(This chapter is part of Gonzalo Frasca's Thesis. Get the full text here).

1 Towards a Definition of Videogames

            In this work, I will use the term videogame in the broadest possible sense, including any forms of computer-based entertainment software, either textual or image-based, using any electronic platform such as personal computers or consoles and involving one or multiple players in a physical or networked environment. While this definition explains what I mean by videogames, it does not describe them in an ontological sense. A naïf approach to answer to this question would be to define videogames simply as “games that are played with a computer”. Still, we first need to understand what games are and, later, which are their particularities when developed in electronic form. So, the first question that needs to be answered is what a game is. As we are going to see, the definition of a game is not always as precise as it would be desired. 

            One of the classic references in game studies is Johannes Huizinga’s essay, Homo Ludens. Huizinga gives two different definitions. The extensive, first one has been criticized by anthropologist Daniel Vidart (1995) as patchwork that only adds confusion to the subject. This is why I will just reproduce Huizinga’s second, more concise definition.

A voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is different from ordinary life. (Huizinga, 1968)

Many elements emerge from this definition. Firstly, that it is an activity that the player volunteers to perform and, therefore, she is able to quit at will. According to this definition, play has both time and space constraints. Rules appear as essential elements and the whole activity is described as being performed by acknowledging it as different from reality.

            Not everybody agrees that games could be explained by a single definition. Wittgenstein (1994) rather finds a “family of similarities” between them, “for if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them and that”. In other words, Wittgenstein does believe that games have so many different characteristics that it is not possible to group them under one category.

            Unlike Wittgenstein, Roger Caillois does believe that games form a coherent corpus of activities. In his Les Jeux et les Hommes: le masque et le vertige,  Caillois (1967) defines four main categories of games. The first category is alea and it includes all the games that are based on chance, such as bets and lotteries. Games grouped under agon are mainly based on a competition where players try to beat each other, like in races. Illinx groups all the games based on the pleasure produced by movement, such as jumping or merry-go-round. Caillois describes role-playing games as mimicry, where the player pretends to be part of an alternative reality. Caillois is aware that many games could be included in more than one category (for example, poker could be both alea and agon). In addition to this classification, Caillois describes games depending on the complexity of their rules. He classifies games with very simple rules as paidea, a Greek word that means both child and school. He uses the term ludus, the Latin word for game, to describe games which rules are more complex. For example, merry-go-round would be an example of paidea and poker would be ludus. Paidea and ludus could be associated with the English terms “play” and “game”, respectively.

            Jean Piaget studied the role of play and games in children’s development. He observed that certain kind of games precede others and studied their relationship with the cognitive, affective and social evolution of children. He classified games in three main groups: games of exercise, symbolic and with rules (Piaget, 1991). The first category includes the games performed by babies and young children, during their first two years of life. These are games where both the senses and movement are involved. The actions of the player are usually repetitive and serve to explore the environment and its objects. According to Piaget, children develop symbolic games between age 2 and 7, approximately. These games rely a lot on the player’s imagination and include, for example, role-playing games. In this stage it is common that children associate one object with a different one (for example, a piece of wood might become a “gun”). When children are about 7 years old, they get involved in a new form of play that involves rules, like soccer or racing. Piaget named this third category “games with rules” and it develops while the child goes under the socialization process. These three main groups of play behaviors emerge, according to Piaget, as the child develops, but the three classes will remain during adulthood.

1.1 Paidea and Ludus

            I have previously reviewed the difference between play and game activities (Frasca, 1997a). Since that work is not available in English, I will summarize its main characteristics. From both Caillois and Piaget’s works, it is possible to distinguish games associated with early childhood from those played by older children and adults. Caillois describes the first group, paidea, as having less complex rules, while Piaget argues that they do not have rules at all. However, Piaget cannot be right, according to the point made by anthropologist Daniel Vidart in his study of games. Vidart points out that the child who is playing and pretending to be a plane is following a clear rule: to extend his arms pretending to be flying. This “plane” make-believe game has particular rules, and they differ from, say, pretending to be a doctor or a locomotive. According to Piaget’s classification, these make-believe games would be symbolic and could not be described as “games with rules”. It is clear that Piaget and Vidart have different definitions for “rule”. The problem is that none of them gives an explicit definition. However, two examples given by Piaget will give us a better idea of his understanding of rules. The first one is about a young boy (Piaget,1991) who has not reached the stage of “games with rules” but plays to run around some bushes. Piaget is particularly interested in his behavior, since the child seems to be following a rule: to run in circles as fast as he can without touching the bushes. Piaget concludes that he is not following a rule, but a regularity (Piaget does not explain the difference between rules and regularities). Later on his book, Piaget describes another case where he questions a group of young, pre-socialized kids that have been playing for a while. He asked them who won the game. The children looked amazed and do not answer, because they do not understand the question: there is not winning and losing before socialization. This example seems to indicate that Piaget’s idea of rule is associated with defining a winner and a loser. According to the previous example, it would seem that Piaget thinks that what regulates exercise and symbolic games are not rules, but regularities. This would explain Vidart’s observation of rules in young children, since he uses a single term, “rule”, to refer to both Piaget’s “rule” and “regularity”. As we are going to see in the next chapters, the difference between games that define a winner and a loser from those that do not do so is very useful to understand both games and videogames. For the sake of better understanding, I propose to differentiate those groups by using two different nouns. I propose to use Caillois’ terms, but with a slight change on their meaning. While Caillois stated that the difference between paidea and ludus was the complexity of their rules, I will use the term ludus to refer the games that have a result that defines a winner and a loser (this group would match Piaget’s “games with rules” category). On the other hand, I understand by paidea all the games that are based on Piaget’s “regularities” and do not define a winner and a loser. For the sake of coherence, I will also refer to Piaget’s “regularities” as paidea rules, and to Piaget’s “rules” as ludus rules.

