Experienced Points: What’s in a Game?

 By Shamus Feb 15, 2013 130 comments

I’ve been seeing this a lot over the last few years: People claiming some game isn’t actually a game because it doesn’t contain some supposed virtue. This usually isn’t done as a exploration of what games are and how we think of them, but instead it’s used as a cudgel to denounce some despised trend or title.

My column this week is a hilariously pointless attempt to stop this brand of rhetorical shenanigans. It won’t work, but it’s a fun exercise anyway.


A Hundred!2010There are 130 comments here. I really hope you like reading.


  1. Irridium says:

    This brings up the question of what does it mean to “play” something. Sometimes people “play” around with software to get a feel with it. And if you really want to be annoying with semantics, you could say people “play” movies on their tv’s/phones/computers/ect.

    Not quite sure what the “right” definition or word would be.

    • Abnaxis says:

      This. My definition of game and Shamus’s seem very similar, but I do my best to try to nail down the definition of “play.” The best I can come up with is “an entertaining piece of interactive software, where the entertainment is derived primarily from the players’ act of interacting with it.”

      That’s why I personally say The Walking Dead isn’t a game–it is an interactive piece of software, but the entertainment it provides is derived primarily from the story, and the interactions are designed to enhance the story rather than be independently compelling. I would argue that most of the criticism of TWD comes from people buying it expecting a game and instead finding it’s a movie with interactive elements added for engagement.

      • lazerblade says:

        I’d like to point out that I think a game should be engaging, but not necessarily entertaining. A game about the horrors an abused child must confront in their mind might not be fun, but it can really engage you and discuss important issues in an artistic way.

        • Abnaxis says:

          Hmm, yes. I thought I could expand on Shamus’s definition and use “entertainment,” because that makes it much simpler to write the definition. You’re right that “entertainment” isn’t the only possible purpose, but that makes it harder to define without making more missteps…

          What I’m trying to get at, is that the interactive system is a primary focus of the medium, whether it be entertaining or not. Interacting with the systems has to have intrinsic value in and of itself, rather than having value as a means to achieve a higher purpose. I interact with my e-mail client for the sake of communication; I interact with a shooter because I enjoy shooter mechanics.

        • Spammy says:

          Erg… I really don’t like it when people say how games shouldn’t try to be always “fun” or “entertaining.” To me, it’s like saying that a musician shouldn’t play on key. That a painter shouldn’t know how their paints work. That a director shouldn’t know how to choose a shot. That an actor shouldn’t know how to act. That a writer shouldn’t know how to put a good sentence together.

          The way I see it, “Fun” and “Entertainment” are what I get out of interacting with the system of the video game, and making sure that system is fun to interact with is the starting point for a game developer. Sure, you can subvert that fun, but you should only do that when you start from a point of fun, ie a game with good controls can have a level where they mess with my controls, but a game without good controls can’t do that without making me angry.

          So when you say that a game shouldn’t be fun or entertaining… to me it’s like saying that American History X shouldn’t have good camera work and Ed Norton shouldn’t delivered a terrible acting performance, because the movie isn’t supposed to be entertaining. But if the movie hadn’t had those good qualities, I would not have watched it or appreciated the message.

          Likewise with a game. When I interact with a game it had better be fun and entertaining. That doesn’t mean it has to produce fun. I didn’t want to chop off that guy’s leg in The Walking Dead, but the interaction was fun, even when it made me feel ill. The flashback sacrifice scene in Amnesia did not make me feel like I was having fun, but the system was enjoyable to interact with and so the message came across.

          The system in LIMBO is a pain to interact with in my judgement, and so I don’t care what the art or message is, I’m not staying around to find out because the controls are so bloody terrible. LIMBO is not “fun” and it is not fun and I don’t care for the game because of that.

          • Kian says:

            The problem with this reasoning is that “fun” is completely subjective. What two people consider fun can be different. Does that mean that something may not be a game based on who is playing and if they are enjoying it? If so, there is no point to trying to define what a game is.

            • Felblood says:

              Yes, a thing can stop (or more importantly start) being a game if the right person plays it, but I don’t think this odd little situational nuance undermines the act of definition entirely.

              All word meanings are subject to the brutal ravages of context. This does not make Dictionaries worthless, but it does mean that we should remember to treat them as what they are: handy-but-imperfect tools for making communications clearer, rather than what they are often mistaken for: an absolute authority that alters the fundamental nature of reality.

              Cool?

          • AyeGill says:

            I think “engaging” is a better word to use here. Amnesia isn’t fun or entertaining in the sense that you feel amused while playing it, but it does engage you.

            • Spammy says:

              But I don’t like the word engaging. A more accurate word choice might be “enjoyable,” which is usually translated as “fun” because if the game is not being “enjoyable” then my first reaction is to say that it’s “not fun.” And I’m only being engaged by Amnesia because I find the act of playing it to be enjoyable. And because I’m playing a game, I want to say that finding it enjoyable is finding it fun to play and experience.

              • Kian says:

                Engaging and enjoyable share the same problem as fun, though. They’re not absolute properties of something, they’re subjective. If we say a game isn’t a game unless it’s fun, enjoyable or engaging, we’re making the definition depend on the player, not the game.

                Which is not wrong, but it’s not what is being proposed.

        • Cupcaeks says:

          I consider all video games as we know them ‘entertainment software’, which includes visual novels and other so-called ‘not-games’.

          Entertainment doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fun’, all it really means is something that grips the audience, so, engaging as you said, whether it be through some form of fun or exploring other themes and ideas that may or may not be serious. Plays, books, and movies are all considered forms of entertainment, but not all of them entertain by creating fun. All games should be entertaining, whether they do that through creating fun for the audience or by serving as avenues for other types of discussion. It seems kind of like I’m nitpicking right now, but it is pretty important to defining my label of ‘entertainment software’.

          • lazerbalde says:

            Lol, you’re right but I find it humorous that we’re discussing the meaning of “entertainment” and how it means different things to different people as a result of a discussion about “videogame” and how it means different things to different people.

            • Cupcaeks says:

              Them videogames is serious business, man.

              Seriously, though, I think its a good sign that we can consider videogames as serious forms of entertainment alongside the more ‘traditional’ (read: OLD) forms, such as books and cinema and the like. The medium is maturing beyond the novel, “moving picture” phase, and that seems promising.

              • braincraft says:

                Moving pictures aren’t that old, and there are still people who consider them lowbrow. Books in the novel format aren’t that much older, compared to stage plays and instrumental music. Codified scripts and musical scores are relatively recent within the total history of oral tradition and people making noises by banging things together on purpose.

                Movies have been around for about a century, and it’s only relatively recently that they were recognizable as precursors to the modern film. We haven’t even caught a glimpse of what people will be playing a hundred years from now.

                • Zukhramm says:

                  Though this is a view that separates games from video games, which I am not sure about doing. Games are older than both film and writing, and if we separate it from “video games”, should we not be able to find thigns that are “videogames” but not “games”?

                  • braincraft says:

                    Video games are a subset of all games in the way that screenplays are a subset of stage plays.

                  • Cupcaeks says:

                    And this comes back down to what the accepted definition of a ‘game’ is. I use the term ‘entertainment software’ because some people believe games require explicit win/fail states, which I don’t agree with at all. I accept the very broad definition of games as a form of structured play, as a system of rules designed to entertain the players interacting with them. If we accept this definition, then it’s as braincraft stated: video games are a subset of all games. However, there seems to be some dispute over how to define ‘games’ in even the traditional sense.

