What is a Game?

I’ll avoid the cheesy dictionary description of a game, but I feel like the term has become so ubiquitous that it no longer carries much of any meaning. I say this of course in reference to video games. When the game industry started out we had things like Pong that are derived from real world sports and so the ‘game’ nomenclature seems to fit just fine. There were also things like Adventure for the Atari 2600 that doesn’t represent any traditional type of game, but is still obviously something meant to amuse. Those two games do have something in common though, they both have the ‘player’ interacting with the game. I believe interaction is a main point of why video games are considered games. If you consume any other media, for the most part you are a static observer. You sit in a theater or on a couch and watch a movie or look at a book. I wonder if the action of interaction is the only thing necessary to qualify a piece of entertainment as a game. Video games have of course evolved over the years. Story has become a larger component of many games. As technology improved many games featured cut scenes. This is a very staunch declaration that the story is important to the game because it’s completely removing the interaction from the player and having them just sit back and watch. It’s a sign that games aren’t just about interactive gameplay.

A focus on story didn’t just stem as a byproduct of technology though. There were games that came much earlier that were just text adventures. The same elements were there though, both story and interaction with the player. The question I would wonder then is, should games be less considered a game as their interaction with the player dwindles and the story aspect grows? If we look at a game like Myst, the only interaction is the ability to click on some objects and the game mostly exists so that you can sit back and absorb the intricacies of the world that’s displayed to you. There are also puzzle elements, but I think a large part of it is just absorbing this great looking world in front of you. As time goes on we just see the lines between story and interaction blur back and forth as games lean heavier in either direction or blend the two in different ways. More recently there are games like Life is Strange that of course has player interaction, but the main point of the game is to follow a story. The player interaction that it does have only serves as a tool to progress the story along in different ways.

There is a large chasm between a game like that and a game like Rocket League, where there is no story and it very much represents what any non-gamer would consider a game. So, do these two things belong under the same umbrella of the term ‘game’? Well, does it really matter? There needs to be an easy way to identify things like this just as other mediums have products of vast differences under the umbrella of the term movies or music. You could even make the comparison of a dumbed-down action movie and an informative science documentary both being labeled as movies while being vastly different. So why should games be any different? Also, is there anything innately wrong with the term ‘game’?

Well firstly, I think that it does matter which term we use to identify the medium of gaming because that is the very first point of interaction that people have with it. If you don’t get past the initial thought of what you expect a game to be, then it doesn’t matter what the content is. Even if someone does consume some content that they otherwise may have enjoyed, they may have a bias as it falls under the umbrella of the term ‘game’. To put it more clearly, it may same stupid to a lot of people that this would even be an issue, but I think there are people that think about all games in a dismissive way because the nature of the word insinuates that the product is not meant to be taken serious. Or at the very least isn’t meant to be taken seriously in any other way but how you interact with it. This is because someone outside of the video game spectrum has a perception that games are a thing that are far removed from anything involve story and are entirely about player interaction. As the medium of gaming evolves and matures and it becomes more widespread, I think this issue will diminish greatly. So if that’s not really that much of a problem, or appears like it won’t be in the future, then why is the term ‘game’ not satisfactory?

To be blunt, categorizing some of the unique story experiences that games can produce as just a game feels a little bit dismissive. The type of experiences that you can have in some of these games such as Firewatch or Life is Strange is so much more complicated and deeper than the simple interactive experience you get from playing something like Pac-Man that it seems reductive to label them as the same. Games also have a unique property where even though they are made to have interaction, they are also entertainment in the form of just watching. This has evolved with the medium from watching your sibling play through Mario to watching people play on live streams. There is even the notion of watching them as you would a more traditional sport as more and more games enter the E-Sports sector. Video games entertain us in increasingly varied ways that continues to grow and encompass all areas of traditional media. I feel like this is another reason why it’s hard to give that whole breadth of entertainment a simple label such as ‘games’.

We use the term game because it was fitting for what the medium was when it started. More than any other though I think the medium of gaming has evolved further and faster than any other. This is partly to do with how well it scales with technology. We’ll see it evolve even further with advancements in VR and the like. Being what they are now, is there a better term to use? There may be, but, even if you chose another term that better suited what a lot of these games are now, you’d still run into the same problem of it not being able to identify all different genres of gaming effectively. I don’t have a good answer on an alternative to just labeling everything as a game, and maybe that isn’t even the main point of the issue. The main issue is how we think of what games are compared to what the average person thinks they are. The label the medium has just has an influence on that.

I should note that I don’t want to sound like I’m saying games with a heavy emphasis on story are more important or better in some way than games that are all about simple player interaction. Rocket League is probably my most played game of the last year. Games that produce a more sophisticated interaction between the player and the story are the point of contention when thinking of what games really are. This may all be unfounded even, maybe I’m just afraid that if we don’t change how we think of what games can be that maybe we’ll miss some opportunities in creating new unique experiences. Or even more likely, that the people who play games will limit their perception of the types of experiences that they believe games can bring them. If the current trends are any indication though, I believe that we have many great experiences ahead of us as the medium continues to evolve. I just hope it can be appreciated for what it is and not what it was.

Originally published at www.giantbomb.com.