I made some bold assumptions in my last post. Namely that Fifth Edition might not be a game. That assertion certainly requires a further elucidation. So, if you'll allow me ...
Generally game is defined as: "a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck."
In this sense, fifth edition might be considered a game even though the competitive element has been downplayed to a significant degree.
Game as a concept, however, is much more nuanced. Wittgenstein, the first to really philosophically take a crack at defining the idea, pointed out that the elements of most games, including play, competition and structure (or rules) are insufficient to capture the concept of "game", and indeed that the term cannot be so much defined as categorized by family resemblances.
Wikipedia tell us that the philosopher Roger Callois took a crack at it nonetheless by defining the elements of a game as being,
"fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character
separate: it is circumscribed in time and place
uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable
non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life
fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality"
Upon which account 5e could be said to possibly satisfy most of these elements fairly strongly except for the uncertainty. The uncertainty is there, to be sure, simply because players do not know the outcome of the story. But don't they? They know they'll almost assuredly make it through to the end, and ideally they will be the heroes once again. This ties directly into the whole death conversation of earlier, but I do suppose one could take out death as a possibility and retain some uncertainty.
Game designer Chris Crawford (again the almighty Wikipedia) went into a little more depth and highlighted the idea of playing "against" someone. While he admits that having someone you play against is a conflict (or whom can interfere with you as a competition) he underlines the problem in considering algorithmic artificial intelligences "someone". Is such an entity an active participant working against you? For if not, then it is a puzzle, not a game. And given the uncertainty with whether D&D played in the default style of 5e satisfies Callois' idea of uncertainty this interference could be considered algorithmic in quality. If a player is "playing right" and the DM is "playing by the rules" then D&D is just a puzzle you figure out so that the story can come to its conclusion. Crawford's final definition of a game is an "interactive, goal-oriented activity ... with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other." So, given that the only active agent for the players to play against is the DM then it is understood that D&D is players vs DM. At the least this brings into question the way many RPGs today are played being called games.
Clearly the topic is a deep one, as most things philosophers fret about are. And some contend that a clear definition still eludes us. This, later philosophers took issue with, and in fact have developed somewhat of a consensus around Bernard Suits' definition in Grasshopper, Games, Life and Utopia when he said games are, “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” I personally like that very much and tend to join in the consensus. I will not summarize the arguments here, but suffice it to say that Suits and those who commented upon his work have sufficiently analyzed this definition to adequately stand the philosophical test of durability.
So, to answer the question of this blog post, "What is a Game?"
A game is "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."
So, is 5e a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. Well, in true philosopher fashion. I suppose that all depends on how you define obstacle. No, I won't go there. But I will offer a few questions for consideration. Are the obstacles in your game really obstacles? Is their defeat or their solution to them a forgone conclusion? Is the entire game a farce? And if we are going to say that it really doesn't matter. An obstacle is an obstacle. It doesn't stop being an obstacle just because I defeat it easily. It is an obstruction placed in the way of the story being completed. The fact that I will inevitably overcome it doesn't not make it an obstacle.
Very well. I will concede that. We could argue all day about whether an obstacle easily overcome is an obstacle at all, let's just say it is an obstacle. Does overcoming such an obstacle really satisfy? If the forgone conclusion is that it really doesn't challenge you, it just slows you down ... Well, friends all I can say to that is I have better things to do with my time. Better games to play.