    • Primogenitor says:

      This too.

      Also many of the exploratory questions (“What if I set fire to these Minecraft trees?”) sound exactly like Science.

    • Zukhramm says:

      I think that as long as we’re searching for a definition and not definitions, we’ll never find anything, but that’s me coming from a language that has individual words for things that in English is lumped together under “game”.

      While video games are fairly new, games themselves are really old and while we might have a hard time explicitly defining them I think most of us have a good feel what what is and is not a game, disregarding the edge cases that create this discussion. There is one part defining games I rarely see in these kinds of discussions, at least when they occur in blog comments and on forums. I think it’s one that might be easier than “play” to use to distinguish games from other software used for entertainment, or maybe it’s just part of defining play. This thing is that games are limited or bounded and explicitly non-real. restrictions in our drawing or programming software only serves to hinder and annoy us while if a game did not have them it would not be a game, but it would just be reality itself.

      • Abnaxis says:

        I am….not completely following what you are saying. Are you saying we need separate definitions for video games versus other games? Because if you want to use abstraction as a way to delineate “games” from “not-games” I see three problems:

        1) You leave out sports. Spectator sports are games that take place in the real world.

        2) You definition, depending on whether you restrict it to softtware, can include virtually all expressions of art as. The movie Avatar is most certainly “not real”. The Mona Lisa is not real. The Witch Watch is not real.

        3) Even if you restrict your definition of software. every single piece of software written is “not-real.” When I perform a finite element analysis, I’m not working with a real physical system. When I write a document in Word, I am not creating a physical page with letters on it, but rather a virtual representation of one. Even Windows is built on non-real abstractions of the hardware that moves electrons on copper wires and silicon wafers.

        While I think looking at games in terms of abstractions is an interesting way to look at it, I don’t think it’s really effective at delineating games as a construct.

        • Zukhramm says:

          You misunderstand, or I am unclear.

          I think the exact opposite. With this topic people seem to focus too narrowly on only games implemented as software.

          With “real” I do not really mean the physics of it, but rather what actions we’re allowed to take within the system. If I ever found myself in a situation where I had to get a ball through a goal in real life, I’d definitely use my hands but within the boundaries of the game of football we accept that there are restrictions on what actions are possible.

          The same way, if I write something in Word I am instead not restricted in what I’m allowed to do, or if I am my reaction is not “those are the rules that makes using Word enjoyable” but rather “this tool is not useful for what I’m trying to do”.

          And finally, it of course only one distinction rather than the definition.

    • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      Were I to be high-falutin, I’d invoke Kant’s Critique of Judgment.

      Play is that thing we do which we do to engage the mind, but not constrain it by the typical rules of the world. It is to let the mind explore that which could not normally be explored by life.

      This potentially eliminates most sports (though an argument could be made that Football is the Free Play of War), but would include most videogames. And this would also solve the “are games art?” question because, to Kant, Free Play is the defining characteristic of art.

  2. bloodsquirrel says:

    This is a lot like trying to come up with a definition for “art”.

    In the end, it’s probably too complex and subtle an idea to ever sum up with one or two sentences.

    • Abnaxis says:

      I have been thinking about the definition of game a lot, and I agree that it is a whole lot like the definition of art.

      I don’t think the problem with either deification is one of subtlety of complexity, however, but rather the problem is that the definition has to include the intent of both the authors and the audience. For example, a blank canvas isn’t a piece of art, until a London gallery opens an exhibition filled with blank pieces of paper and canvases and charges admission. Consequentially, the definition of “art” is recursive–art isn’t art until it is defined as art. Any definition of the word art, with enough scrutiny, boils down to “art is the stuff that we call art.”

      The same is true for games. Look at the definition Shamus put forth, “a game is a piece of software which can be played.” What, exactly, does “play” mean? Well…”play” means “taking part or engaging with a game.” So a “game” is a “piece of software that you interact with as if it’s a game.”

      Incidentally, this is why I think the definition itself is so important. It’s like a philosophical version of Schroedinger’s Cat; a game is only a game if people call it that. The definition itself holds implicit power over how we design, interact with, and criticize the medium.

      • Well, I would argue that “art” is something beautiful, lasting, and meaningful. You can find similar definitions all over the place. But, (as is said below) this pushes the definition down to “beauty”, “durability” and “meaning” and the problem continues. The main thing people disagree on is what something must be to “have meaning”. If it is just personal meaning, then something can be “art” for you but not for me to the degree in which our semantic symbol spaces fail to overlap with that of the object itself.

        Anyway, the discussion is valuable only as far as we are willing to adopt a common terminology. If you are uninterested in using someone else’s definition for “art” or “game” or “sandwitch” or “punch in the face” then don’t expect to communicate much outside of direct action and experience. I’ve found a flexibility in terminology (and accepting others definitions without arguing about it) extremely useful for carrying out real communication, which, after all, is the only point of having definitions and language in the first place.

        • Abnaxis says:

          Your definition is a perfect example of what I am talking about. Indulge me while I pedantically analyze that definition:

          1) Beauty: I’m sure others will disagree, but I think this requirement is too restrictive. Some art is deliberately ugly (best example I can think of off my head is the movie Fargo). Some art is just bad–just because the artist didn’t know what they were doing and accidentally creates something ugly, that doesn’t make their work “not art,” it makes it bad art.

          2) Durability: Also too restrictive, because it leaves out performance art. Performance art–especially improvisational performances–are transitory by nature (well, unless they are recorded, but I don’t think the act of video-taping transforms a performance from “not-art” to “art”)

          3) Meaning: This is the most debated feature of the definition for a reason. Absent the other two requirements, a work has meaning if and only if it is art . Consequently, “meaning” is a stand-in term for “that nebulous quality that separates non-art from art.”

          So what we wind up with by looking closely at what seems to be a robust definition of the word “art,” it collapses down into “art is art”

          • Quite so. Which is why terms are only useful as far as people can agree on them (paragraph two).
            If we had a need to discuss “art” on any certain terms then we would need to come up with a common definition for various words. Lacking that need, we come only to the common conclusion that disagreement, argument about terminology, and belligerence are always options which no amount of clever definition will exclude.

          • Syal says:

            Ooh, let me try!

            “Art is a deliberate work, valued by people uninvolved in creating it for reasons unrelated to the materials used to create it (that is, taking it apart reduces or removes the value) or its function.”

            …is the Leaning Tower considered art?

            • Well, machinery and all forms of useful artifice are “art” by that definition as well; I’m fine with that, but it comes back to “who are you talking to?” when using that (or any) definition.
              In general, terms like “art” and “game” are not so much unclear in themselves, but suffer as a battlefield for opposing philosophies. Like Shamus said, “When we finally nailed it down, people became upset because the official definition didn’t match the definition they already had in their heads.” Which is as much to say that people are occasionally willing to sacrifice clarity (a common clear definition) for the satisfaction of personal inflexibility (a personal “right” (and often poorly articulated) definition).

    • aldowyn says:

      I was thinking about this the other day, and I think I came up with one, although it’s probably a cop-out.

      Art is defined by an artist’s belief that their work is art. If someone believes that something they made is art, then it is.

      I think this because I think that art is something that’s meant to convey something more than just information from the artist to the consumer, whether that’s a feeling, a story, a message, or anything.

      • bloodsquirrel says:

        See, I hate that kind of definition because I’m of a mind that not everything some pretentious git wants to call art should be considered art. If a definition of art doesn’t let me tell someone who just pissed on the side of my truck that what they just did isn’t art, then the definition is useless and broken.

