It’s been a while since I’ve done a longform post, but here we are.
This is a topic that has been heavy on my mind lately. I talk a lot about film here, and other than my “Top 10 Games of All Time” series (which a lot of you apparently read, so thank you for that!), I haven’t talked too much about video games. But I very strongly believe in video games as an art form – though I’ve dedicated myself to filmmaking, I think that video games offer equal opportunity for emotional affectation as films do, and are very worth one’s time and money. What makes them so interesting right now especially is that they are so young. They’re still a medium in its infancy, having been around only 40 years or so. If we compare that to film, which began in the 1890s, then we’re still in the 1930s. All-time greats will begin to make their defining films: Michael Curtiz still hasn’t made Casablanca, Howard Hughes is still in the early years of his career, Buster Keaton has 10 more years of shorts before throwing in the towel, Walt Disney is just starting his mouse empire. All these things are just beginning in gaming, and if we look at how far film has come from the wide open frontier that was the 1930s, then there is a lot of reason to be excited about gaming.
So I am very much a supporter, fan, and armchair critic of gaming. It’s an exciting time for the medium and industry, and I am eager to see where it goes. But lately, the community has been divided over the emergence of a new kind of game. They’re less divided about the games themselves, as almost everybody seems to agree that these are wonderful pieces of art. But they’re divided about the very basic description of these works of art as “games.” Which brings us to the primary question I will be asking tonight: what exactly is a “game?”
A Brief History of Gaming?
The most obvious place to begin this discussion is a dictionary.
game: n. 1. a form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
So, basically, a game is a competitive activity that involves a set of rules for play. By virtue of being a competitive activity, there must be a win condition and thus a “winner” of the game. As a strict definition for the word “game,” this will suffice. So let’s take that definition and look back at the early years of gaming. Most of what comes to mind are games like Pong, but even earlier than that are computer games like Spacewar!. It’s very clear that both of these games have the aspects defined above. These prototypical games in particular are especially fitting, given that they are a direct competition between a player and another player or a player and a computer-controlled opponent.
As games continued to expand, however, the dimension of direct competitive between a player and an opponent – computer controlled or otherwise – began to vanish from some games. While multiplayer has always been a critical aspect of gaming, arcade games began to rise and pit players against each other in an indirect fashion: through high scores. A score system was put into place in some games, such as Donkey Kong, and players would play the game – a single-player one – and get the highest score they could. Once they did, their friends would do so, and they would compare scores. While it is perhaps not entirely accurate to declare the recipient of the “high score” the “winner,” it was certainly a point of pride and often regarded as a win for that player. These games with more indirect win conditions began to further and further erode the competitive nature of gaming.
Eventually, games moved out of computer labs and arcades and into the living room with devices like the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in the US). The breakout hit here was, of course, Super Mario Bros., a platformer that involved a player completing a course of jumping and avoiding being struck by enemies. Yes, there is a score component, but unlike arcade titles the score component of this game was primarily inconsequential. It wasn’t strongly story-driven, but it was a game primarily motivated by completion, by getting to the end of the thin narrative (and finally finding the “other castle” that our princess is trapped in) and the game’s challenges. There is a thin element of indirect competition here, but it has been reduced further and further.
Console gaming evolved and evolved over a long period of time, and here, in the eighth generation of consoles (the seventh generation, comprising of the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3, having just ended), they’ve come a long way. Games are now widely recognized as storytelling experiences in addition to competitions. While the competitive side of gaming has flourished due to the internet revolution, with things like League of Legends and StarCraft 2 becoming widely played and acknowledged “eSports,” the single-player, non-competitive side of gaming has grown equally as much. Games like The Last of Us are telling powerful stories of the caliber of film’s greatest. Games like Journey are providing players the means to tap into some incredibly deep pathos and connections to other human beings. Games like Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch serve as escape, pulling us into another world and satisfying the itch for abnegation and progression. Games can do so much more than simply serve as ways for us to compete. In fact, all three games that I just mentioned? They lack a “win condition.” You can’t “win” Journey, you can only “not-lose.” “Winning” is just finishing the game. Reaching the end of the story without “losing.” It’s not winning. It’s not-losing. The competitive edge to gaming remains in many multiplayer modes and multiplayer-only games. But there’s also an equally large part of gaming that is entirely removed from competition and even win conditions.
A New Trend
So a while back a digital distribution platform called Steam began to gain some traction. Valve, the company who owns and runs Steam, is a game developer of legendary status, having made Half-Life and Half-Life 2, two of the most widely regarded games in history (both of which lack a competitive mode, and are story-driven shooter games). So Valve’s efforts to jump start Steam, a service that allows players to digitally purchase, download, and play games on their PC, were highly effective. Soon the console makers followed suit, with things like the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network Store offering digital downloads of games. Eventually, those storefronts opened up, and just like in the world of digital film, a whole new industry appeared: independent gaming.