Paidea rules
Ludus Rules



To turn in circles; players must hold hands




Pawns move one square at a time.

To take the other player’s king.

Table 1. Examples of paidea and ludus rules

Merry-go-round and chess are the two examples analyzed on Table 1. The first one is a clear case of paidea, since it does not have ludus rules (nobody wins or loses at this game). It has many paidea rules but I have just described two of the main ones. One states that players must hold hands, the other that they have to turn in circles. The second game, chess, is a ludus since one player will win at the end of the game session (unless the match results in a draw). This game has both paidea and ludus rules. The ludus rules on the table states that one player must take the other’s king. Even though I have given just one example, chess can have several ludus rules. For example, another rule states that one player can give up the match. In addition to this, it is possible to define a winner after a certain time, depending on the amount and value of each player’s tokens. Chess also have paidea rules, like the ones that describe how to move the tokens. These rules are necessary for playing the game, but do not state a condition for ending the match.

The problem with the categories of  paidea and ludus is that they are not easy to distinguish for an external observer. For example, a child who is jumping on one foot is following a paidea rule: to maintain her equilibrium without using both feet. But if the child has a watch and wants to see if she can stand jumping during 10 minutes, she has created a ludus. As we can see, it is easy to switch from paidea to ludus.

            In general, most of the play involving toys such as construction and role-playing can be described as paidea. The traditional space for paidea is the playground, while the space for ludus is the board, as in the chessboard, or the field or court, as in the soccer field. Time is also different in both categories. Unlike paidea, ludus games are usually time constrained.

1.2 Ludus and Paidea in the Computer

            Paidea is present in the computer in such simple activities as playing around by typing random characters on a word processor. Solitaire, the popular card game distributed with Microsoft Windows, is an example of ludus in the computer.

There are many ways to classify videogames. The industry and the specialized magazines use different genres, such as simulations, platform games, fighting games, etc. These typologies emerged as a need to classify the different products that are available to the players. It is common that these categories overlap and it is common that specialized magazines classify a particular game under two or more different genres. In other words, these typologies are naïve rather than scientific.

            Two French videogame critics, the Le Diberder brothers, created a particular classification (1993) based on the industry’s genres. They group videogames in three main categories: arcade, simulations and adaptations. The first category includes, among others, shooting games (like Space Invaders) and platform games (Super Mario Bros.). Sim City and Microsoft Flight Simulator are included on the simulation category. The third group is defined as games that existed before computers and were adapted into the new medium, such as Microsoft Windows’ Solitaire. Canadian media theorist Jean Paul Lafrance (1994) disapproves Le Diberder’s classification, pointing out that it does not follow the basic rules of taxonomy (for example, some games could be described both as simulations and adaptations). It is beyond the goals of this work to provide a coherent taxonomy of videogames. Even if it is clear that Le Diberder brothers’ classification could be improved, I find useful their description of the genre “simulation”. The Le Diberder brothers describe the genre as having three main characteristics: they represent a “world”; they pay great attention to detail and they have no clear goals. These games have evolved from early computer simulations, which were used by scientists to predict the behavior of complex systems or for training purposes, as in military flight simulators. Scientists are interested in this form of representation because it lets them to predict the behavior of the original system. Instead, players find in simulations a realm where to experiment with a complex system; they simply “play around” with it.

            A videogame simulator like Sim City models the behavior of a real city on the computer. As Le Diberder brothers state, Sim City has a complex set of rules and no clear goal. The player can set her own goals: to create the smallest city without becoming dysfunctional, or to create the richest city, or the biggest city, or the most aesthetically beautiful urban organization. It is impossible to win in Sim City: it is a paidea videogame. The Le Diberder brothers use the term “world” to describe the space of simulations. Actually, the space of simulators usually behaves like a playground, where many different activities can be performed. For example, it is possible to play with all the objects that are available on the city simulator.

            As it happens in the real world, it is easy that a player switch from paidea to ludus and vice versa. A single player might be involved in paidea while piloting in Microsoft Flight Simulator without any goals, but she may suddenly define a rule of ludus if she decides that she would win if she manages to fly under a bridge without crashing. The rule of ludus would be: “I win if I can make it; I lose if I can’t”. In general, many simulators are both designed as environments for paidea and ludus. For example, many flight simulators include different missions (particular goal-oriented activities where the player has to accomplish a certain task, such as bombing a city or landing under bad weather conditions). These ludus are hard coded within the program: the program includes a ludus rule and it will tell the player if she succeeded of not at the end of the session. However, this same mission-based simulator could also be used for paidea: the player could simply not follow the rule and would just play around with the airplane. Actually, this is true is any ludus. And it is true in any simulated environment. I could use Microsoft Word as an environment for play, even if it was not designed with that goal in mind. I could play around by typing randomly and then coloring the text. I can even create a ludus: let’s see how many words I can type in one minute. Any object and space, concrete or abstract, real or simulated, could be used for paidea and could be used for creating a ludus. It is the player and not the designer who decides how to use a toy, a game, or a videogame. The designer might suggest a set of rules, but the player has always the final decision.

(This chapter is part of Gonzalo Frasca's Thesis. Get the full text here).