        The best I’ve come up with is that art is an attempt to communicate emotion. Note that “cause” and “communicate” are not the same thing, so just pissing someone off by being obnoxious doesn’t qualify.

      • Cupcaeks says:

        My definition of art is very similar to yours, though I wouldn’t necessarily say art is art because the artist believes it is so. I would say more specifically that a work becomes art when the artist has an idea to convey through it. Whether or not the artist is successful in conveying that idea, on the other hand, is entirely subjective. The rest of your definition is pretty much spot on with mine, though.

    • Daimbert says:

      I once took an entire graduate level philosophy course on this very topic. Wrote an essay for it that was something like 20 pages double spaced, which is posted on my blog. Other students wrote papers of similar length with completely different definitions than the one I used.

      Yep, FAR too complicated to sum up in a couple of sentences [grin].

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ah,this.First we had “what is music” with 4’33”,then what is film with all the experiments from Andy Warhol,and now this.

    But really,all these boil down to “what is art”.Ill just let David Morgan-Mar tackle this,because his all black comic became my go to answer for this question.

  4. Zukhramm says:

    It’s really simple to me. Dear Esther is a game, and it’s not a game. Best of both worlds!

  5. Michael says:

    While I agree with the intent of your article, what you’ve done is basically redefine “Banjo” to mean “Music” rather than use “Music” as the catch-all term and have “Banjo” refer to just the string instrument that’s popular in Bluegrass.

    The way I see it, a game is something in which one or more players have a clear objective and there is a win/loss state. Other things may be fun, engaging, thought-provoking, etc, but unless someone can “win” it isn’t a game per-se. Dear Esther, Minecraft creative, the Sims, etc. aren’t so much video games as video art/toys/whatever.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with not being a game, and I’m guessing Proteus isn’t any less of an experience for not being a game (I haven’t tried it, and hadn’t actually heard of it until reading your article). There’s just not a whole lot of utility gained by lumping Dear Esther and Proteus in with CounterStrike, Starcraft and Tetris. Concepts like challenge, depth of choice, strategy/tactics, etc just don’t apply to something like Proteus. If someone I knew was looking for a good game to play, I probably wouldn’t point them at Proteus. If they were looking for a fun, entertaining way to kill some time, I might (depending on who it was).

    In other words, calling Proteus “not a videogame” isn’t an insult to Proteus any more than calling Homer’s Odyssey “not a board game” is an insult to The Odyssey.

    • Zukhramm says:

      With that definition we’ve dealt with Proteus and Dear Esther, but then let’s look at The Walking Dead. It has win/loss, just in some sense very little of it. Does it mean it’s a game, but just not a game as much as say Half-Life, which in turn is less of a game than Go? By that we have a spectrum, making drawing any line inside it feel very arbitrary to me.

      • zob says:

        TWD doesn’t have win/loss, it has more of a continue/pause.

        • Zukhramm says:

          Then neither does Half-Life 2 and suddenly nothing is a game.

          • zob says:

            You can be better at playing HL2 (and Mirrors Edge for that matter). You can’t be better at playing TWD (barring maybe the very few shooting sections).

            • That is different than not having win/loss states. I also can’t be better or worse at playing Candyland, yet it has been a game since 1945.

              • zob says:

                I wouldn’t call Candyland a game. I don’t see Snakes and Ladders much of a game either. (Unless we introduce cheating without getting caught as a mechanic, it’s unethical but still a skill challenge nonetheless).

                My view is simple, if you can’t be better at playing something then it’s not a game, it’s a spectator event. You are not a performer, you are an observer.

                • There’s nothing inherently wrong with you not considering them games, so long as you realize that the rest of the world uses a different definition. Beyond that the point of having a specific definition is rendered moot if a consensus cannot be reached on what the definition is.

                  • zob says:

                    Well, I believe we can use two definitions of the word game regarding our subject.

                    a: “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement”

                    and

                    b: “a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other” (caveat: if thats not obvious, I include player himself as competition to beat)

                    I prefer second explanation because first one is not definitive enough for my taste(i.e. “watching paint dry” is a game if thats amusing to you). But if we are to adopt the first definition, then I can say TWD is a bad game, and explain why.

        • How is dying and reseting to a recent save point in TWD a less valid fail state than doing exactly the same in say Mirrors Edge. I can actually throw myself off the same roof and reload over and over again, much quicker in Mirrors Edge, than I can get shot in the face by Danny St. John and reload over and over again in TWD.

  6. Trevel says:

    The trouble with defining a game as “something that you play or play with” is that you’ve just bumped the problem definition down a level.

    Now you need to define “play”, or you’ve just defined your banjo as a videogame.

    • I love Banjo Hero. I’m still waiting expectantly for the “Deliverance” DLC.

    • Burning says:

      Actually, the fact that Shamus does not address what it means to play is for me a good thing. Essentially, he is un-asking the question “What is a game?” which, in the context we are discussing, was never a good question to begin with.

      Almost every time I see someone trot out the statement “This thing isn’t a real game,” (a statement that is not limited to discussion of video games, by the by) there always seems to be an implication that not-being-a-game (or is that being-not-a-game) is an inferior state to being-a-game. There’s never any discussion of why this is so; it’s just treated as self-evident. The definition of game seems to server the purpose of keeping whatever the not-game is in the inferior category of not-games.

      Now I think among game designers the question of what makes a game is an important one in improvement of their craft. While I’m not widely read in game design, what I’ve seen centers on issues of what keeps the player engaged, motivated, and entertained. As a result, the people who actually have a reason to treat “game” as a technical term seem end up with a very broad, inclusive definition.

      The rest of us are not talking about games in technical terms, and so we’re dealing with a word that has been in the English language for centuries. Any attempt to make it more precise than the history of the language allows tends to end up with definitions that exclude more than intended. So, as far as I’m concerned, defining it broadly in terms of another word that also does not have a precise definition is, rather than being a flaw, the only thing that makes sense.

  7. I agree that much of the anguish over the “definition of game” comes from a mismatch between what people think they understand and what they actually do understand. If you ask nearly anyone “what is a planet” you’ll likely get definitions that include lots and lots of things that they would not identify as planets. The same is true of most definitions of “game” as you so succinctly outlined.

    However, it is odd that you use the “something you can play with” definition for “game” when it fits so well with the “toy” terminology. Now I’m curious. How would you distinguish between “toys” and “games”? Or, is the game the play itself, and the toy the thing one plays with?

    • Zukhramm says:

      I think the biggest distinction for me is that a toy does not have rules (other than the rules of reality). Minecraft or The Sims, no matter who goal-lacking they may be still restricts what actions you’re allowed to take with them.

    • Patrick says:

      I think the Toy vs Game distinction is crucial. I was hoping that Shamus would more directly consider the difference between the two.

      It seems the word play in the sentences, “I play with a toy” and “I play a game” mean slightly different things. Both mean to engage or interact but clearly we mean something more by play. To play with a toy is usually a directionless activity. Children often play with things to express themselves or fire their imaginations. The idea of free play or even telling someone to just, “Go play!” seem to be inline with this definition. In this sense play is an experience but not one with winners and losers.

      However, when we play a game we do so with a specific goal and set of rules in place. This is true of all games (except for Calvinball, of course). I think the defining characteristic of game is one where there is a fail state or win/loss conditions. I also think that while this limits the scope of what can be called a game it does not diminish “games” or what games can be. In that way several videogames are not, in fact, games. This is what I think Wright was getting at back when he made his original comment regarding Sim City.

