Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Evolving Definition

As the game industry has grown and formalized into a more systematic structure over the years, there have been numerous efforts to break the process of game making down into its various components.  How do we create games?  What makes a game fun?  What makes the video game different from other media?  At the core of the industry lies a simple question – one so rudimentary to game development that there’s often no need to even ask it: what is a game?

Of course, professional game developers don’t need to ask what a game is.  It’s something that’s understood somewhere back in the recesses of our minds.  We have an underlying knowledge of what makes a game a game, so we don’t typically need to think about it.  The bigger questions we’re faced with are the questions of how to make a game entertaining, how to make it unique, engaging, immersive, beautiful, and functional.  Generally, the question only comes up when we’re teaching the concept to newcomers. 

“Welcome to Freshman year of your Game Design college program.  This will be your first class.  Open the game design textbook to the first page.  We’ll spend a few minutes discussing this first question.  ‘What is a game?’  Well, let’s take a look at the definition.”

That definition usually reads something like this:

“A game is an activity in which one or more participants work to complete a goal (or set of goals) according to the constraints of a predetermined set of rules.”

This basic definition is held to be the common element between every game ever made.  Every game can be described this way.  It is, after all, the very definition.

While it might be nice to cuddle up with that nice, cozy, clean definition, it’s proving to be less and less reliable all the time.  The indie game scene, in particular, seems bent on breaking down the very definition of what makes a game a game.  Experimental prototypes result in games that remove goals, rigid rules, and consequences, and simply allow players to immerse themselves in a digital world.  Players can experience the game as they see fit.

Now, I don’t want to say this.  I really, really don’t want to say this because of the firestorm it always brings up.  But there is an existing term used for media that exist purely for the interpretation of the viewer.  That term is “art”.

(Warning: Personal Opinions ahead.  I would like to stress this point.)

I regret having to use that word.  I’m not describing video games as art.  On the same note, I’m also not saying that video games aren’t, or can’t be, art.  I am, however, saying that games, based on the strict definition of games, are not typically (in my opinion) art.  Likewise, video games that qualify as art (in MY OPINION) are not exactly games per se.  By divorcing themselves from a rule system or pre-defined goals, these experimental projects remove themselves somewhat from the traditional definition of games.  As they do, they provide an experience that has no real purpose beyond the player’s own interpretation. 

What’s the point of playing this game?  What are you supposed to get out of it?  That’s really up to you.  Some people won’t get anything from it, much like staring at a canvas covered with strange geometric figures yields no impact on the average passerby.  Other people find something significant in it; there’s some deep message being conveyed somewhere inside.  Other people might just think it’s pretty.

What does this have to do with the definition of games?  In the standard concept of a game, the player’s focus is on the completion of existing tasks.  In an artistic piece, a player’s focus is on the product itself.  “What am I experiencing?  What IS this thing?”  As soon as focus shifts from the former to the latter, a game becomes art.  Again, this isn’t to say that what can be considered a “game” cannot also be considered “art” within the same product.  You might take time from completing your goals to simply interpret the game space and create a new experience all your own, but you’re no longer playing the game.  I don’t feel these terms can really be experienced simultaneously.  (The concept of “toyplay” lies within that gray area between gameplay and art, but doesn’t greatly overlap either one.  This discussion can be saved for another day.)

There are (seemingly, at least) a growing number of projects that focus less on the traditional aspects of gameplay and more on the artistic side of this spectrum.  Many people don’t consider these projects to be games.  Still, at the same time, we honor them with video game awards and classify them with other works that are, very much, games.  What this seems to demonstrate is that the term “video game” is, somehow, broader than the term “game”.

Perhaps the real question is, what constitutes a “video game”?  Video games are technically defined as a subcategory of games – games controlled via an interactive, computerized interface.  As a result, however, many other activities controlled by the player through a computer interface are placed under the blanket term “video games”, even though they may not necessarily be games.  This is simply because we don’t have a good way to describe them.

