There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether certain video games are, in fact, video games. Games like The Walking Dead or Dys4ia or Dear Esther or Proteus have each been accused of not really being games – sometimes even by people that like them. The argument is usually something along the lines of “they’re neat experiences but I don’t know if I’d call them games.”
But here’s the thing – what constitutes a game is notoriously difficult to pin down. Much like defining “art” it turns out that defining “games” is largely contextual and it’s extremely hard to come up with just one concrete, universal definition. If you cast your net too wide you start including things that are pretty definitively not games – if I just say ‘games are interactive systems’ and leave it at that, I’ve suddenly declared traffic patterns, governments, and dead-end jobs as ‘games.’ But if I say that games are, “interactive software used for fun” where does that leave card games or sports or board games or even – as i’ve mentioned before – games that aren’t traditionally fun like Dark Souls or Amnesia?
Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play spends an entire chapter trying to define exactly what they mean when they talk about games, citing designers and academics from Johan Hoyzinka to Chris Crawford to Greg Costikyan to Roger Callois and more. And they graphed their results, which looked like this. Needless to say, there isn’t really a consistent definition of what a game is. Like ‘art’ or ‘love’ or ‘truth’ the definition you choose to use to define ‘games’ is really dependent on the situation you’re in and what you’re trying to accomplish. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a definition, but that the definition is contextual – “games” means something very different to an Olympic sports caster, a videogame reviewer, and an academic interested in talking about the nature of games in the abstract.
That said, I’ve noticed a lot of people using litmus tests for “gameness” and treating the results as if they have some sort of definitive and absolute value. So I thought I’d try and walk everyone back from using some of the more common ones.
Perhaps the most common test people use to distinguish between ‘a game’ and ‘not a game’ is the presence or absence of a win state or lose state. But you wander into some really iffy territory here if that’s how you define game. I mean, okay, Team Fortress 2 is a game because there’s a clear, explicitly defined win state – either your team pushes the cart to the end of the track or they don’t.
But a lot of things we traditionally consider games don’t have explicit, formal, game-wide winstates. MMOs are a good example of this – you can’t “beat” World of Warcraft or EVE. And the same could be said of simulation games like Train Simulator or SimCity. Or creative games that encourage self expression like The Sims or even Minecraf – or at least Minecraft before the introduction of the Ender Dragon. Which actually highlights the absurdity of this distinction; I mean, did the addition of the Ender Dragon in Minecraft magically transmute Minecraft into a game? And if so what did we gain calling the version before the ender dragon “not a game” and the version with the ender dragon a “game?”
And we also run into another problem – the existence of a win state or lack thereof can be a transient thing. I mean, Animal Crossing is often considered a poster child for so-called “non-games.” At a high level you just decorate a home and talk to fake animal friends. But at the same time, it has fishing contests and and quests to deliver items to neighbors and collections to complete and gambling on the authenticity of paintings – things have clear winstates! And the thing is, you could say the same thing about Skyrim, existing simultaneously as an open ended experience without a formal winstate and as a series of quests each with clearly defined goals. Yet one is a title that is unquestioningly referred to as a game and the other is routinely accused of being not a game. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – win states can contextualize and direct play, but play can and does happen without winstates.
For example, there’s no “winstate” in Half-Life. Sure, I realize that there’s an end to the content. But there’s nothing formally in the system of the game that declares a winstate. As far as the game’s mechanics and systems are concerned, sitting around the train station in City 17 until the end of time no less valid than than completing the story. At most there’s maybe an implicit winstate because progressing rewards you with story content and new mechanics, while sitting at the train station is boring. But the same could be said of The Walking Dead, where not progressing the story is boring and progressing the story is an implicit winstate that rewards play with content!
And really, Half-Life doesn’t differ all that much from The Walking Dead. Both are mostly linear, story driven experiences where if you as the protagonist don’t perform the role properly the narrative stops and the protagonist dies. But both games pretend that’s not really a valid outcome because they want you to complete the story they’ve laid out for you, so they respawn you close to where you lost and ask you to perform the part again. I have to ask: What’s the difference between these two that lands one in the realm of game and the other in some nebulous kinda sorta game territory?
The answer that some people will give to the Half-Life/Walking Dead dichotomy is that one has deeper mechanics than the other. They contend that a given title might not be a game because it doesn’t strongly emphasize the systems and interactions that underlie its play. You know, “Proteus isn’t a game because all you do is walk around” or “Dys4ia isn’t a game because it’s just a bunch of simple mechanics tied together.”
First of all we’re in an even more sketchy area that we were with Winstates – at least you can pretty easily tell if a game has a winstate or not. But how do you meaningfully measure interaction’s depth and complexity, and how do you determine when it’s quote-unquote ‘enough’ to justify being called a game? And like winstates there are plenty of traditional examples that sort of defy this qualifier yet are still considered games. I mean, if the degree and depth of interactivity are at the heart of whether something is a game, what do we say about Plinko – where the only choice is where to drop the disc? Heck, think about this – with slot machines the only meaningful choice is simply choosing to play.