      • Cupcaeks says:

        I’ve always just used the umbrella term ‘entertainment software’ in place of video games, precisely because not all of them necessarily have win/fail states. I’m genuinely curious, though: is there an actual advantage to making the distinction between ‘games’ and ‘not-games’ as some people call them (I personally hate that term), or is such a distinction purely academic? I can’t see what could possibly be gained with such definitions, but perhaps I’m just looking at this the wrong way.

        • Defining your terms is only as important as far as precise communication is required. For most construction, the “cubit” is as precise a length measurement as is required. For rocketry and advanced machines one needs more precise terms (milimeters, microns, etc) for effective communication. The efforts to define “game” precisely arise (partially) from a need for precise language (and jargon in general) in the “computer game” industry when specifying, collaborating, and discussing the object of the discipline.
          Of course, terminology is only as useful as it can be commonly and consistently agreed upon. Those who genuinely find need for such precise terms may be better served by inventing new words than attempting to refine existing vague ones.

  8. Asimech says:

    The “is this something you can play” definition with the examples sounds pretty close to what I have in my head. Here’s closest to law-like speak I’ve gotten:

    Game – A set of rules you interact with for the purposes of some kind of enjoyment.

    (‘Enjoyment’ here is cast on a wide net, so what you get from a horror game/movie would be ‘enjoyment’ if you like horror content.)

    I actually noticed that the above description fits with the established use for the word ‘game’ outside of video or tabletop games. For example in movies you could have a scene where The Goodies find out that The Baddie has been wreaking havoc by abusing the justice system, they respond with “is this some kind of game to you?” And, well, it is, isn’t it? It is a game for The Baddie.

    On the “playing around with software” problem mentioned here: I’d say this is the sort of ambiguity you can’t avoid without ending up with more problems than are being solved. Also this is one of those cases where I think people are capable of making the distinction. After all, you can play around with a hammer, but it’s still obviously a tool.

    Although the definition in the article could be changed to “is this something that was designed to be played?” Although that has the extra problem of creator intent. And I don’t want to go there.

  9. StranaMente says:

    It’s true that semantics are not a fixed thing, and serve and follow real life uses of words, but words still has a meaning, only we haven’t defined the meaning for “videogames” yet.
    I would like to argue that your similitude with music to be more appropriate should be the other way around, in the sense that Proteus is to other games what a single instrument playing only few notes is compared to many instruments playing an entire song.

    Or a better comparison would be with comments, blog posts, short stories and books. All of these are done by writing, but you can easily say that each one has a different lenght, purpose and work behind.
    So I can play with semantics and say that what I just written up until now is a book, because a book is something with words in it that you read, that, now, can be in a digital format, and that there are no strict requisites for lenght, plot, or subject, but at the same time we all know that a comment on post is not a book and would be silly to imply that.

    I believe games have something that separetes them from other forms of entertainment, that is “interaction“: the player can influence in some way his experience with the content.
    The interaction between player and game, for me, separetes games as an entertaining medium, from other non interactive experiences.
    Other form of entertaing are defined as “other-directed” meaning that the user is receiving passively the content, without having the chance to alter the experience in any way: see movies, books, theatre, music.

    In this meaning, Proteus has a minimalistic form of gameplay and could be compared to a short story. It clearly is not a full-fledged game, but it still grants a bare minimum of interactivity as you can go anywhere on the island at your own pace, the island is procedurally generated, as is the music.

    I haven’t played Dear Esther, but from what I’ve read about it, the experience there is far more limited, as you can only go along a fixed path, and you can only experience that single story. The interaction is extremely limited and could easily be replaced by a weight on the “W” key.

    Thirty flights of loving has no interactivity at all, since the story is fixed, you can only slightly change the pace at which you see it, but have no influence whatsoever on it.

    The boundaries between interactive and non interactive experience are a bit grey at the far end, and one could spend hours trying to define them, as one could trying to define the difference between a short book and a long short story, but it would probably serve to no purpose.

    At the same time, though, I firmly believe that the difference does exist, only that some content threads the line between the two form of entertainment.

  10. This reminded me of the times I’ve seen people arguing (and have joined in on occasion) about how to define a cRPG.

    It’s one of those things that either you make so broad as to include almost everything, or you make it too restrictive.

  11. Eric says:

    A videogame is a computer program designed for entertainment or artistic purposes, in which a player or players navigate within a virtual set of rules which revolve around failure and win states, in order to achieve the positive/win states and avoid the negative/failure states. Win and failure states may be imposed upon the set of rules by the player, or intrinsic to the ruleset, but either way the rules exist to support those states.

    Do I win?

  12. This conversation just never gets interesting.

    While I’m glad that Shamus has posted an opinion on what game means, I kind of wish this entire subject would just go DIAF. It’s not relevant or interesting in any way, it always just boils down to what you want to exclude from a term that has been in use longer than the people having the debate have even been alive. The entire conversation is nothing more than pseudointellectual posturing.

    • Even says:

      “It’s not relevant or interesting in any way”

      But if it keeps popping up constantly, then it has to be relevant. With the amount of discussion around it, it would be safe to say it is also interesting to a lot of people. Just maybe not you.

      “The entire conversation is nothing more than pseudointellectual posturing.”

      So would also seem to be your manner of dismissing it. It just might be a fruitless debate, but when you summarize it like that, you’re also dismissing the need for having clearly defined context for different things, issues and ideas in our language. Which is where the whole debate really starts. If you’re comfortable living with the fact that the word has no definitive meaning, then that is fine, but it’s kinda dickish to start telling people that the things they care about are unimportant and worthless.

      It’s okay to criticize the debate itself, but you’re crossing a line when you start generalizing and condescending the issue and the people who argue about it. While it may not have been your intent, it’s how it comes off.

      • I am criticizing the debate itself. That’s why I said the debate is pointless.

        Let me ask you this, accepting your premise that this is a fruitful and necessary debate to have every few days (seemingly) all across the internet, what is the positive outcome of it? What is resolved by nailing down an unnecessarily narrow but still quite ill defined definition of “game”? If it gives us a meaningful context for conversation what is that conversation how is it enhanced by calling Half Life 2 and Spec Ops: the Line a game, but excluding Minecraft, and the Walking the Walking Dead?

        I believe we can talk about games without attempting to limit how and when the term applies. If such a limit is necessary to a particular conversation it can be applied on a case by case basis as an operational definition.

        I have not seen the entire internet so I can’t say that meaningful conversation has never come out of this, but I can say that of all the times I’ve seen this play out it hasn’t happened.

        I have never attacked anybody for their stance on any subject. I think absolutely everybody is entitled to their opinion. If this stance makes me “dickish” then so be it.

        • Even says:

          “I am criticizing the debate itself. That’s why I said the debate is pointless.”

          Yet your choice of words carries a certain sentiment, whether you intended it or not. ‘Pseudo-intellectual posturing’ isn’t exactly the most diplomatic way to summarize it.

          “Let me ask you this, accepting your premise that this is a fruitful and necessary debate to have every few days (seemingly) all across the internet, what is the positive outcome of it?”

          But that’s not my premise at all. My stance on the issue is irrelevant to what I’m trying to tell you. I’m just objecting to your approach.

          “I have never attacked anybody for their stance on any subject.”

          Again, it’s just what can be taken from your choice of wording. Please do note that I wasn’t trying to judge your intent. If you really want to just enlighten people, then you may want to take their position more into consideration before making statements like that.

