What Is A Video Game?

by Winterfate

While most forms of entertainment are easy to define as video games, others toe the line. This article will define what makes a form of entertainment a video game.

Ever since mankind has existed, so too it has searched for ways to entertain itself in the downtime between hunts, jobs, or what have you. Despite the concept of the video game being seemingly self-explanatory, where the line between video game and something else is drawn is usually different for each person. During the course of this article, I will attempt to give my own definition of the things that define a video game.


Perhaps the most important thing that differentiates a video game from many other forms of entertainment is interaction. The ability to influence the events occurring in a video game is the driving factor behind actually playing a video game. Players are given a list of controls and/or commands that they can use in each video game to control whatever it is they are supposed to be controlling, such as a character or a civilization. Virtually all video games feature the use of an interface to facilitate the use of the in-game controls.

The controls can be as simple as moving a character in four directions to as complicated as some robot video games that feature their own special controllers because conventional controllers don't have enough buttons.


The second determining factor in what defines a video game is the goal. Every video game ever created has had a goal for its players to achieve. For example, take the very old example of Pong. In Pong, the goal is to outscore your opponent by moving a paddle to hit a ball from your side to the opposing side of the screen, hoping that your opponent cannot hit the ball back to you in the process.

Video game goals are defined by the genre. For example, in most fighting games, the goal is to reduce your opponent's health to zero before he or she can do the same to you. In racing games, the goal is to reach the finish line (and/or complete a certain amount of laps) first. In roleplaying games, the most common goal is to defeat the final boss.


The third and final thing that separates video games from other forms of entertainment is a set of rules. When you watch a movie, you are not constrained by any rules. However, when you go to play your favorite video game, your playing experience is influenced by the rules the game was created around. To take the example of Pong once again, the rules are as follows:

  • You can only move your paddle vertically (that is, up or down).
  • The ball must not reach the portion of the screen behind your paddle.
  • If the ball reaches the back portion of your side of the screen, your opponent gets a point.
  • If the balls reaches the back portion of your opponent's side of the screen, you get a point.

It's a very simple video game, but even Pong has rules. Obviously, the more complex the game, the more rules it has.

The Fine Line of Video Games

When some video games almost feel like they're not.

Essentially there are a few video games that don't feel like your average gaming experience. For example, Dear Esther is a game of exploration, where you would be hard pressed at times to even call it a video game. However, if you go back to my list of three criteria, it fits them perfectly:

  • Interaction: You control your character exploring a variety of locales.
  • Goal: Uncover snippets of information that eventually coalesce into a story.
  • Rules: You have to work within the constraints of the control system provided.

In fact, Dear Esther is similar to Myst, which is another interactive experience that involves exploration to uncover a story. Both of them may feel more like movies than video games at times, but they still fit the definition of what constitutes a video game.


In conclusion, I have given a trio of criteria that I believe are essential for a form of entertainment to be defined as a video game. If a work does not have interaction, a goal and a set of rules, then it cannot be considered a video game. Feel free to discuss any other factors you consider I may have missed that define video games in the comments section of this article.

Until the next time, take care and have fun! ;)


Updated: 07/28/2012, Winterfate
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(Comments) What factor(s) do you consider define(s) a video game?

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Winterfate on 07/29/2012

Thank you very much for the comment Jo! Glad you liked this article! :)

JoHarrington on 07/28/2012

I think that, as long as some interaction is taking place, then it's a game. If you're passively sitting there watching something, then it's a movie/video/TV show. If you have to intervene to make it progress (beyond pressing play), then it's a game.

Great ideas here!

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