I was having a discussion today in which the question came up of “what makes something a game” — as opposed, say, to a toy or a simulation.
For me there is a fairly simple approximate answer (although of course there are subtleties here): A game is an interactive experience that encourages its participant(s) to aim toward defined goals, and offers some sort of reward for a player who succeeds in reaching those goals. The reward can be minimal (eg: a message that says “Congratulations, you did it!”), but it needs to be present.
This conversation got me thinking about the interactive java applets on my NYU home page. Most of these applets are clearly not games, even though it would have been very easy for me to structure them as games.
And it occurred to me, for the first time really, why I don’t make them as games: Because the last thing I would wish visitors to do is focus on reaching some predefined goal.
Rather, I want visitors to my site to explore with no agenda. My hope is that my ragtag little band of demos will encourage people to follow their own free-wheeling thoughts, to form their own creative associations, and to discover worlds of their own.