Thursday, June 19, 2014

What is the difference between a toy, a game, a puzzle, and a sport?

The distinction between toys, puzzles, games, and sports is often not clear - but they differ from each other in certain key features.

The main difference between toys, games and puzzles is the amount of constraint and authorship the player has over the experience. The more authorship the player has over a puzzle, the more it becomes like a toy. The more the player is the actor following the strict guides of the toy, the more the toy becomes like a puzzle. (In my view, it is unfortunate that Lego moved from offering toys (by providing generic bricks that you could turn into anything you could imagine) to selling puzzles (pre-made movie merchandise kits that come with a construction manual). 
Changing the role of the player changes the experience: When you add a goal to toys it will become a game. For instance, when you say "create the highest tower using these Lego bricks", it becomes a game. When you say, "build an exact duplicate of this tower using these Lego bricks it becomes a puzzle".

Game designer Tj'ièn elaborates:
  • With puzzles, there is usually only one answer, one solution. The player’s role is confined to finding the answer to the puzzle. Like a riddle, the puzzle challenges the player to find the answer. The player is limited. Examples, jigsaw, Sudoku, Rubik's cube, Tower of Hanoi.
  • With toys on the other hand the player is completely free in the way it handles them. There are no hard rules that tell the player what to do or how to do it. The player creates its own experience.
  • Games fit snugly in the middle between toys and puzzles. They allow for more freedom then puzzles and are more confined then toys. In a way, games are puzzle-toys.
  • Definition: There are many definitions for 'game', for example 'A competitive activity or sport in which players contend with each other according to a set of rules'; 'A period of competition or challenge' (
Illustration by Tj'ièn 
  • Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money.
  • A piece of entertainment is a plaything if it is interactive. Movies and books are cited as examples of non-interactive entertainment.
  • If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy. (Crawford notes that by his definition, (a) a toy can become a game element if the player makes up rules, and (b) The Sims and SimCity are toys, not games, or alternatively, simulations (read about the difference between simulations and models here) or toys (no given goals.) If it has goals, a plaything is a challenge.
  • If a challenge has no "active agent against whom you compete," it is a puzzle; if there is one, it is a conflict. (Crawford admits that this is a subjective test. Video games with noticeably algorithmic artificial intelligence can be played as puzzles; these include the patterns used to evade ghosts in Pac-Man.)
  • Finally, if the player can only outperform the opponent, but not attack them to interfere with their performance, the conflict is a competition. (Competitions include racing and figure skating.) However, if attacks are allowed, then the conflict qualifies as a game.
Definition of game (by Chris Crawford)
Different types of games (by skill): Physical, mental, or luck
Also confusingly, it is called the Olympic 'Games' instead of Olympic 'Sports'. In this case, the 'Games' is the overall event that consists of competitions in specific sports.
In computer games, a 'sports game' is a video game that simulates the practice of traditional sports.
Interestingly, the games 'chess' and 'bridge' are recognized as 'sports' (or sometimes called a 'mind sport') by the Olympic Games Committee. However, an UK court decided that Bridge is actually a game and not a sport (Is chess a sport or a game? Is bridge a game or a sport?) (following the distinction of game and sport above). Chess is competitive but does not require physical skills, so it is a game.
Another distinction between toy, game, and puzzle by computer game designer Chris Crawford (Source):

Crawford's definition can be summarized of games as an interactive, goal-oriented activities, with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other.

To extend on the above distinctions, different types of games can be distinguished:
What is the difference between a game and a sport? Again, this is another difficult distinction because of overlapping definitions and multiple meanings (Source).

Sports can be defined as a specific form of physical skill game (requiring physical skills and governed by a set of rules) that usually includes physical exertion (and the possibility of injury) and competition in front of spectators ( (which distinguishes them from other skill games such as dart or lawn bowling).

A bit confusingly, you can play a game of sports, but you can't sport a game; You can play a game of basketball and you can pursue basketball as a sport; Football is a sport, and when you watch it (a particular match), it's a game of football.
In this context, the word 'game' can have several meanings. For example:
-Game as a reference to a specific type of game, e.g. the game of chess (chess in general)
-Game as a reference to a specific match, e.g. a game of chess between friends

AddendumStamp collecting or knitting do not fall into any category described above and are considered 'hobbies'. There is no physical exertion, no game aspect, it can be done 'at your leisure'.

1 comment:

  1. This was a useful post and I think it's fairly easy to see in the other reviews, so this post is well written and useful. Keep up the good work.

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