All games are rituals. Any game with a story attached to it, even a story as general as that of chess, is a kind of ritual reenactment. A game as abstract as Chinese checkers can take on this aspect of ritual if you play it with someone young enough to make statements like, "my guy does this." At any age, it's difficult not to think of one's playing pieces in a game as extensions of oneself - playing go, you might say to an opponent, "you atari'ed me!" rather than, "you atari'ed my playing pieces!" (I'm paraphrasing this concept and example from Scott McCloud's discussion of icons in Understanding Comics.)

The things we surround our games with have ritual significance as well. Why do serious go players insist on having proper stones, a nice board, and those funny little pots to keep their stones in? None of that has to do with the game itself. It's all arbitrary - the game plays just as well with little scraps of paper and, I don't know, some chicken wire. But certain game components have come to have emotional resonance through the force of centuries of tradition, and tradition is ritual.

More ornate games, such as the apotheosis of hobby gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, have an obvious ritual component (and yes, we're leaving aside the game's sword and sorcery connotations and any rumors of Satanism and that crap). In his novel Microserfs, Douglas Coupland tossed off a fast and wonderfully apt summation of D&D and other roleplaying games, as "teenagers roaming (in packs) in search of identity." A game as freeform as a tabletop RPG can hardly help but to tell the participants something about themselves, almost like a vision quest - whether or not the participants are paying any attention.

To label certain games as nothing but ritual, as opposed to others which are really games, is not just to dismiss naively the primacy of ritual in so much that we do, but to pose a deeply problematic and recklessly absolute definition of what a "real" game is. Right on the face of it, there's backgammon, and other games in which luck and skill interact as finely as the ingredients in a sophisticated cocktail. There are also games in which there is not technically anything left to chance, but there is so much hidden information that the game becomes utterly chaotic.

Besides all of the above, there's another problem. As Magic: the Gathering designer Richard Garfield wrote in one of his "Lost In The Shuffle" columns for the old Duelist magazine, there is luck in chess. It is possible, though unlikely, for a beginner to happen across a strategy that can beat a much stronger opponent. Unless the outcome of a game is always absolutely certain from the start (and who wants to play that?), you can't say that luck plays no role.

In Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game (highly recommended for anyone interested in games, ritual, or the possibility that Hesse didn't always write stuff like Siddhartha), the titular game is a former strategy game that has been stripped of all of its luck and uncertainty, scripted down to the last detail, and made to play a highly ritualized role in society. It is no less fascinating as a game for all this, and maybe more so. Skill in play obviously isn't the criteria we can use for making the distinction.

If we're going to call things like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and let's pretend "children's games," then we can make no distinction at all, because all of our life's activities arise from the creative imitation we do as children.

"It's only a game. Try to remember."