; (3) a value assigned to possible outcomes; (4) player effort; (5) attachment by the player to the outcome; (6) negotiable consequences.

Oderberg notes, “One interesting feature of Juul’s definition is that he seeks to capture our intuitive understanding of what a game is, comparing it to a number of previous definitions found in the literature.”

Oderberg continues:

[T]he ‘variable, quantifiable outcome’ in feature (2) does not require that a game have an outcome that is numerically measurable, only that it be clear, unambiguous, and such that, at the very least, one can in principle say that it has been achieved or not achieved (the quantification here can be thought of as binary – achieve (1) or not achieve (0)).

Hence Wittgenstein’s examples of patience and of a child throwing a ball against a wall, even if they do not involve winning and losing or competition, fall within Juul’s definition. So does his other example of ring-a-ring-a-roses, where the outcome is precisely falling down on the word ‘down!’ So would rope-skipping as typically played by children, where a child either hands over to another the first time she misses the rope or does so after enough misses; in any case, simply staying clear of the rope is a variable, quantifiable outcome. A boxer’s rope-skipping as part of his training is, on the other hand, not a game. Nor is finger-painting or (usually) playing with dolls – a child can play with dolls without playing a game with them.

Oderberg discusses other aspects of Juul’s definition of games, but his main point is that Wittgenstein was far too hasty to claim that there is no essence to games. The bottom line for me is that anyone who claims that there is no such thing as essences has their work cut out for them. The fact that someone was able to offer a persuasive definition for game is bad news for the anti-essentialist, because finding the essence of a game is extremely difficult. If we can find an essence in this difficult case, then we can surely find essences in other easier cases. If we can do that, then there is strong reason to believe that essences exist.