Or we can take this one step further, and talk about The Game. You know, that game that achieved internet meme status seven or so years ago? You lost it just by me bringing it up and having you think about it? That “The Game” game? It’s sort of the videogame equivalent of John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 seconds. In 1952 composer John Cage – no, I’m not going for the obvious joke here, don’t even – composed a song called Four Minutes Thirty Three seconds. It sounds a little bit like this: “ “ It’s probably one of the few songs I can use on YouTube without permission. The idea was a single composer would sit down and play nothing for three movements. It did a lot of interesting things we don’t have time to talk about, but the point I want to make here is that it challenged what music was by framing silence (or at least ambient noise and the lack of a performance) as music. The Game (you just lost again) does similar things because any interaction with the game makes you think about it and therefore lose. So the goal of the game is to not in any way play this game. So just like four minutes thirty three seconds asked if silence can be Music, so too does The Game prompt us to consider whether not interacting at all can be a game. And in the face of a question that challenging to our beliefs about games I don’t know how people can easily say “Proteus isn’t a game ‘cause you don’t do nothin’,” because that’s not a game where you do nothin’. The Game is a game where you are actually supposed to do nothin’.
But in addition to those arguments, consider this – just as music consists of notes and silence, and film editors mix quick edits and long stretches of single shots, so too can game designers use intense interactivity and periods of players being passive. No one says they’re not playing freeze tag just because they’re frozen. A left fielder isn’t not playing baseball just because the action is currently between the pitcher and the batter. Most of a day spent playing golf involves walking and driving between holes! The reality is that while interaction is at the heart and soul of games, that interaction comes with measured ups and downs – periods of quiet passive time and periods of player activity.
So I really can’t buy the idea that The Walking Dead or Proteus don’t have enough interaction to warrant being called games. The fact that The Walking Dead is punctuated with down time doesn’t make its thrilling chases any less gripping or any less interactive. And Proteus’ limited number of mechanics is intentional – the game’s very much about experiencing the space of the island visually and aurally and observing how that space changes with time. It doesn’t want you worrying about cutting down enough trees for winter or killing enough monsters for a high score because those mechanics detract from its goals. It’s a game about observation and emotionally responding to those observations – and while that’s a more internal, more cerebral process than shooting monsters it’s certainly a game that asks you to interact with it.
Interaction is at the heart of games. But getting mad at a game because it doesn’t have enough interaction is like being mad that a song doesn’t have enough notes. You might disagree with the minimalist aesthetic, but that doesn’t make it not a song.
I’ve talked about this one at length before, but let me just reiterate: Nowhere in any definition of a game is fun required. It’s a subjective response to a game, not a qualifier for something itself being a game. And if it is in your definition of game, then your definition is really wishy washy and is only really of use to you and you alone…. which makes discourse about games impossible so whatever, I’m dismissing this entire one out of hand.
Anyways, those are the main three arguments I hear over and over about why a game isn’t really a game at all. But I know there are also a lot of people asking, “If games can’t be meaningfully defined, what’s the big deal either way? Who cares if people think your little nature walk simulator or flash autobiography isn’t really a game? You still made it, and it’s still cool! Don’t let labels define you, man!” And while that’s idealistic and hopeful, it ignores the two very real issues caused by sectioning off what games are and what games aren’t.
The first issue is one of exclusion. The unfortunate reality is that arguing that a game is not a game has been used to casually dismiss titles for well over a decade now. It was used to handwave the efforts of a lot of Nintendo titles like Nintendogs or Animal Crossing, it’s been used to attack casual and social gaming titles like Farmville, and it’s been levied against games like The Sims. These days it’s being used to attack experimental indie games, outsider artists, and titles with a narrativist slant. See, the Game/NonGame debate isn’t just a semantic one, it’s a cultural one. When people come out in droves and say Nintendogs isn’t a game, they’re not just saying that it doesn’t meet some platonic essentialist ideal of what a game is. They’re rejecting it culturally. They’re saying that they, as gamers, know what a game is – and this isn’t what they want. Remember, the meaning of games is somewhat contextual, and in the context of mass numbers of gamers on web forums and blogosphers the difference between “game” and “non-games” is simply “which games do I want to play.”
And in that way the game/non-game debate does matter, because it tries to push games that “hardcore gamers” don’t want to play to the margins. Removing the label of “game” disinvites these sort of games from the greater conversation we’re having; it frames them as “something else,” things that may be cute or interesting in their own right but not a game proper. To put it another way: They’re at Thanksgiving dinner, but they get to sit at the kiddie table; related to games but forever patronized,condescended to, and not taken seriously. It’s a way of minimizing and excluding voices and game types that we otherwise don’t hear from. This is why gamers call Skyrim a game and Animal Crossing not a game. Skyrim is an epic RPG seeped in lore and escapism, and gamers eagerly embrace it. But hardcore gamers don’t want Animal Crossing being canonized as part of their medium because it’s not targetted at their interests – it’s a house decorating and socializing game aimed at relaxation, not system mastery and graphical prowess.
But the second issue is a wider one in that the game/nongame debate ends up limiting the very scope of games themselves. When we say Dys4ia isn’t a game, we’re saying that games can’t provide that experience; that low-fi autobiographical works are a thing, but they’re not a thing games can do. When we say that the zen-like relaxation found in Animal Crossing or Proteus aren’t really coming from a game, we’re saying that games as a medium has nothing to offer those looking for a peaceful evening of unwinding without conflict. When The Walking Dead or Analog: A Hate Story or Twine games are excluded from our definition of games we’re conceding that it isn’t really possible for games to have a strong narrative focus. For every title you exclude from your definition of games you’re putting up a fence, and that fence does two things – it keeps titles you don’t like out, but it also marks the limit between what games can and can’t do.
The definition of “games” may ultimately be ambiguous and largely contextual. But as someone who wants to see games become as vibrant and fulfilling in every facet of the human experience as they can be, I’m extraordinarily hesitant to put up those fences if I don’t need to.