What's in a Game?

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What's in a game? That which we call a Call of Duty by any other name would sell as much?


No - no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful... I had no idea.

I like to pick on these popular examples of video games as art, but really, many "real games" aren't much better. I recently played through Uncharted 2 for the first time and I found myself wondering if I was playing it or watching it. Its primary concern seemed to be its dubious aspiration to blockbuster cinema, with its attention to combat and platforming trailing very far behind.

It took one attempt and one attempt only to solve the entire game: look for the nearest 3-dimensional, highlighted brick protruding from the nearby scenery, and then press X to proceed. Once you got that down, the world was yours. This is steps, plural, behind the games of yesteryear, games as simple as Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, hell, Mario 64 had more moves to master than the entire Uncharted series combined. But, maybe I'm just blinded by cynicism. Maybe Naughty Dog simply streamlined the controls to increase accessibility. You know, so everybody could enjoy it. That sounds about right.

FPS? That's a terrible acronym--only one of those letters actually appear in 'hallway simulator.'

Another of my many mistakes of youth was mistaking myself for a mapper when I played Kingpin: Life of Crime. The very first thing I ever did in the QERadiant Editor was to make a simple rectangle in which to run around. There were no textures, no weapons, no enemies, nothing but a spawn point, a grey floor, four grey walls, and the ugliest graphical error you've ever seen for a ceiling. Would I call this a game? No, of course not--there was nothing to do but walk around and peer into the heart of monotony.

The more things change, the grey grey grey something grey.

The Random One:

On the account of games, there is no such body (unless you're arguing for the people who study games, who never seem bothered by what the popular use of words they have specific meanings for are). So: Proteus is covered by gaming sites, it's reviewed by them, it's been created by a person who identifies himself as a game developer, it has been nominated for and won awards at video game based events, and is sold by Steam, a game distribution tool, in a section that's clearly labeled for games (and not the 'productivity software', i.e. non-game software, it also sells). How the hell is the general position of society that it's not a game?

But isn't that just it? There is no such body unless it is from a position of someone who studies games and or game theory.

Now your saying Proteus is covered by gaming sites, reviewed by them, created by someone calling themselves a "game developer", nominated and won awards at video game based events, sold by a primary distributor of entertainment software.

What I am seeing here is a position that is saying that (all that) is the body. Unfortunately that body lacks for much in the way of a peer review in the strictest empirical sense.

As I mentioned in a previous post, it is akin to trying to "disprove" the empirical reliance of the Zodiac... using the Zodiac. There is no mechanism within the "game community" at the production and distribution level (which review sites are clearly a part of) that is capable of making the argument as to the epistemological status of a particular creation.

There is certainly NO interest financially in doing so.

That is, one may not disprove astrology, using astrology; it is inherently a self fulfilling prophecy.

A product sold as entertainment, created by a self appointed game developer, reviewed by game sites; every aspect justifies a link in the chain. It's ontological status is circular.

All one then must do to become blessed by the church of vox populi then is to be reviewed by a site, win some awards few have ever heard of, and get sold on steam. Everyone wins.

Now I think the general position is that it is a "game" in the most colloquial sense of the word. Just like I have said about some products like this one (Dear Esther comes to mind) is that of art game emphasizing the stress on the art aspect. That is, as a pejorative.

The examination of the product is where the art installation, and it is that, is critically analysed for it's game mechanics. Rather than go off into a diatribe as to the "not game" status, in this sense I place the burden of proof onto the audience, the end user. To describe in detail, the game and it's mechanics.

Because of the "art" status, and certainly the ontological status of the product; there is going to be a certain amount of "belief" in what it is. Other than that it was blessed by fiscally interested parties, what is the evidence as to the "game" status of the art?

Is there anything about "it" that suggest that it "is" a game, other than "someone" or "group" of economically vested people said so?

What are it's merits on it's own terms?

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of room for Jello, and there is room for stuff like this. This is, however, very debatable as a game. Certainly not one because someone "said" it was.

The planets argument in fact reduces what is a planet by more precise criterion, and does nothing for expanding this discussion. In many respects, it's just the opposite.

I am VERY comfortable calling this product an art installation.

I am VERY uncomfortable calling this product a game.