          To humor you with my actual opinion on the issue: I don’t really see much value participating in the discussion myself due to its nature, however I also don’t really see anything fundamentally wrong with it as long as it stays civil. Just because it may seem like a hopeless issue doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. If it’s what people find they want to talk about, then let them do so by all means. And even if it doesn’t reach a proper conclusion, people can still take away some new viewpoints and lessons from it, which carries its own value.

          It may be just me, but I believe in voicing your concerns, even if it may feel pointless and irrelevant to the rest of the world. Otherwise we risk falling into stagnancy. Better to act, than not act at all. This is an issue that obviously touches many people, so let them speak of it.

          • Ok, you don’t like my wording, I accept that. I stand by the matter of what I said. The argument is typically used to conceal “I don’t like game X” under a veneer of “I think deep thoughts and why I don’t like a game is irrelevant, because it isn’t a game anyway.”

            Now I concede that there is almost certainly somebody out there who has used the argument in order to truly have a deep and meaningful conversation about what a game is. Statistically, the number of times this has come up, it is the next best thing to a sure bet that this was true at least once.

            The whole conversation has over time become shorthand for a pseudo-intellectual dismissal of a game without ever addressing any meaningful point of it. If someone brings it up it is pretty safe to assume that it is being used in this way.

            • Even says:

              Fair enough. This whole chain just kinda reminded me again why I should really be asleep at this time of the day and not let my brain run wild. It almost always ends up messy. My apologies for any confusion.

      • Raygereio says:

        But if it keeps popping up constantly, then it has to be relevant.

        Yeah, people will talk about things constantly. But that’s no real indication about their relevance due to how subjective that is. You may think this is the world’s most important topic, I’ll just laugh in your face if you were to say so and we’d be both right from our own perspective.

        As for the need to properly define things.
        That’s only true in certain contexts. For example in science or when you’re building a house, then sure. You need clearly defined terms so that everyone knows exactly what the other means. But there’s no objective need for such strict definitions in other contexts.

        And there’s also the simply fact that the meaning behind terms will change in different contexts and as the culture that uses said term changes over time. So you’ll spend all that effort debating and hammering out the perfect definition for “videogame” only to have to revise it tomorrow, which makes the whole endeavour frankly just silly.

        • Even says:

          “Yeah, people will talk about things constantly. But that’s no real indication about their relevance due to how subjective that is. You may think this is the world’s most important topic, I’ll just laugh in your face if you were to say so and we’d be both right from our own perspective.”

          Relevance is most of all about time and place and like you said, it is indeed subjective. It was poor wording on my part, but you’re really reading way too much into it. I know it doesn’t mean any particular issue is going to be relevant everywhere at once. But right now, in this particular place and other places on the internet, this particular issue is relevant. And if enough noise is made, it can easily become relevant elsewhere.

          “You need clearly defined terms so that everyone knows exactly what the other means. But there’s no objective need for such strict definitions in other contexts.”

          That’s a bit besides the point I was trying to make, which was (as I perceive it) that the nature of the argument is in the certain subjective needs of our own. We need a way to wrap complex things into context and such we give them terms like video games. That’s what I was trying to bring forth but if I failed to properly say it, then so be it.

          But you know, instead of trying pick up apart what you perceive as my personal beliefs, I’d appreciate if you actually tried to refute the actual argument.

          • Raygereio says:

            But you know, instead of trying pick up apart what you perceive as my personal beliefs, I’d appreciate if you actually tried to refute the actual argument.

            What the?
            You just placed a great deal of importance on this particular topic and I disagreed with you. You didn’t even have a real argument for me to hook into.
            Nor did I attack your personal beliefs. So I can only asume that you think disagreeing with you counts as attacking one’s personal beliefs. I strongly suggest you develop a thicker skin because in the real world there will be a lot of people who disagree with you.

            Look, you obvious place a great deal of importance on this topic. That’s your right to do. Just like it’s my right to say it isn’t important.
            Though I will give you the tip of taking a step back and evaluating the importance of videogames in general and perhaps in your life in particular. I’m not saying anything about you, but in my experience people who find videogames incredibly important don’t really have a lot of things going on their lives.
            Videogames can certainly be fun, they can be pretty, they can be thought provoking, they can be all sort of things. But all that doesn’t change what videogames truly are at their core: pointless timewasters. Something to amuse you and divert your attention in between being productive.

            • Even says:

              The way you make assumptions about my personal values is the only thing I’ve been so far offended by, especially since I feel I haven’t really given any real reason for you to believe them to be true. If you’d actually bother reading my post and the replies after that, you would realize I took issue with how he worded his argument, which I felt could easily be misinterpreted. As I stated in an earlier post, I don’t see much value participating in the argument myself so I don’t really bother with it. Coming from hindsight, I agree I should have probably not even bothered answering, but feeling empathetic for the people who may care about it, I felt like I had to say something. It was admittedly poor judgment on my part but being up at 4.00 am my brain just goes wherever it wants.

              “Nor did I attack your personal beliefs.”

              Attack or not, it’s just what it seemed pretty much all you did and it didn’t contribute anything to what I was trying to speak of. Just stating things (which to note, from outside perspective I don’t really disagree with) with seemingly no connection to what I meant to discuss. Blame it on language barrier or whatever, I obviously failed to explain my thoughts in a satisfactory manner, and I’m sorry about that.

              So let’s just move on, shall we?

              • Raygereio says:

                Frankly your baseless accusations of “attacks towards your person” are starting to annoy me. If you’re going to go down that route; state exactly what it was I said that offended you and why, thus giving me a chance to defend myself. All you’ve done now is throw an accusation towards me with the only apparent reason being that I disagreed with you.

                So yeah, let’s move on.

                • Even says:

                  Maybe it’s just an assumed condescending tone that I picked up from your posts. But here goes.

                  My main beef is your assertion and misrepresentation of my post that I still actually care about the argument of what video games are, when I pointed out that wasn’t what I was after. Even after my last post, you still seem to insist on it (Or am I wrong?), and it’s what annoys me the most. I explained my reasons for making the original post, hoping it would be adequate enough to put an end to this series of posts I already regret for ever starting.

                  I guess that would be one thing, but when you go on to color it with these gems:

                  “Though I will give you the tip of taking a step back and evaluating the importance of videogames in general and perhaps in your life in particular. I’m not saying anything about you, but in my experience people who find videogames incredibly important don’t really have a lot of things going on their lives.”

                  “Videogames can certainly be fun, they can be pretty, they can be thought provoking, they can be all sort of things. But all that doesn’t change what videogames truly are at their core: pointless timewasters. Something to amuse you and divert your attention in between being productive.”

                  I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you really didn’t mean anything by it, but you have to be kidding me if you insist there’s no way I could take this the wrong way.

                  “All you’ve done now is throw an accusation towards me.”

                  It was an accusation that felt justifiable from where I’m standing. I wasn’t saying it has to be the truth and I see now it’s obviously not the truth. But if you’re not willing to accept my perspective, as best as I’m trying to bring it forth without giving you further cause to get upset, then there’s nothing more for me to say. I’m really sorry it had to go this way, but what’s been done is done.

  13. guiguiguibob says:

    There is probably space for more than one definition. There isn’t much in common between my expériences playing To The Moon and Crusader Kings II. Both are using the medium of computer software. Both used UI to translate user imputs. Anything else?

  14. Isy says:

    On a slightly tangential topic, why don’t we consider computer programming or Microsoft Excel a game? The point of Scrabble is rearranging letters into words using a pre-existing rule set, the point of coding is rearranging words into functional programs using a pre-existing rule set. There’s even a fail state, which is “you forgot a semicolon, you idiot.” Is creating a program somehow less valid a “game” than creating the Hagia Sophia in Minecraft? Would it be a game if the compiler kept imposing random BS restrictions on you, like making you randomly draw code fragments every five minutes, and then spitefully refusing to give you variables?

