What are games

I realised while writing the last post on Nash Equilibria that the definition given in game theory for a game does not include many of the activities we would commonly associate as games. This is because the definition in game theory is intentionally restrictive it specifies games where two or more individuals operate within a set of rules where the payoffs for one individual affect the outcomes of another (shot, 2018). What we call games, however, covers a wide and ambiguous spectrum of activities, in this post, I explore the way two theorists have chosen to categorise types of games.

French sociologist Roger Caillois splits games into four categories, chance (Betting, Roulette), competition (football, chess), simulation (make-believe, tag), vertigo (Horseback riding, skateboarding) (Caillois, 2001). Mark Rowes refines these categories further, he first points out that many games of chance are competitive so he instead labels the ‘competition’ category as games of ‘skill’. He also points out the games of chance and games of skill have an internal point they have a specific set of goals for players involved and so belong to the same category. He argues that the vertigo category which Caillois describes as games that “destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (Caillois, 2001, p.23) is not helpful because it would include the one-off rolling down a hill and it is the repetition of an action which makes it a game, so instead he calls this category ‘sequential games’ (Rowe, 1992). Rowe refines Caillois’s four categories to three internal point, make-believe, and, sequential games.

You may struggle as I did to see sequential games as games at all, skateboarding, for example, is easy to see as a play activity but not as a game in itself. Similarly with horse-riding one can play games while on horseback, however, a link between internal point games and the whimsical riding of a horse is not obvious. Rowe (1992) points to the intent of getting a thrill or over coming a challenge within the bounds of a convention such as skateboarding or horseriding as analogous to the arbitrary goal in an internal point game. This just leaves make-believe games as they have no obvious goal, convention or fixed rules. Callios, however, points to the sentiment ‘as if’ or ‘imagine that’ as performing the same function as that of rules (Callios, 2001, p.8). “The convention ‘as if’ insulates an activity from reality just as surely as a conventional goal or a conventional sequence of behaviour.” (Rowe, 1992, p.469).

The link between playing chess, skateboarding and playing doctors at first thought seemed tenuous however what is intrinsic to all is that it is the process of playing them that is the rewarding or to put it more formally a game is “An abstract object (either a sequence or a goal) which is designed to have no instrumental value; the realization or pursuit of which is intended to be of absorbing interest to participants or spectators” (Rowe 1992, p.487).


  • Caillois, R. (1962). Man, play and games. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.
  • Rowe, M. (1992). The Definition of ‘Game’. Philosophy, 67(262), pp.467-479.
  • Shor, M. (2018). Game - Game Theory .net. [online] Gametheory.net. Available at: http://www.gametheory.net/dictionary/Game.html [Accessed 15 Feb. 2018].