Simply the description of the work, how and why it does what it does is better facilitated using nomenclature from an academic art standpoint.

I would have a very difficult time describing this work in terms of game theory. If one notices the reviews they are more or less from a "reaction" point of view. This is very common when describing art as to how it makes one feel. I typically would not go about describing "chess" or any other strong or loose formal game system as to how it strikes me at an emotional level.

Art communicates visually, in this instance aurally.

Games communicate mechanically and through systems.

Whatever is being "said" is "what it is". In Proteus, systems are practically nonexistent. There is nothing to say, because there is nothing there, there is nothing there, because it is not a game. It's an art installation.

It seems like defining a "game" is like defining porn, or music: It's different for each individual. If calling Minecraft a game makes you happy, then it's a game. If calling it digital Legos is good enough for you, then it's digital legos.

As for Proteus, I would consider it a game. There is an ending that can only be brought about by player interaction with the world. It's not a complicated interaction, but the experience will just continue indefinetely unless certain requirements are met. That may not be enough for you, and I'm Ok with that. It's still a game to me. As is Minecraft. And SimCity.

[quote="Rogue 09" post="6.401090.16511933"
The issue with Pluto is that a minority came along and told the world that it was in the wrong. That the majority who have used the term planet for Pluto were incorrect. So they renamed it a "Dwarf Planet", seemingly just to tick us off. We all knew that Pluto was small, but we used other terms to describe that element of it. We described it's mass, it's width, it's gravitational pull.[/quote]

That's just completely eroneous. The majority meaning people using scientific terms who were then annoyed when science turned out to say something different. If Pluto is a planetary body, then there are many more. And I'm sure we'd hear incessant whining from the uneducated ankle biters about having to learn those names and "I remember when there were only 9 planets." If they want to use the word colloquially and include Pluto, there's nothing wrong with that. They're wrong, but that's their problem.

It was not a "Minority" that "Came along". It was the scientific community clarifying a definition of a word from the scientific vernacular, in light of new information. If you don't understand that science adjusts over time as we learn more, you should refrain from making any comment on science and scientists.

OT: Great to have another post by Shamus. Clearly, he lied about not being able to grow a beard, looks good.

Am I the only one that thinks that assigning an arbitrary definition to "video games" is pointless?

There are many things people consider fun, and there are many things people consider games. Honestly, it seems too much of a hassle to coin a definition for a term so broadly used, especially given how only the most OCD of nitpickers would even try to pick on someone for saying that Loneliness isn't a game.



No - no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful... I had no idea.

Glad you liked it man. I suppose for me when I look at something like Dear Esther I am struck by the quality of the level designers work, am enchanted by the woman who created the score, and find myself impressed by the performance of the voice acting.

These things together are forms of art in their own rights, from digital artistry, to audio, to performance art. However, I consider them to be "game assets" in game pipeline and development.

If I take the island, strip out the narrative, put in just about any set of characters that could fit the space, a couple of puzzles... presto I get the classic Alone in the Dark, or 7th Guest... or a viking out of time... whatever, it doesn't matter. This sort of brings up another point... writing happens (often time) last in a games development... mostly, it's the easiest thing to change and requires the least amount of effort.

The irony here is that as a narrative experiment, it more or less, makes that point... 3 stories written from 3 different time lines about a person called "Esther" is as good as "anything" one would of populated the space with. It didn't matter, the art was in the assets.

And to be fair, those works are simply excellent and reflect the craftsmanship of the performers. Out of all that though... assets do not a game make.

Proteus is in the same boat by degrees, someone knows music well; someone else seems to have lifted the back end from a couple different sources. It's a presentation, it's neat for what it is. There are some art things I could discuss although it's visual presentation is pretty simple. As a game, nothing to really say.

I see a procedural generated wind-chime. Not really going to go any further than that.


If you have not tried it out the Stanley Parable mod, (or just watch a watch through) has quite a bit to say on the topic of the hallway simulator. Interestingly the gentleman who made it commented that in an attempt to make a "not game" illustrating the "not game" or contrived skinner box aspects of gaming, ironically, he made a game... with objectives. Ultimately he had to for the narration to work.

