4 Game on!

Did you know that 2.2 billion people across the world play digital games? That’s almost a third of the global population. A lot of people still think that games are for children, and that they’re especially for boys. But in 2017, studies found that the average gamer is around 35 years old and that 46%1 of all gamers are women.

The spread of powerful smartphones has made games more accessible to people who might not have played on computers or consoles. The rise of independent games has also made different types of games available to players. Fighting and sports games are still popular, but you can now also play a range of games that focus on things like exploring new worlds, solving puzzles or expressing emotions.

These days, games really are for everyone!

Defining games

So now that we know who plays games and why they are so popular, we should try to answer a more basic question: what is a game?

Exercise 1

What is a game? If you’re an experienced gamer, you might already have an answer to that question. Before you read on, write your answer down and see how it compares to ours!

Games have four defining traits.2 The first is a goal. When you play a game, there is something in particular you want to achieve. You want to score the most points, beat the enemy or get the special item. Everything you do in the game is about achieving that goal.

The second trait that defines a game is a set of rules. These rules limit how you can go about achieving your goal. If your goal is to match three of the same candies in a row, then the rules tell you that you can only swop out two adjacent candies at a time. Rules are what makes a game interesting. They encourage the player to find creative ways of solving a problem.

A game also has a feedback system. That means that a game will tell you if you’re getting closer to or further away from your goal. If you’re moving away from your goal, you’ll lose points, lose health or have to start again. If you’re getting closer to it, you’ll get points, gain health and level up.

Finally, a game is defined by voluntary participation. When you play a game – either by yourself or with friends – you agree to play according to its specific goal, rules and feedback system. That means that you are opting in to the game, and that you and other players have a shared understanding of how it works.

Let’s look at an example that illustrates the first three defining features. In the game Snake that you can play on an old Nokia cellphone, your goal is to score as many points as possible. You do that by catching and ‘eating’ small objects in the game. The game has a few rules: you can only move up, down, left or right (not diagonally), two parts of the snake cannot touch and you cannot move through walls. You receive feedback in two ways: you get more points, and your snake gets longer.

The simple game of Snake (Nokia, 1997)

You can think of a game as a magic circle3 that you step into when you start to play. Inside the circle, things and actions take on new meanings. When you play Rock Paper Scissors, your fist is not just a fist anymore; it beats scissors and is conquered by paper.

As a gamer, knowing that games are made up of goals, rules and feedback systems can help you understand what you’re trying to achieve, how you can achieve it, and how you’ll know if you’ve achieved it.

This is also helpful for anyone who is interested in reviewing games or making games of their own.

Exercise 2

If you wrote down a definition of a game, can you explain how our definition differs from yours?

Exercise 3

Use one of your favourite games to explain the four defining traits of a game.

Exercise 4

Can you find examples of how actions and objects take on new meaning in some of your favourite games?

Games are good for you

A lot of people still think that games are bad for you. They say games make you lonely and isolated. They say games hurt your eyes. They think you’re wasting your time, and that you should be studying or working instead.

But besides giving you something fun to do, games can actually have a positive impact on your life. Let’s look at a few of the benefits of gaming.

Games build communities

Did you know that in the United States 53% of people who play games frequently play them with other people, both online and in person?4 That means that all of those people are using games as a tool for connecting with their friends and family, and even making new friends online! There are many ways that you can share the experience of gaming with others.

When you play sports, you learn to collaborate with others to achieve a shared goal. You do your part to make the team better, and you support your teammates. Even when they’re struggling, you cheer them on. And whether you win or lose, you respect your opponents. The same is true for gaming!

But what if you don’t play games with other people? Can you still get some social benefit from games? Of course! Talking to people about your favourite games, sharing stories and strategies, is a great way to connect with others.5

A group of players interacting with one another through a game called Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik, 2013)

Games challenge you

Any game you play gives you a problem to solve. It might be a simple problem (jump over the blocks to stay alive), or it might be a difficult problem (break a complex code to unlock the next clue). But whether they’re simple or difficult, the game will reward you when you find the solution. Games teach you to face challenges head on, instead of shying away from them.6

Games also activate the part of your brain that is responsible for strategic planning.7 As you try to figure out a solution to the problem the game has given you, you learn how different parts of the game work together8 and how you can influence them.

