Monday, January 13, 2014

Yes, It's a Game. They're ALL Games. STOP ARGUING.

Yes, in fact, I do have Know Your Meme bookmarked. Why do you ask?
I've been taking a long break playing through the dozens of unplayed indie games in my Steam queue. My biggest surprise was that all of my favorite experiences were what I privately call Storytelling games: Games with minimal gameplay, that mainly exist to tell a story.

You've been hearing about them for months. Gone Home. Stanley Parable. Papers, Please. (In my opinion.) To the Moon. Amnesia: Machine For Pigs. Storytelling Games really broke big in the last year.

But it's still the Internet. There is no conversation so interesting and new that someone won't break in and try to derail it into a pointless argument. So ...

Stop arguing about whether a game is a game or not. It's a useless distraction. STOP IT.


When someone says, "That isn't even a game," they are actually saying something else.

One. It's Impossible to Define What a Game Is.

No, seriously. Try it. Whatever definition you come up with, half of everyone else will disagree. The other half will instantly poke a ton of holes into it.

We're talking art here. Getting a firm definition of anything is impossible.

Consider Big Fish Games, a hugely successful publisher of casual games. Think of it as Steam for your grandmother.

Have you looked at casual games lately? One of the biggest categories on Big Fish Games is Hidden Object Games, which is exactly what it sounds like. "There is a squid somewhere on your screen. Click on it."

This is an activity that doesn't involve pwning a dozen robotorcs while cycling through a dozen hotkeyed abilities at top speed, so plenty of hardcore gamers wouldn't consider it worthy of the lofty title of "Game." But Big Fish Games does sell games. You can tell because they have "Games" right there in their name.

(Of course, whenever anyone says, "That isn't a game," it's just thinly disguised bragging about how awesomely hardcore they are. Whatever the filthy casuals are doing over there, it doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the cool kid stuff we do.)

Personally, I think a Hidden Object Game barely even counts as an "activity." But it's still a game, and if a Hidden Object Game is a game, everything is.

A screen from the delightfully aggressively named Witches' Legacy: Hunter and the Hunted. Now click the squid. Click, it, DAMN YOU! CLICK IT!

Two. Dividing Games Into Games and Not-Games is Useless.

I mean, why would you even want to come up with categories like Game and Visual Novel and whatever? It wouldn't do any good, as everyone has a different idea of what a game is.

You know something? I've decided that I don't think simulators should be considered games. Gone Home is like a Hidden Object Game, so it's a game, but Call of Duty is a war simulator, so it's not a game. So there! (Drops mic.)

What did you think of that last paragraph? Do you think I sounded like a crazy person? Well, that's how YOU sound if/when you say Gone Home isn't a game.

Coming up with different ghettos to stick games into doesn't do any good, and it keeps us from doing what's really interesting: Talking about the works themselves.

Three. You Really, Honestly Can't Come Up With Something Better To Talk About, Seriously?!?!?!?

This is a time of wonders for gamers. 2013 saw the release of a huge number of fantastic, innovative, and ground-breaking titles, on the indie and AAA level. It was a year of delights. Even games I had a lot of problems with were still super-fun.

We should be spending out precious and limited time talking about the games themselves. What they did right. What they could have done better. What is still technically or budgetarily impossible for them to do. (The last one is a really important, under-discussed topic.)

That someone could be greeted with all of these delights and all they can do is pick a semantic argument? The art form is growing fast now, guys. It's way, WAY too early to start pigeonholing things yet.


As always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. As much as I agree with everything you said, I still balk at calling Dear Esther a game. I enjoyed the experience, but a game? In the end though it doesn't matter what it's called I suppose. It was something I enjoyed and that's what's important

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  2. If you need to distract such people from the game/not ge debate, get them started on trying to define music. Then run away. Trying to decide if something is music or not is the same idiotic discussion.

  3. I agree that it's silly to be snooty and insist that certain things can't be "games" because they aren't hard-core enough. But while we're trying not to make the term "game" too narrow, don't we also have to avoid making it too broad (and therefore meaningless)? For instance, let's suppose I have a comic book in PDF form. Would you be comfortable with calling that a game? And is there really such a big distance between a comic PDF and a comic that is presented as a kind of interactive slide show?

    I'm perfectly happy to admit hidden object games, adventure games with puzzles to solve, and survival horror games with monsters to hide from as "games." They're highly interactive and they require the player to exercise skill (it may not be a lot of skill, but that's okay). But when one reduces the narrative-driven game to a form which is basically "click the screen to see the next part of the story," it begins to stop feeling like a game. I've never been tempted to define turning the pages of a book as a game.

    The distinction between "story" and "story-driven game" is more of a continuum than a stark line, so I agree that a precise definition is probably impossible. If you don't place the boundary between these categories in the same place I do, I'll try to avoid shrieking at you. But that doesn't mean these categories don't exist or have no value.

    1. "For instance, let's suppose I have a comic book in PDF form. Would you be comfortable with calling that a game?"

      I probably wouldn't, and I think it would be eccentric if you did it, but it doesn't matter. This way of approaching the discussion is useless, because you can't define something like a game by listing all of the things it isn't.