Interestingly during his development he timed how long players would spend doing certain activities and scheduled his narrative delivery to that timing. Stripping out player agency, agency emerges that had to be calculated to control the pace of the scene. It is really brilliant. I do consider SP a game.

Of course when he went to make a game standalone from the source engine he ran into a wall of issues. Technical issues from the hard aspect of designing systems.

The accessibility consideration is interesting and where my treatise on "people really don't like games" would begin. There is a certain segment of the population that are interested in systems and many who are not. Games in many respects model systems, and it is not everyone's thing. Most everyone likes stories so it does not surprise me as the technical walls of engineering have come up with more's second law, that the emphasis has been in facilitating tools to give to artist in an effort to tap their creativity.

This is the same same-ness of the hallway simulator, where we in DOOM 3 several patents in technology, become utilized in Dead Space 3 in a different way. Or generic military shooter ver. X... interestingly again, I mentioned Mirror's Edge, the animation studies of that are used heavily in Battlefield 3 to enhance it's presentation.

A lot of folk really enjoy the artistic and narrative potential that has been unlocked by this "paradigm shift" (to call it something). The social aspect also has a low entry gate for consumers, so for the all mighty market penetration; that is studied and catered to.

So while in Battlefield the presentation is truly second to none, there is however, a change in some game play design elements, especially maps to funnel players into quick deaths. Tread milling, and emphasizing a rather distinct lack of intelligent play. As astonishingly beautiful as it is, debatable it is the worst game in the series, ironically generating the most sales of the series.

Market penetration studies modeled doing what they do best... turning a buck.

I suppose for me the thing is that tic-tac-toe is a game. Tried and true. It has all the trappings of a game that can be played with some dirt and stick.

A game does not have to be complex, but really... it should be a game. The best games have layers and layers of strategy... something like Plants vs. Zombies comes to mind.

I just tend to think that much of what is called "games" today, are not really games. They are hybrids or narrative delivery systems and that isn't a bad thing at all. Like a lot of stuff in life it more and more looks like a derivative of a derivative of a derivative. I simply question as I would in evolutionary ring theory, 'at what point', is a 'thing' not of a 'kind' anymore. I like categories, it helps me understand what we are talking about.

There is perhaps a need to "be" different on the surface, but a very strong desire to fit in and be accepted. I appreciate art, I love a good game, some games are even art... something like Total War Shogun 2 as a trilogy is composition-ally a work of art, without ever having of tried to be.

It knows what it is though, a very very good game.

Rogue 09:


This doesn't work. If I use Visual Studio to write a program, then by your definition I'm playing a game, since a successfully written program can be termed a "win condition".

I like Shamus' definition, partly because it doesn't try to be over-perscriptive. Its interpretation hinges on the subjective understanding of "playing".

Sorry, I'm a little confused by the scenario you described. Are you saying that I'm saying that contracting a company to writing coding is a game? Because I'm not... if that's what you're saying. If not, I guess... yes? Maybe? I just have no idea what you're saying. More please!

Visual Studio isn't a company, it's a design environment. That means it's a program that helps you write computer code, in the same way that Microsoft Word is a program that helps you make documents or PowerPoint helps you make presentations.

Shamus, you live! Missed you dude. I kinda dropped off your blog during one of your quiet periods after the LotR comic closed.

I define a video game as just this: a program that requires player input in order to progress towards the intended goal.

The use of the words "progress" and "goal" are key to people who would try and fit other software into the definition to try and prove a point. Sure you can do stuff in Photoshop, but you don't really "progress" in it, and there's no intended goal that the designers want you to meet. It's just an art tool. Meanwhile in a game, even a "notgame" like Ester or Loneliness, you need to provide some input, or else the game will just sit there. There's more stuff to the game, but without your input it just sits at the one screen. Then you tell the character to move, he moves, you stop, he stops. Ester and Loneliness might not be be "fun" (I would even argue that they weren't meant to be), but they are games because they require player input in order to progress; as compared to something like a movie where once you tell it to play, it just goes on its own.

Simply put, every video game requires player input, and they all have some goal or intent that can only be achieved with the former requirement. You can add as much as you want on top of that; usually just specifying on one or both of those requirements; but remove either of those two base elements, and the program is something else.

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