    • Zukhramm says:

      I’d say neither building the Hagia Sophia in Minecraft nor programming are games. And yes, I’d say making them games in this case is the restrictions. They need not and should not be random BS restrictions though.

    • Microsoft Excel is one of my favorite games.

    • Cupcaeks says:

      I think the reason things like Excel aren’t considered games is because they weren’t created with entertaining an audience in mind. There’s a reason they’re called ‘productivity software’. As far as programming goes, well, I’m not really sure. My gut instinct would be to say that programming isn’t meant for entertainment, but some people, myself included, DO actually find it very engaging. I guess I can only pose another question, which is: does the presence of a fail state necessarily make something a game? If so, then your syntax error example could extend beyond just programming languages to language in general. Would you consider language a game? Or what about driving? There are very specific rules to driving, and getting pulled over or into an accident could be considered fail states. I guess this comes down to what your definition of a game is. Myself, I think something is a game if the sets of rules it introduces are designed specifically to entertain its players in some fashion, though I don’t think the presence of win/fail states to be necessary. Programming might be considered engaging, some might even consider Excel engaging, but their primary purpose is in production rather than entertainment, so I don’t consider them games.

      EDIT: I should add that when I’m talking about rules, I mean those rules that the audience directly interacts with. There are certainly rules behind generating things like screensavers, but since there isn’t any direct interfacing of those rules with the audience, I don’t consider screensavers games. Unless you count ‘move cursor’ or something. Which I don’t. This is just getting more convoluted..

      • Isy says:

        Not really arguing for or against anything in there, but people use Excel for entertainment whether they’re supposed to or not.

        • Cupcaeks says:

          Hmm, that got me thinking about whether or not things like Paint, Flash, and Photoshop would be considered games as I just defined them. They do introduce specific rules in their respective environments, and interacting with those rules can be very entertaining. I want to say that those rules were introduced in order to create a medium, not necessarily entertainment. But that also describes Minecraft, which is something I do consider a game, or at least ‘entertainment software’, if not a ‘game’ in the traditional sense of the word. I guess what this comes down to is in the intent in creating any particular bit of software. Was it made purely as a medium? As a means of entertainment? What if the answer is yes to both of those? That’s… hard to say, and I don’t know that we have anything worthwhile to gain from answering questions like these. I guess I’ll just say that when I’m launching something like Photoshop or Paint, my intent is to use the application, whereas my intent with Minecraft is to play it. That’s so vague and wishy-washy though. I’m basically just saying games are games when I say they’re games, which isn’t very helpful or useful in any way, which is incidentally pretty much how I feel about this whole ‘games vs not games’ debate. You can call them what you want, but it doesn’t really change how I experience them, as subjective as that might be.

  15. hborrgg says:

    Mostly relevant, but sums up my opinion on the subject.

  16. Kian says:

    I was going to read the article, but then I saw the picture. Is your shirt photoshopped black? Sorry, I know it’s off-topic, it’s just the first thing that drew my attention. It’s missing the buttons.

    Ok, now I can go read it.

  17. silver Harloe says:

    I believe I’m “quoting” some supreme court justice or another when I say: I don’t know how to define a game, but I know it when I see it.

    Virtually any other definition will break eventually.

  18. Jeremiah says:

    This is also something the tabletop rpg hobby is starting to see, which frustrates me to no end.

  19. Dev Null says:

    “A videogame is software which can be played,”

    Perhaps “played _with_”. A video or audio player can be played, but I wouldn’t call them games.

  20. Scampi says:

    Quoting wikipedia about games:

    “Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction”

    Those are, imho, actually pretty much the core characteristics I would have thought of:

    goals: either some form of win or/and lose state
    This includes games with a clear winner like chess.
    It also includes games where survival is a goal like high-score-games with endless repetition

    rules: there are rules which govern how victory or defeat are possible, possibly more than those-it still can include lots of different phenomena, but it excludes situations where someone just “plays around”, e.g. trying to create something (without knowing what it should look like) or throwing stones into a pond out of boredom.

    Those are also excluded by the lack of challenge: the rules are supposed to govern the win/loss-conditions, what pretty much means there is already some kind of challenge-it also means, there has to be some kind of adversary or opponent, something defying the player’s victory, rendering it not inevitable, but something to be fought over, something the player has to deserve. So if someone just threw stones into said pond, he would have no game-but he might turn it into one, if he tried throwing them as far as possible or at a target, maybe keeping a count of his hits and misses.

    The last point, interaction, is possibly the least important, but only at a first glance: Either the player has some established game with known rules, what causes him to interact with the creator, who gave him obstacles to overcome and rules by which he has to play. He also interacts with whoever is the adversary, be it his friend at the other side of the table they are playing upon or the programmer, who created the obnoxious orcish brute onscreen. If throwing stones or playing a game of solitaire or mah jongg he might even interact with himself (“I did this game in 3 minutes-I’ll try 2 now.” or “I threw this stone 70 ft. I bet I can do 80 now.”)

    Possibly there’s some reason why noone considers programming a “game”: there is nothing to keep you from succeeding if you know all rules-there is no adversity OUTSIDE the rules.

    Any lack of one of those criteria will cause some toy (for a definition wide enough to still include them but also other stuff) to lose the qualities it requires to be called a game.
    Loses challenge? Not a game anymore.
    Absolutely no interaction of any kind and total isolation? Not a game.
    No rules governing it beforehand? Not a game.

    I would have made my own definition to look something like this:
    A game is any kind of action where a player attempts to overcome adversity/resistance(in itself an act of interaction and challenge). To overcome those circumstances he must obey rules which can not be changed in the process of the game without all participants’ agreement. The rules are known or there’s a method of proving every participant the rules were in place BEFORE the game started.

    I can read a book to read a story. I can also read a book to get to know the rules of some P&P-RPG.
    I can run an hour to get some exercise and workout OR I can run an hour to escape from the horde of zombies following me around.
    I can insert a DVD into my run to play an amazing game-OR I might watch a movie OR I might play some experimental interactive media.
    3 examples of things where there are multiple manifestations of an action, where only 1 of each qualifies as game related in some way.

    Sorry-I guess the post must appear horrendously redundant by the length.

    • The Rocketeer says:

      I really liked this line of thinking until I realized it would mean Calvinball isn’t a game.

      • Scampi says:

        Somehow this summons up the memory of “Jewish Poker”. No, it’s nothing racist: it’s a game made up by Ephraim Kishon, Hebrew humorist, wherein two players call numbers-and the higher number wins.

        Would be simple-if they called numbers at the same time-what they don’t…and even more: there are lots of hidden rules made up on the spot:”double” doubles the value of the number called.
        “redouble” is an answer to negate the calling of “double” and “ultimo” will cause the number one called to be automatically replaced by infinity.
        This can only be beaten by the calling of X whereby X is the name of a random person of fame known to the players. Examples included Ben Gurion or Michael Jackson.

    • Kdansky says:

      This is pretty much the exact same definition as Keith Burgun (http://keithburgun.com/) uses, and I think it’s spot-on. What’s really interesting is that some games that we clearly recognize as such fail to register as games, but on the other hand, isn’t that what bothers us about many recent titles; The lack of agency?