For instance, what exactly is Dear Esther?  It’s not a simulator because it isn’t really designed to replicate a real-world experience (maybe an emotional experience, blah, blah, blah).  Many in the game community don’t like to describe it as a game, either, since it has no immediate established goals.  It has an ultimate endpoint, but so do movies, novels, and songs.  However, if described to someone, the clearest, most basic term to use is “video game”.  The player (or maybe “user”) controls the action and the speed of the progression.  Also, it’s played through a computer.

To take it a step further, what is Proteus?  Proteus has no endpoint, no pre-established goals, no formal story, no consequences for failure (indeed, no failure), and extraordinarily rudimentary graphics.  It’s a very bare-bones representation of the process of exploration.  The player can walk around, and by walking to certain points, cycle forward to the next season at will.  This is the extent of the interactivity in Proteus.  Still, what’s the first term you would use to describe it to someone?  Personally, I would still say, “It’s a video game in which…”

Sure, if you’re talking to a fellow game expert, you might say “It’s not so much a game as it is a ______”.  But if you were to describe it to some random person on the street…

YOU: Hey, have you ever tried out Proteus?


YOU: Well, it’s sort of a…virtual world…experience for your computer where you walk around through a digital environment.

BYSTANDER: You mean a video game?

YOU: No, no, it’s not really a video game.  It doesn’t have any goals to complete or anything to do.  You just walk around and experience the environment.

BYSTANDER: So, what, it’s just some kind of sport or something?  You walk around outside and try to experience the world?  Is that anything like meditation or yoga?

YOU: Well, maybe it’s like that for some people, but no, it’s not a physical activity or anything.

BYSTANDER: But you said you go walking around.

YOU: Well, yeah, you go walking around on the computer screen.  You control someone who walks around.

BYSTANDER: I thought you said it wasn’t a video game?

YOU: It’s not.

BYSTANDER: Sounds like a video game.  It’s on the computer.

YOU: But it’s not a game.

BYSTANDER: Well, you walk around in the computer screen.  Isn’t that a video game?

You and the bystander then have an equally fruitful discussion regarding who, exactly, is on first base.

When we say “video game”, the first image conjured in someone’s head isn’t a set of rules or the act of striving towards a goal.  Rather, it’s the image of someone controlling something with a computer.  Maybe you envision motion technology, DDR, or Rock Band.  Maybe you envision trading resources with a Facebook friend.  Maybe you envision an avatar running through a richly-designed virtual world.  In the end, what we think of when we hear the term “video game” is something the player controls.  We think of interactivity.  In a way, the term “video game” is more about “video” than it is about “game”.

After all, if it wasn’t for the computer, we wouldn’t really consider such things to be games.  If you were stranded on an island, walking through sparse foliage and old, abandoned buildings, looking at things while someone told you stories about his dead wife, you would be more annoyed than intrigued.  You wouldn’t call that a game.  If you saw a movie of the same thing, you wouldn’t consider it a game.  However, if you control a character on a screen doing the same thing, a video game is born.

So what, exactly, is a video game?  Where are the lines drawn between film, interactive art, toys, games, simulators, and their kin? 

I think the answer is always pretty clear: these lines don’t really exist.  All of this genre-bending doesn’t just skew the definition of what constitutes a video game, but of what constitutes a game itself.  Is a quest to understand something a game?  There’s a goal to complete.  You’re restricted by life’s rules.  You’ll likely obtain enjoyment from the experience.  By that token, going to a museum and interpreting modern art can be seen as a game.  Making that art can be seen as a game.  As the semantics break down, my previous argument becomes meaningless: if art is a game, then a game can be art.

The basic point is that it doesn’t seem all that worthwhile to attempt to classify a concept that is as subjective and situational as a game.  Games are things that can’t be described, but instead have to be experienced.  Is it a game?  Is it art?  Is it a mindless display of graphic violence?  Is it something else altogether?  Our own experiences are all that can answer that question.

Maybe that’s why I get so frustrated when people ask me what my favorite genre is.

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