There have been a wide variety of independent games, from the safe to the wildly experimental. Games like Super Meat Boy revel in the retro arcadey feel of yesteryear, providing a satisfying, well-made, tough-as-nails platforming experience. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent excel at scaring the hell out of the player through an exquisitely crafted atmosphere of ambient sound. The independent game scene has run the gamut of gaming experiences… and has even created a new one.
There has been lately a large rise in games that lack any sort of win or loss conditions, but are rather exploration based games that tell a story through the player’s interaction with the environment. Dear Esther was the first notable example of this trend, a game that places players on an island and invites them to explore it, with a narrator providing details about the game’s story as they do. Most recently, the game Gone Home from The Fullbright Company has put its foot forward. Gone Home (featured at the top of this post) is a game that places players in the home of a family in 1995. The player is Katie, a young adult returning home after a year abroad. She finds that none of her family members are home, and players explore the house and examine the notes and items the family left lying around in order to piece together the story of what happened to them. Other than a few voiceover diaries from Katie’s younger sister, Sam, and a single exposition voiceover at the very beginning of the game, there is no direct conveyance of any of the game’s narrative. It is entirely constructed within the player’s mind as they make connections and decide for themselves what happened to the family.
Here, we come to the heat of the debate about what constitutes a game.
Do these experiences – Gone Home and Dear Esther – constitute a “game” as the definition above dictates? No. Not at all. They are not competitive or sporting. But are they games in the sense of the word as it is today, a word referring not only to that definition but also to the video gaming medium that has evolved from that definition?
I would argue yes, they absolute are.
It is very clear that the dictionary definition of “game” is woefully inadequate for what the term has come to mean in modern society. The art form that is video gaming has moved far beyond its initial roots as computerized versions of traditional games, and as such we can move the word itself beyond its current denotation. Just as films are still films even if they aren’t printed on film stock, games are still games even if they don’t fit the traditional definition of a game. Video game exposure is greater now than it has ever been, and it’s only now that gaming has become a more acceptable pursuit. It will be some time before that exposure trickles down to actually change the definition of game in the public eye, but it is high time we consider redefining it ourselves.
There is an academic paper about a concept known as “MDA.” It’s been around since the early 2000s, but hasn’t really caught on in popular discourse. Game designers are assuredly very familiar with the concept, but most players are certainly not. If you’re interested, the full paper is available online, and it’s a very good read with a lot of great ideas. But if not, I’m going to distill the basics of it – or at least what is pertinent to our discussion – here.
“MDA” stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. The MDA concept is a framework for the way a game is constructed. Every game is going to have a base set of rules and actions for players. In Monopoly, for example, rolling the dice and moving your character are base actions that you perform every turn. In video games, these manifest as mechanics. “Game mechanics” is a term players will be very familiar with, and these are the actions your character can perform. Shooting a gun. Opening your inventory. Your character’s HP. All of these things are game mechanics. Now, with those base rules and actions established, a game will be defined by the way that players interact and use those rules and actions in coordination. These rules and actions come together to form game systems. In Monopoly again, the rules and actions we mentioned above work together with the rules and actions governing purchasing property to form a game system for how players conduct each turn. You roll the dice (an action) and move your character according to the numbers you rolled (an action, and a rule governing what to do if you roll doubles). That’s a movement system. Then you land on a space, and the rules and actions governing purchasing property or paying rent to the owner of the property form another system that determines how you proceed based on the space you have landed on. These game systems are all formed from the basic rules and actions set forth by the game. In video games, these “game systems” are manifested as dynamics. In third person shooters, the standard “run and gun” game dynamic is formed up of the actions of shooting, running, and taking cover. All of the base rules and actions come together to form a dynamic that shapes how you play the game.
So that’s mechanics and dynamics, which are hugely important, but not entirely relevant to what I want to discuss. Aesthetics, however, are. Aesthetics, as you might expect, are the ways that dynamics interact, and they form the core reasons we engage with games. The real reasons we seek our these experiences are their aesthetics. The authors of the MDA paper laid out eight core aesthetics of play – eight core reasons that people play games. A game can have just one of these, or many of these, or even all of these. All that matters is that the game’s dynamics enforce this kind of engagement. I’m not going to get into all eight of them (but you can see what they are in the image below, or check out this fantastic video that explains both the MDA concept and the eight core aesthetics really well), but you should be aware of what the idea of an aesthetic of play is.
Okay, everybody still with me? Great! Now that we have an understanding of what aesthetics are, we can define what a game is.
A video game must fill three requirements: it must be an audio-visual experience (1) that gives the player some form of agency (2) and fulfills at least one core aesthetic (3).
Let’s break these down one by one.
(1): A video game must be an audio-visual experience.