      • Scampi says:

        Actually I always wonder, which titles are so hard to identify as games or non-games. Seriously-I don’t usually have that problem. If something is original and new: create a new niche to fit it in. It may still be entertainment software, but so are DVDs, so are sound files, so are e-books, so is (in a way) this site. Not everything that amuses us has to be called a game, only because we like to play them.
        I suppose, if you’d hand me one of those barely identifiable pieces of software (or whatever), I’d take a look at it, try what it allows and how it handles my input and judge/categorize it rather quickly and without much further ado.

    • SteveDJ says:

      I came late to this party, so glad I found this post (instead of starting my own) because it basically is how I feel about this. In fact, I was going to simplify even more.

      I figure the goal IS the challenge, or contains it. Interaction? Well, that’s how you attempt to reach the goal, so I don’t think even that is needed in the ‘list’ of ingredients to make a game.

      Therefore, I submit that a game is: A set of Rules, and A Goal.

      Shamus, the problem with your article is, you seem to be setting out to try to find a definition to include everything that people currently might think is a game. The astronomers didn’t do that when defining “planet” – instead they figured out the most reasonable definition, and let the chips fall where they may.

      So, when you were talking about should a game be something you must win/lose – you had the answer. But then you brought up a title Proteus and dismissed the win/lose definition. That was a mistake. Rather, make the definition, and let Proteus fall out as “not a game”.

      You threw other ideas trying to support your dismissing that definition – what if you changed this, or added that. Basically, you were adding “rules” and/or “goals”.

      Let’s think of Paint Tool Sai. No, it isn’t a game. But I can come up with a goal, and some rules, and make a game — Draw me a house with 3 windows, a door and chimney, and a tree, and color them in, but only use X number of mouse clicks. I have just created a GAME! Paint Tool Sai is not the game, but rather the rules and the goal I just derived ARE the game. Paint Tool Sai is just the medium used to play this game.

      So it goes with most everything else. SimCity? I can just goof off and enjoy it all I want, and it isn’t a game. But once I decide “I want a city of 1,000,000 population” now I’ve just created a game for myself. SimCity isn’t the game, it’s the goal I’ve created, using SimCity as the “rules”, that makes my creation a game.

      Anyone can turn anything into a game by just establishing a goal and rules to follow. The object(s) you use to carry out those rules to achieve the goal are NOT the game – only the rules/goal itself makes the game.

  21. anaphysik says:

    My personal definition of what a game is: “Shut the fuck up and enjoy it already, you overly anal pissant.”

    Anyway, something roughly like that.

  22. Per the definition of the word itself a game (and the more specific word videogame), it is simply the act of spending time doing something non-productive.
    Spending time doing something productive is called work.
    Spending time doing something that is neither productive/nor non-productive, are usually called learning or experimenting.

    If you imagine one of those triangles where the three states I described above are the corners, and anything humans do are within that triangle, with varying percentages of all 3 areas.

    Like this http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/images/content/1BJamesClerkMaxwell.jpg
    Red, Green, and Blue are in each corner.
    Add a certain percentage of the three and you can get any color within the triangle.

    Educational could be green, playing could be red, working could be blue.
    The main bulk of games would maybe be red or orange or yellow, very few would be blue.

  23. I just came up with a new definition of game. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare = game. So if a game isn’t Call of Duty: Modern Warfare it isn’t a game. The only problem I can see with this definition is that it excludes Halo 2, which is also pretty clearly a game, as long as it only has the one exception it should be a good enough definition.

    • Hitchmeister says:

      But is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 a game? Because it’s clearly different from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It’s got a ’2′ on the end. Whether it is or isn’t, you’ll have to agree that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is even less of a game than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Where do you draw the line? (Don’t say Spec Ops.) It becomes like Zen Buddhists trying to explain what is ‘Buddha.’ Do various ‘things’ have ‘Buddha nature?’ Is any given activity ‘game-like?’ Can such a thing truly be defined?

  24. Sam says:

    Out of curiosity,
    If you were to make a first person shooter, what would you like to see?…I’m trying to make one…and I want to make sure it it a game, not a ‘not game’.

    • Hitchmeister says:

      I think first person shooters are over done. There’s just too many. It’s almost as bad with third person shooters. Personally, I’m looking forward to someone coming out with a second person shooter. But somebody would probably argue that that wouldn’t be a game.

      • Sam says:

        Second Person Shooter, What would that look like?
        …Trying to avoid a Call of duty knock/rip off
        On the bright side, I’m not going for realistic graphics…
        Better than this: ro.me, but, not by much, and I swear that it is not because I am terrible at modeling.

        • AyeGill says:

          I haven’t actually played the game, but apparently one of the Silent Hill games had some sort of mechanic where you could look through the eyes of nearby enemies. That’s sort of like a second person game, although I don’t know how well it would translate to shooters. You could make one where you’re a Secret Service agent who has to protect the president from assassins, and the camera is through the scope of the hitman’s sniper. That might be cool. Although you’d have to think up a different way of aiming than what usually happens(bullets are fired in the direction of the camera)

  25. Kian says:

    One fairly objective definition I found is that a game is a set of rules someone chooses to abide by for their enjoyment.

    This presents one important consequence, which I haven’t found to be problematic; anything can be a game to someone. You could take any mundane activity, and simply by challenging yourself to complete it in a certain manner, or structuring it somehow, it becomes a game.

    It’s important though that you choose it for yourself. If someone forced you to play tag, even though it is regarded as a game it wouldn’t be a game for you, it would be a chore or an exercise of some kind.

    A video game is basically any game we play with a computer (or literally, video display of some kind). This definition implies though that no piece of software is a game without a player. But again, I don’t really think this is a problem.

    Take Oblivion for example. We all agree that it is a game, but what game it is varies depending on who you ask. Some people finish the main quest as fast as possible, others want to explore, others care about nothing save stealing every single item in the game and storing them in their house. So if Oblivion is a game, which game is it?

    According to my definition, the there is no single “Oblivion” game. Oblivion is simply the stage, and the game emerges from the interaction with the player, who chooses what game to play every time they fire it up.

    Other software may be more strict in trying to force the player into a certain style. Take League of Legends, for example. But even then, you’ll find different games emerging as people substitute the default win conditions for their own, no matter how structured the software may be. You can have trolls, for example, who play a game of griefing their own teammates. We may all hate them, but they’re playing a game of their own.

    This goes back to the point that you have to choose to play a game, you can’t be forced to. The game designer suggests a game you might want to play with the software they designed, but it’s ultimately the player that decides what game he’s going to play.

    • Cupcaeks says:

      I think this is as good a definition of ‘game’ as we’re likely to get. It’s broad, as it should be. Add any more specifics than you’ve already stated and we’d be treading into subset territory, which is fine, but I think this is a perfectly good way to define what a ‘game’ is.

  26. JPH says:

    “But play also means probing new systems and discovering how they behave in response to your input.”

    By this definition, Photoshop can very well be considered a ‘game.’

    • Asimech says:

      (I’m using ‘generic you’ in the following.)

      If you’re using it like that for your own entertainment, then for you it is a game.

      Technically the same thing applies to “toy”. You can play around with a lot of stuff and for you they will be toys. At the same time they can be tools or whatever and would be considered as such by anyone not using them as toys.

      Ultimately the difference would be the creator’s intent, but they’ll call their creation whatever they like anyway.

  27. MattW says:

    The whole argument in your column is based on a cirular definition: “Let’s call everything a game that we can play” — sounds nice, but doesn’t shed any light on the issue because the verb “play” occupies semantically the same territory as “game” (the noun), with the whole difference being that it’s a verb.

