It’s depressing to see prominent video game publications play the role of the conservative establishment. Edge magazine recently doubted that games should strive to be more than simply games. Thank god a modern day equivalent didn’t convince Disney or Groening that cartoons should be no more than children’s entertainment.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Electronic Gaming Monthly has begun reviewing what they call “non-games.” Try as I might, I cannot come up with a satisfactory definition of the word game. EGM must have, though, if they now dedicate a portion of their magazine to video games that are not games. EGM owes the entire community this definition because it may end many squabbles over which consoles are doing well, which games matter, and where the industry is heading.
Before they enlighten the world with a precise definition of game, they need to consider some of the difficulty others have had with the word. Lets start by looking at how the word “game” is defined by Merriam-Webster online:
1 a (1): activity engaged in for diversion or amusement
(2): the equipment for a game
b: often derisive or mocking jesting
2 a: a procedure or strategy for gaining an end
b: an illegal or shady scheme or maneuver
3 a (1): a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other
(2): a division of a larger contest
(3): the number of points necessary to win
(4): points scored in certain card games (as in all fours) by a player whose cards count up the highest
(5): the manner of playing in a contest
(6): the set of rules governing a game
(7): a particular aspect or phase of play in a game or sport
b plural : organized athletics
c (1): a field of gainful activity
(2): any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle
(3): area of expertise
The first definition looks like the most relevant, only it’s so vague it doesn’t offer much help. Generally accepted concepts of a game include goals, challenge, and rules. Rules is the easiest category to ignore. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but I’d be surprised if someone could write game code that doesn’t force a player to follow certain rules within certain parameters. A game that is the reconstruction of reality would still be full of rules, which are mostly lame and part of the reason we play games in the first place.
Goals is a hard one because games can have both explicit and implicit goals. Explicit goals like “save the princess” are straightforward but implicit goals the player must define for himself are less concrete. Sim City lacks explicit goals but I’d argue is a game because the player can easily create their own metrics for being successful.
Endless Ocean, the Wii game EGM used for their first non-game review, has few explicit goals. The world will not end if you don’t catalog every fish, no one will perish of a horrible disease if you do not thoroughly explore the ocean. Still, there are a finite number of sea creatures to find and the ocean isn’t actually endless. Most games rely on narrative to create an explicit goal, or at least to clearly convey the goals to the player. New games lacking narrative often come across as casual or non-games but to agree with this classification you need to ignore that most games of the 70s were essentially plotless. Or reclassify Pacman as a non-game if it makes you feel better.
Challenge is tricky because it opens up a can of worms – if a game is no longer challenging to me does it stop being a game? Let’s ignore that philosophical question. If I leave a game on and nothing bad happens is it a game? In other words, are there consequences for inaction or acting poorly? This is a decent definition of what I mean by challenge, but even EGM non-games such as Endless Ocean fit the description. Whether or not you act, your air is running out. If you pick a winding path to get to your destination this lack of planning leaves you with less time to find new fish.
Challenge is directly tied to goals and this is why open-ended games are often thought of as non-games. If a goal is not explicit then challenge is entirely up to the player to create. If I don’t care if my pirate in Pirates! fills in the list of things he can do then the only challenge left in that game is what I define. Never lose to the Spanish seems like a fine goal but this active role of the gamer defining the goals of a game scares away many people, including prominent game journalists.
Gamers should embrace the most open definition of the word game. There is little to be gained by deriding software as a non-game and this practice ultimately makes us look alternately like nerds and snobs. Instead of taking offense at games that challenge convention we need to embrace them if we ever want to see the full potential of games as a medium fulfilled. Merriam-Webster got this one right, but I’d like to hear from game journalists.
EGM, what is a game?