      The categories of this game or that game are so vague and fluid that we might as well call anything anything we want to. You can come up with all of the firm categories you want, but they will only exist in your own mind. You can't come up with a firm definition of game any more that you can absolutely define (as someone said above) "music" or "painting."

      That's just how art works.

      - Jeff Vogel

    2. " This way of approaching the discussion is useless!"

      “You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”

  4. On the other hand, instead of insisting that "X is a game", why not give ground and let them have it? I think it can in the end be much more effective in ridiculing the whole pointless argument: "ok, of course X is not a game, i think it's a "shmame" you know, and it's an awesome shmame, you should try it! I got tired of games recently and shmames became my thing, everyday I can't wait till I get back from work and pshlay my new shmame".

  5. Aren't FPSes generally hidden object games too? Find the head, click on it, find the head, click on it, etc.

  6. So much win in this post because I agree, something like To the Moon was a great game, and I still consider it a game as there are interactive elements. Not all games are made the same - and they shouldn't be. This is a debate I've been seeing a lot more of lately, and I agree with your points almost to the T.

  7. Gee, I would have called the hidden object thingies, games, because people "play" them. But like you say, it's useless to argue about the definition, except maybe to improve intellectual rigor. One of my own forays lately into the nebulous world of games is choose-your-own-adventure apps. Some of them are so decked out with rolling dice animations, music and such I almost consider them games. Others are straight text.

  8. Words are for communication. If someone is trying to communicate "I don't like experiences where I basically just walk around to explore a story" then it is not unreasonable for them to say "Gone Home isn't a game", although there are better ways to phrase their point. If someone is trying to communicate "let's talk about the achievements and limitations of storytelling in interactive electronic media" then it is reasonable to say even Dear Ester is a game.

    If someone is on the internet just trying to dump an unrefined muddle of emotion into a comment, then you aren't likely to get much communication no matter what words are used.

    (But you can't define "word"! You can't define "communication"! You can't define "definition"! Blog comments are "art"! The entire history of language is "art"! We are all ultimately alone and unable to communicate anything. La-la-la-la-la ---goes off skipping through the wildflowers---)

  9. Actually it is possible to get a basic, rudimentary definition of a game. A game has to be interactive and there has to be a chance of winning at it (the goals may be abstract, you may be required to come up with your own goals even, but it has to be possible to succeed).

  10. Mikolaj: It's not that simple.

    Consider, for a moment, how a book may very well be interpreted to fall within your definition.

    Saying games "has to be interactive" is circular: interactivity is another such loose, open-ended concept. Is turning a page interactive? You may be inclined to say, "no, because there is no choice or agency." Consider, then, that it is possible for rudimentary games to have no choice or agency, such as Candy Land, or Chutes and Ladders.

    In short: let's do what we've been doing with art and music for centuries and handwave it. After all, you'll know it when you see it, and if you don't, who cares?

    Much as with art, when someone says "that is not art", they mean something closer to "I do not like that piece of art" or "that piece of art does not fit what I have known until this moment to be art" or "there was not enough effort put into that piece art".

    Mark: It would very well be unreasonable for such a hypothetical person who does not enjoy walking around to enjoy a story to employ what essentially boils down into a crude strawman of "Gone Home is not a game". It is as short-sighted and unsophisticated a commentary on the piece as "rock and roll is not music" once was. Using blanket, poorly thought out statements, in the guise of legitimate commentary is at the very core of being unreasonable.

    1. Heh. Your use of the word "strawman" is incorrect. Were you "at the very core of being unreasonable", or were you trying to communicate something reasonable and simple choose an incorrect wording?

  11. I played Gone Home with my 14 year old daughter. She plays games quite a bit, in the vein of animal crossing and Pokemon, and to her Gone Home is definitely a game, no question. So I was surprised by Jason Schreier's Kotuku posting "Finally, Gone Home Becomes A Real Video Game" about Gun Home, the Castle Wolfenstein-based Gone Home DLC parody game.

    He says that Gone Home "basically reading your way through a story" is not what he considers a game. I think you can't use Gone Home unless you play it, and if you are playing it... yes, it's a game. There are some lively responses to Jason's post.

    Effort made in defining things is hard to avoid. Filters like definitions are what we use all the time for interwebs-sifting, classification is how we learn not to eat the spotty mushrooms that result in fatality - it's innate. Internet fights is how we know that people care about this stuff. Ok, maybe time could be better spent, but the caring fight is what makes the definition, the genre, the activity, the mass etc.

    Thanks BF, you are a great game filter. Next off the rank for us is Paper's Please.

  12. Well, we already had the "can videogames be art" discussion...

    Now it's "can art be a videogame", I guess?

  13. I think it can in the end be much more effective in ridiculing the whole pointless argument: "ok, of course X is not a game, i think it's a "shmame" you know, and it's an awesome shmame, you should try it!
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  16. I've never been tempted to define turning the pages of a book as a game.
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  17. Gee, I would have called the hidden object thingies, games, because people "play" them. But like you say, it's useless to argue about the definition, except maybe to improve intellectual rigor. One of my own forays lately into the nebulous world of games is choose-your-own-adventure apps. Some of them are so decked out with rolling dice animations, music and such I almost consider them games. Others are straight text.
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