We all grew up getting a random mix of games and puzzles. Some games got called puzzles, and some games didn’t. But criteria for “when is it a game, and when is it a puzzle” has never really been established. I hear some people say that puzzles are “games that make you think”, but I think all games should make you think. So what is a puzzle, really?
So firstly, let me tell you about MY proposed definition for “puzzle”. I know, I’m not going to change the English language, and that’s not my goal. My goal is to have clear concepts for myself and other people who care about understanding the medium of games better. If you want to make up a new word to refer to the concept I’m about to describe, please feel free.
Breaking it Down
So, we start with interactive systems. These are all different types of interactive systems. Microsoft Flight Simulator, or Garry’s Mod, or even Minecraft, is a bare interactive system (assuming no house-rules or special “scenario” that includes a goal / competition is in effect). Some call these things “sandboxes”. They can also be described as “toys” (although toys has the connotation of being ‘for children’; for our purposes, please ignore that).
Add a solution to the interactive system, and you get a puzzle. Examples would be sudoku, Braid, a Portal level, a dungeon in Zelda, jigsaw puzzles.
Add competition to the puzzle, and you get a contest. Weightlifting contests, hot-dog eating contests, Guitar Hero, Whack-A-Mole, Candyland, horse-shoes. Contests are a pure measurement of who has bigger muscles, faster reactions, better luck, or has something more completely memorized.
Add ambiguous decision-making to the contest, and you finally have a GAME. Games are puzzles, and games are contests, but they also have ambiguous, endogenously-meaningful decision-making, which changes their nature vastly. Even if you win in a game, you can question your moves. Was that really the right move? Sure, it worked, but could there have been an even better move?
Again, these are prescriptive definitions. I know the dictionary says otherwise, especially with “game” (which it defines as “an amusement or pastime”). These are proposed useful definitions.