Are videogames games?

I just read a blog post by Raph Koster, in which he explores the problem of trying to find a definition of videogames that encompasses so-called ‘notgames’ like Dear Esther – and indeed, whether or not we should even try. It’s a good read, although I’m not sure I agree with him. I should also warn you that it’s based mainly around a Venn diagram.

The ‘notgame’ debate in general frustrates me though – primarily because of the near-universal assumption that videogames are a subset of ‘games’ – and that Dear Esther (for example) can’t be a true videogame because it has no challenge, or obstacles, or game elements. Rather, it must be a piece of interactive art; as Koster says, one which possibly needs a new name since it fits poorly into either existing category.

But is that what really defines a videogame? I’ve long held the belief that ‘videogame’ is a poor choice of name for the sorts of things we create and enjoy, chosen too early in the medium’s creation, before we really understood what it was truly capable of. Is the ability to lose really the sole unique defining aspect?

If Dear Esther isn’t a true videogame, because it doesn’t rate your progress, or allow you to fail, then what happens when I turn on the invincibility cheat in Doom? Am I no longer playing a videogame? I’m pretty sure I’m not suddenly participating in a piece of interactive art. Surely by removing one element of the experience I haven’t fundamentally changed what it is?

We could try a clumsy analogy: If I remove the wheels from a car, then it no longer provides the basic fundamental functionality I’d expect a car to have. But it’s still a car – Its carness requires some qualification, admittedly, but it hasn’t suddenly become something else, and we don’t need to define a new category of objects for ‘things that are just like cars but can’t be driven.’

There’s a philosophical concept know as qualia – simply put, a quale is the essential quality of something, considered completely on its own terms. Qualia are, by their definition, extremely hard to define, but immediately familiar to everyone who’s experienced them. An example would be ‘redness;’ it’d be impossible to describe the experience of seeing the colour red to someone who’d never seen it – but as soon as they did, they’d understand it completely.

I’d argue there’s a quale to playing a videogame – an essential videogameness that’s hard to define, but easy to recognise, and it’s this experience, this feeling that defines them, not their position in a Venn diagram. And I’d argue that as long as something has the quale of videogameness, then that’s exactly what it is, regardless of what individual properties it has.

To me, it’s obvious that Dear Esther is a videogame, because it feels like one. when I play Dear Esther I’m experiencing and inhabiting that world in exactly the same way I experience and inhabit any videogame world – it has an essential videogameness that’s clearly distinct from the way I experience an architectural simulation, or a DVD menu, or a powerpoint slideshow. I might struggle to explain the distinction between them in words, or construct a diagram than neatly places everything in strict categories, but the distinction is nonetheless clear.

Anyway, back to my original point, the attempt to define videogames as a subset of games, or as a subset of interactive art, or (as Koster does,) the subset of both, belittles them. As far as I’m concerned, Videogames are a thing all to themselves, not simply a shaded area on a diagram where two arbitrarily chosen categories overlap. They mostly incorporate elements of gameplay, and very often elements of artistic expression, but it doesn’t follow that they must always do both.

I don’t know exactly how to define a videogame, any more than I know how to define redness. But my point is, does it really matter? Koster says he’d “hate to lose precision on something that we are finally able to pin down,” but have we ever actually had that precision? And do we really need to?

It’s great that expressive media don’t always have clear-cut definitions, and this debate reaches back far further than the birth of videogames – it’s inevitable, whenever people start to make things that don’t fit neatly into the existing categories; Dear Esther is a videogame in the same way that Fountain is a work of art, or Blue is a movie, or 4’33” is a piece of music. We have nothing to gain from building arbitrary semantic walls around the things we make. Quite the opposite: not clearly defining the boundaries is exactly what allows us to exceed them.

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64 Responses to “Are videogames games?”

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    The concept of videogames is definitely packed with associations, so I like the idea of applying quale here. It fits with the idea that classifying a ‘thing’ as a videogame is a personal decision. I prefer to cast the widest net, so as to not miss anything awesome because of mental blinders. But I have friends who would do the opposite.

    “But my point is, does it really matter?” Seconded, and I wish more people thought that way.


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