How many times have you heard that? Work is a game, courtship and relationships are games, war described using dominoes, etc. etc. etc.

On the second day of a video game theory class I took in college, my teacher, Jesper Juul, divided us all into teams and gave us the task of creating our own definitions for what a game is. It was much more difficult than I thought it would be. Do games need rules and goals? What about so-called ‘non-games’ like Blueberry Garden, and Passage, and A Slow Year? Are games fun? Do they need objects and subjects? Are games abstract problems or imaginary worlds? Do all games have narratives, even chess? Is a game a pheasant?

It all seemed very exhausting to think about. We threw together a definition in the last minute, and with much trepidation and uncertainty, we presented our definition to the class: “Games are activities that carry certain constraints and governing laws that allow for behavioral action and yield a quantifiable result.”

The other groups’ definitions:

  • “A game is a choice activity where players follow a set of rules in a constructed system to yield a quantifiable outcome.”
  • “A game is a designed experience intended for the player's amusement in which the player makes decisions and follows rules to confront artificial challenges in pursuit of goals.”
  • “A game is a designed experience in which a player makes decisions and follows rules in pursuit of an outcome.”
  • “A game is a system in which players engage in artificial challenge with artificial constraints, are limited by rules meant to encourage entertainment and are given the means to achieve results.”

Then, Jesper asked us all to critique these definitions. After much back and forth and teleological jousting about the problems of “fun” and “rules”, Jesper asked, “Is college a game?” The room fell silent. Everyone seemed to be in deep contemplation. It took a while before anyone would respond, but I couldn’t help but think college was in fact a game. Looking at the definitions on-screen – with the exception of certain nouns and adjectives – they all seemed to consent that college was indeed a game.

I remember this intense sensation of mental swimming, bouncing around objects and ideas in my head that had not been cross-examined since I was a toddler. Is traffic a game? Is eating a game? Is life a game? Does the game emerge from cosmic design, or is it a meta-game that living things create? All of this can get very circular and labyrinthine, but I found it incredibly fascinating and exciting to think about. 

I used to think that a game was something that pitted you against imaginary oppositional forces. Now, I’m not so sure. Any game’s forces, threats, objects, and subjects can be very real to the right kind of eyes.

Jesper said he would show us a selection of definitions by noted game theorists. Finally, I thought, a cheat sheet. But they didn’t offer any final judgment, no rays of ultimate, universal, unshakable truth. Actually, they shared a resemblance to our definitions, and provided more questions than answers. Then I remembered, for me the question is always more interesting than the answer.


Game theorists' definitions of "game".

Fast-forward six months. It’s the summer and I’m reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I’m struck by the character of Judge Holden for many reasons, but in particular his ruminations and proclamations on how war and life are games.

I started thinking of other books I’ve read that contained similar theories on the nature of life and games. So, I thought it would be interesting to compile any literary excerpts and quotes that relate to this subject. I’ll start with Blood Meridian, the inciting work. I would add a new page for these, but Bitmb won't let me, and I can't get thumbnails … grrrr. 

I intend for this to be an ongoing series, and I’ll post as I accumulate more material.

Let’s hear any you guys might have. Film dialogue, lyrics, quotes, etc. Or just some intellectual banter on the nature of games, and your own definitions.

* * *

"Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to his moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god."

– Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West)

"The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all."

– Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West)

"And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons."

– Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West)

"It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be…. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god."

– Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West)

"His love of danger, his intense appreciation of the drama of an adventure–all the more intense for being held tightly in–his consistent view that every peril in life is a form of sport, a fierce game betwixt you and Fate, with Death as a forfeit, made him a wonderful companion at such hours."

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World)

"Life is like Tetris. If it doesn't fit, just flip it over "

– Sabine Hein


"One of the most difficult tasks men can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games and it cannot be done by men out of touch with their instinctive selves."

– Carl Gustav Jung


"Life was a damned muddle . . . a football game with every one off-side and the referee gotten rid of–every one claiming the referee would have been on his side."

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise


“Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.”

– Ted Turner


"Take someone who doesn't keep score, who's not looking to be richer, or afraid of losing, who has not the slightest interest even in his own personality: he's free."

– Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi


"If he had unlimited money at his disposal, he might go into the wilds somewhere and shoot big game. I never know what the big game have done to deserve it, but they do help to deflect the destructive energies of some of our social misfits."

– Saki, The Unbearable Bassington

“I'm not afraid of death. It's the stake one puts up in order to play the game of life.”

– Jean Giraudoux

"Success is not a harbor but a voyage with its own perils to the spirit. The game of life is to come up a winner, to be a success, or to achieve what we set out to do.”

– Richard M. Nixon


"This is not some silly game…This is life and death Angels and demons."

– Melissa de la Cruz

"It may be that all games are silly. But then, so are humans."


– Robert Lynd

"Tis all a Checkerboard of Nights and Days Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays: Hither and thither moves, and mates, and stays, And one by one back in the Closet lays."


– Edward FitzGerald