This may be a contentious claim, given that many people see video games as an evolution of board games or tabletop pen and paper games. And while to an extent that is true, I hold firm that they represent two distinct branched paths. Video games have evolved beyond their roots in board games, and have become a very different art form. I very much believe that board games are capable of being art, though I admittedly have yet to see a board game I would consider proof positive of that belief (though I don’t play many). The point is that video games, through language unique to their stature as being combinations of audio, visuals, and interactivity, have very much become their own thing, wholly separate from board games. If we want to build a framework for defining board games and determining if they are art or not, that’s a whole separate discussion. But video games must be audio-visual.
Now, I put this requirement in here also because having both an audio component and visual component is critical. Our technology is currently not limited to the point where an aspiring game designer will have to sacrifice audio elements or visual elements to get their game out the door. Any decisions made to exclude an audio component or a visual component will, thus, be a deliberate artistic decision. The presence of absence, so to speak. A game with no audio track that explores a character’s deafness. A game with minimal or intermittent video that explores blindness. These are decisions made, not sacrifices forced by limited technology. Thus, we include the necessity of an audio-visual element to enforce the artistic intent.
(2): A video game must give the player some form of agency.
Simple enough. A video game must allow the player some degree of agency over the experience. This is what separates the audio-visual experience that defines a game from simply a film, which, at its most base, is also an audio-visual experience. What separates the two is the interactive component. Games can vary in how much agency they give players, from near total agency in “open-world” experiences like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas to much more linear games that give the players comparatively minimal agency like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves or Final Fantasy XIII. Indeed, how much agency a game does or does not give to its players is often part of the artistic statement being made by the game. But at the bare minimum it has to offer players some degree of choice, even if it’s just an illusion.
(3): A video game must fulfill at least one of the core aesthetics of play.
This requirement is here to ensure that what qualifies as a video game will also qualify as art. The core aesthetics of play – the reasons we play games – are all tailored to some sort of emotional reaction. By tailoring this into the classification of a video game, it inherently ensures that all video games are art (a stipulation I would make even without this definition, but this codifies it).
Additionally, this is a very inclusive criterion. The core aesthetics are so broad and provide such a significant basis for why we play games that nearly anything that could classify as a game, does. But it also ensures that things that don’t fit specific core play aesthetics won’t be excluded. For example, James Portnow, lecturer and game design consultant (and the writer of Extra Credits, the series I linked up above), believes that a ninth core play aesthetic should be added – “competition.” Some people do indeed play games for the competitive nature. But as we discussed earlier, a large part of gaming has removed or reduced the competitive side of gaming from the experience. To exclude them because they don’t fit the competitive aspect of the initial definition of gaming is not fair. Conversely, the competitive aspect of gaming is still a critical part of its identity. So we have to include it… while not excluding on its basis. The solution is simple: it’s a core play aesthetic. A game with that aesthetic counts as a game, but so long as an experience lacking that aesthetic has one of the other eight, it too counts as a game. This allows things like Call of Duty to remain games, but also allows non-competitive, non-winning games like Gone Home to qualify.
I feel pretty confident in this definition of “game” – I think it’s appropriately inclusive, while still nailing the necessary qualities of a video game. But there’s a lingering question: why does it matter?
Why It Matters
Art is a wonderful thing. This whole blog is a testament to how much I love it and want to share that love of it with everybody. When I have a profound experience, I want to tell people about it so that they might have a profound experience too. It’s a great feeling, and we should all seek it out when we can.
So to continue upholding the archaic definition of game that does not take into account the changes in the medium and the evolution beyond the initial concept of video gaming is damaging. It hinders discussion of these wonderful works of art. If I couldn’t talk about Gone Home or Dear Esther as if they were video games – and thus talk about them in video game channels and blogs – where could I talk about them? There exists no classification for these experiences outside the world of video games. They are unique beasts if we deny them kinship with games. But these are profoundly affecting experiences. These are things worthy of discussion, of pouring over and getting to understand on a deep, intimate level.
So why don’t we just create a new category for these types of things? Well, quite simply, we don’t need to. These experiences are marketed as games, sold on platforms that host video games, and advertised as video games. They are audio-visual interactive experiences that speak to the core aesthetics of discovery, narrative, expression, and fantasy. If one wants to deny them the moniker of “video games” on the basis that they are non-competitive, they can feel free to. But the simple fact of the matter is that these experiences have more in common with video games than with any other medium. To deny them a place of discussion among that medium on a semantic technicality is absurd.
No, they aren’t competitive. But competition is such an unnecessary component of gaming. It’s a contributor to artistic statements at times and a great tool to use in the artist’s toolbox. But it’s not a defining trait any longer. Gamers need to wake up and realize that their medium is rapidly evolving, and games like this are going to continue appearing. Let us get over our linguistic snobbery and acknowledge that games have changed, and that we need a new definition for them.
Let us go forward, not denying these wonderful experiences a place at our table, but opening our arms to them and exploring them, seeing what they have to offer, and learning from them.