In these ways games are helping you to develop a problem-solving attitude that you can apply to your everyday life.

A word puzzle game called Alpha Bear (Spry Fox, 2015) which challenges the player to make words with random letters

Games make you tech savvy

Playing games is a fun, exciting way to become familiar with technology. When you play games you use different parts of a computer or console to achieve your goal. You need the processor to make sure that the game keeps up with your input. You need the keyboard and mouse so that you can tell the game what you want to do. And you need headphones and a microphone to talk to your teammates while you play. The more you play, the more comfortable you’ll become with each of these parts and learn to use them for other purposes as well.

We’ll talk about all the different parts of a computer in more detail in the next section.

A player in Langa, Cape Town, trying out Virtual Reality technology.

© Xola Dos Santos

Making a living from games

Have you ever thought about playing or making games as a job? Can you imagine getting paid to play your favourite game every day, or making a game of your own? These aren’t farfetched ideas. A lot of people around the world, and even in South Africa, make a living from games. And you can too! Here are some of the most well-known ways you can turn gaming and games into a career:


Over the last few years, eSports have taken the gaming world by storm. eSports refers to competitive gaming, where individuals or teams play against one another in order to win prizes. What makes eSports so popular is that they’re fun to watch. You might not be playing the game yourself, but you get to be part of the action and experience the excitement.

Some of the most popular games that are played competitively include: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Hidden Path Entertainment and Valve Corporation), FIFA (Electronic Arts), DOTA 2 (Valve Corporation) and Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment). We’ll look at some of these examples again later in this guide.

eSports players are professionals who practise full time, and make a living from sponsorships and competition prizes. Because eSports attracts so many viewers, big brands are willing to spend money on players and events. This also means that the prize pools for eSports tournaments are huge. In 2017, first prize at The International (a yearly DOTA 2 tournament) was over R120 million!9

In South Africa, eSports is still a growing industry. We’re seeing more and more skilled players and big tournaments come onto the scene.10 If you want to be an eSports player, I-CAN PLAY is the perfect place for you to level up until you’re ready to play in the big leagues.

Let’s Plays

As digital games become more and more popular, they start to attract different types of audiences. Some people don’t want to know anything about a game before they get to try it themselves, and others want more information about the story or gameplay before they dive in. There are even people who prefer to watch games being played, instead of playing games themselves.

Today, Let’s Plays are a popular way of showing an audience what a game is all about. These are videos that walk you through parts of a game, and include commentary from the gamer. Let’s Plays use screenshots and video clips to show off the most fun, funny, scary or exciting interactions in the game. Gamers who make Let’s Plays – they can be professionals or amateurs – might try to attract more viewers by doing something interesting, like speedrunning11 through a popular game.

Because so many people watch Let’s Plays on platforms like YouTube, gamers who make these videos also make a lot of money from advertising. If you want to start making Let’s Play videos and building up a following of people who enjoy watching you play games, you can use the hardware and software available at the I-CAN PLAY centre to record, edit and advertise your videos.

Game development

Today, the process of making digital games is easier than ever. So many of the tools that can help you make an interactive experience are now free to use, and simple to learn. And you don’t even need to know how to code!

Making games has always been an interdisciplinary exercise. That means that it takes people with very different skills – people who can write, people who can code, people who can draw – to make a game that is fun and interesting. It also means that the world of game making is open to everyone. No matter what your skills or interests are, you can find a way to apply them in the process of game development.

Did you know that we have a strong game development industry right here in South Africa? In 2016, there were 31 active game development studios in the country.12 Some of these studios have made successful, award-winning games.13 The local game development industry supports young people who are interested in making games by giving advice and hosting workshops. If you want to make your own digital game, you can learn more about the process and meet some local developers at I-CAN PLAY.

That’s it for your introduction to the wonderful, exciting world of gaming and game development. We hope you feel a bit more familiar with topics like: