The fallacy of defining games, or what da **** does it matter?
Semantics - the study of meaning and who cares
In my mind there are only 2 industries that functionally depend on/demand semantics: law and academia.
Law practitioners worry about semantics because interpretation of words/phrases determine liability, which means who gets to pay money to whom. You bet they will be splitting hairs.
Academia deals with knowledge, not just knowledge now but also knowledge as it changes over time. As an example, etymology studies the history and evolution of words like how kaput came from the French word for bonnet (capot). The first facet of studying is to be able to measure. To measure, you find out where you start from and where you are presently, then figure the difference between them. Hence the emphasis on semantics, like whether a species of plant belongs to this genus or that.
Everyone else? A certain level of vagary is expected. It imparts a freedom to do what you need to do to fulfill your function. It doesn't matter if lighting is a subset of aesthetics or level design (it's both) - but it becomes vitally important if a player cannot find the level exit because it's too dark.
The whole idea behind innovation is breaking away from tradition to achieve a result better than before. That includes definitions: if I invent a car that does not need wheels, will you claim it is not a car?
In short, make your own peace with the semantic god and leave the rest of us poor sods out of it.
Every definition has its own problems
One definition for games is that it is a "system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome". By that definition, my grade school math exam constitutes a game. Mind you I enjoyed doing the paper, but I am sure not everyone sitting the test that day agrees with me.
(My apologies to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman for using their definition out of many - it is for illustrative purposes only. I would still recommend the book to read.)
Here's my definition: Games are crafted experiences through interaction. If I give you a piece of string and ask you to form a shape with it, it constitutes a game. The player (you) interact with the artifact (string) in an experience crafted by my rule (make a shape). Different rules (make only primitives) and different artifacts (the string is tied in a loop) create different experiences. Watching, while a form of interaction, does not quite "cut" it - that is the divide between games and movies/books.
The problem with my own definition is the level of interaction that marks the boundary. How much interaction? What kind of interaction? Particularly tricky would be visual novels, where the sum total of player interaction is to click to access the next set of dialogue/plot, much like turning the pages of a book. In its most base form, that is all the player does - there are no dialogue choices to change the course of the story, you just "live" the story from that protagonist's view, exactly like an e-book. On the flip side, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and other "game" books are books - but they also can be interacted with actively. Some offer choices that changes the course of the story, others incorporate pen and paper RPG elements like combat systems using dice. The boundaries blur, and that's cool because we aren't limited by what others define to be true.
As they say: Nothing is True; Everything is permitted.
What matters is Value
As a would-be professional, the only knowledge that truly matters is the stuff that lets me work smarter, faster or better. Does defining what a game is help me make a better game? Probably not.
Until/Unless knowing the "exact'iness" of a game gives real benefits in making better games, any definition that works is a good definition; perhaps even my own.
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