    It’s like saying “Food is everything we can eat” or “Let’s define a drink as everything that we can drink” (see what I did there?). What I’m saying: your “definition” isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t add or explain anything. It doesn’t contribute to the discussion because all it does is avoid making any real statement whatsoever.

  28. Katesickle says:

    This seems very similar to the problem taxonomists have. Basically you’re trying to put definitive boxes around categories that have fuzzy edges. There’s not a hard line where you can say “everything on this side is a game, and everything on that side isn’t”. It doesn’t matter what definitions you use–something is going to come along that doesn’t fit in your boxes.

  29. Kdansky says:

    I dislike that definition, because what follows is that anything that you can “play” with is a “game”.

    And that’s wrong. A ball is not a game. Soccer is a game, a ball is just a toy. You’ve essentially used the word “game” instead of the word “toy”. I prefer the definition given by Keith Burgun (.net), which is very narrow, and excludes Dear Esther, and probably even Minecraft or Skyrim, because you cannot win them. Those are fantasy simulators (and that’s certainly correct), but not games. That definition has a few advantages:

    - It’s narrow enough to not fun afoul of “now everything is a game!” problems.
    - It allows us to talk about game quality.

    We would need to make up “Videotoy” for Dear Esther or Proteus. I’m fine with that, because those don’t feel like games to me to begin with.

    • X2-Eliah says:

      … Y’know, I really am not sure. When a definition of a (video)game excludes stuff like Skyrim, then I think it’s high time to step back and seriously rethink a) prejudices, b) the definition.

    • Asimech says:

      So instead of using “game” like it’s already used by most people you want to stretch the meaning of “simulator” to what it’s not?

      I can just barely handle X-wing as a simulator from the perspective that it’s simulating space combat within a fictional universe with an established break from real-life physics. But neither Skyrim nor Minecraft are trying to simulate anything. On the spectrum of Simulation and Abstraction they’re clearly on the Abstraction end.

      If you want “game” to exclude a huge pile of stuff, you should first offer a valid name for all of that other stuff. Since no-one is going to call them “interactive toys” or whatever other unwieldy stuff people have suggested in the past. They’re going to wait until you walk away and keep calling them games.

      Think about this: Will football stop being a game if you stop counting the score or everyone loses count? Are you suddenly not playing a game because there are no winners or losers?

      Skyrim and Minecraft are games, but they’re not simulators. Not even fantasy simulators.

      Edit: Also you can “win” Minecraft. The game is over when you kill the Ender Dragon. You also get a lose state in Hardcore mode, so it has both of them.

  30. Deadpool says:

    I’m a bit late to the party, but between my having brought up “Walking Dead is barely a game” in a previous post and after watching new Errant Signal, I figured I should drop my two cents.

    First, let me say that being a game or not a game has little to do with quality.

    Second, the answer to “what’s the difference between Half Life’s win state and Walking Dead’s?” Context. In Half Life (and most shooters) the story tasks the player with surviving the impossible. Big bad aliens, or terrorist attacks, or mutants or what have you. You drop the player in the middle of it, point him in a direction and say “get there alive” or “kill everything between you and that spot.” And the mechanics reinforce that.

    Walking Dead’s story tasks you with being a parent. It asks you to care and groom and love Clementine. And the mechanics deny you that opportunity. The disconnect in this case is so great that I am not sure this game would lose much by being turned into a series of animated shorts.

    Yes, it’s interactive, yes it still fits into the idea of a game because the idea of a game is vague and hard to pin down. But it’s kind of touch and go there.

    As for Sims, Animal Crossing and Skyrim… Sure, they’re games, but to be fair, not MY style. I get easily bored with the directionless sandbox style. Not going anywhere with this just take that as you will.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      And heres the link to that new errant signal.

      Anyway:”In Half Life (and most shooters) the story tasks the player with surviving the impossible. Big bad aliens, or terrorist attacks, or mutants or what have you. You drop the player in the middle of it, point him in a direction and say “get there alive” or “kill everything between you and that spot.” ”

      Thats not true.In half life 1 & 2 you get dropped on a train,there is no danger there.You can(and plenty people have)dick around the starting area for hours without having a single dangerous encounter.And people praised half life 1 en masse for doing that.

      “Walking Dead’s story tasks you with being a parent. It asks you to care and groom and love Clementine. And the mechanics deny you that opportunity.”

      Again,not true.The mechanics limit you that,but they dont deny it completely.Sure,you cannot do it the way you like it,but you can still do it with the limited tools you were given.For example,should we say that the original sim city was not a game,and the newest one is simply because the original had much more limited options?

      “The disconnect in this case is so great that I am not sure this game would lose much by being turned into a series of animated shorts.”

      Oh it would definitely lose much.There is a huge difference between “I loved how lee said goodbye to clementine” and “I loved how I said goodbye to clementine”.You cannot get the later without getting fully immersed in a game.Movies,even the best ones,will never get you that immersed.You can love them,they can get you emotional and connected with its characters,but it will never be about something thats happening to you directly.

      I think you should expand that “not my style” to walking dead as well.But just because its not your style doesnt mean its not a game.

      • Deadpool says:

        Thats not true.In half life 1 & 2 you get dropped on a train,there is no danger there.You can(and plenty people have)dick around the starting area for hours without having a single dangerous encounter.

        That is not quite the same thing…

        I mean, in Resident Evil they drop you in a mansion and you CAN just walk around in circles for the rest of existence without a single zombie popping up. Mario drops you in the middle of… nowhere I guess and you can hang out there forever before an enemy spawns.

        In all three games players eventually exhaust the places they can go WITHOUT facing an enemy/jump/puzzle and then have to overcome that if they want to proceed.

        And the story also requires the protagonist to overcome said enemy/jump/puzzle to proceed. The two are in tandem.

        Walking Dead’s story build an emotional connection with Clem and tasks Lee (the player avatar) with parenting her… And provides no opportunity to do so. All of your actions are either a door that needs opening or an enemy that needs dodging/killing. Even in fail states, the game ends with LEE dies, not Clem. Her survival, physical and emotional well being, level of preparedness for being an adult, etc… Are all irrelevant to any of the mechanics. And yet they are the heart and soul of the story.

        For example,should we say that the original sim city was not a game,and the newest one is simply because the original had much more limited options?

        Sim City still let you build a city. You can’t be a good parent in Walking Dead because there is no option to be a BAD parent (or not a parent) in it. LEE parents Clem. The player does not.

        There is a huge difference between “I loved how lee said goodbye to clementine” and “I loved how I said goodbye to clementine”.

        Funny you should mention this scene in particular… Most common topic on forums when the last episode came out was “How come Lee didn’t say ‘I love you too’ to Clem?”

        I know, I know, expecting a game to cover every possible line of dialogue a player imagines is impossible. Just a funny choice placement.

        However, look at the game itself… What DID you do for Clem? Did you cut her hair or did Lee? Did you teach her how to shoot, or did Lee? Did you ever get her to lose hope of her parents being alive, or did the situation do that eventually? Did you teach her what she needed to survive on her own in this world?

        Were you a successful parent or is that question left woefully unanswered?

        I think you should expand that “not my style” to walking dead as well

        I LIKE the Walking Dead. Never read the comic, can’t get past the second episode of the show, but I finished every episode of the game the day it came out. It’s a good story.

        The problem is that the story and the mechanics are SO far apart from each other you have to wonder if one wouldn’t be better off WITHOUT the other. Which is why it is barely a game to me. It is a story with barely no mechanics and a set of mechanics with barely any story attached.

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