Experienced Points

What’s in a Game?


Remember that whole argument we had over Pluto a few years ago? That was caused by a lot of little factors, but a big reason for the confusion is that we were all using a word and we mistakenly thought we agreed on what it meant. It turned out “planet” meant different things depending on who was saying it. When we finally nailed it down, people became upset because the official definition didn’t match the definition they already had in their heads.

Another disputed word lately is “videogame.” We’ve used the word for years, and we’ve always assumed that we all agreed on what a game was. Then something strange and experimental comes along like Loneliness, which doesn’t seem like a proper game to most people, even if they have no idea what else it should be called. Even the author refers to Loneliness as a “notgame.” There are a lot of indie titles like this, lurking on the edges of the hobby and challenging us to question what games are, or can be. Dear Esther is another mischevious title where it looks and sounds like a game, but doesn’t seem to meet our expectations of how games ought to behave.

The troublemaker lately is Proteus, a game about a procedurally-generated island of lo-fi graphics and haunting music. There’s no explicit goal, no enemies, no score, and no extrinsic motivation to do anything. No story, no dialog, no characters, nothing to build or destroy, and nothing to acquire. You don’t even have a button for interacting with the world. All you can do is move around and look at things. The music changes based on where you are. There are sometimes standing stones that ring out a musical note when you pass them, but since you’re not rewarded or penalized for any of it, is doing so really considered gameplay?

Is Proteus a game? Some people say it can’t be a game, because you can’t lose and you can’t win. The game does sort of end, its up to you to decide if that’s a victory condition. If it’s not a game, then what is it? Does something need explicit win or lose states to be a game? What if Proteus was changed so that you could die if you fell off a cliff? Would that make it a game? What if we added a pointless leveling system where you gained XP by visiting locations and looking at them? Now is it a game? What if we gave the player a score at the end that told them how many different standing stones they visited? Is it a game yet?

Videogames were forged in the 1970’s, in a world of smokey, lurid, coin-operated arcades. They sat beside skee-ball machines, pinball machines, and cigarette machines, and they had the same purpose: They were designed to eat your money. The game over screen was there for economic reasons, not because the public had an insatiable demand for games that ended. When consoles rose to prominence in the 80’s, they began as blatant and unashamed copies of their arcade forbearers. There was no reason they couldn’t have open-ended experimental gameplay except that people didn’t think of games in those terms yet.

Eventually we broke free from the coin-operated arcade paradigm, but everyone was still fixated on win/loss states. In text adventures, you played until you won. In almost everything else (Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pac-Man) you played until you lost. You never just played.

While probably not the first open-ended game, the first SimCity (1989) was wildly popular and radically different from the things that had come before. At the time, people were puzzled over this new thing, a “game” with no explicit conditions for victory or loss. Trying to explain his invention to the confused masses, designer Will Wright called it a “Software Toy.” Nobody seemed to notice that the term “Software Toy” applied not only to this new Sim thing, but also to every single game that had come before it.


It would be like if there was only one kind song and one instrument in the world: Banjo. Musicians only play banjo, and people only listen to banjo. Then Will Wright comes along with a piano and people ask him what he calls this new thing. So he tells them, “Music.” Pretty soon more instruments came along. Harp, guitar, trombone. And then, rather than use this new general-purpose word, they go around arguing about whether or not trombones and harps are valid banjos.

The problem wasn’t that Will Wright’s game was different, the problem was that everyone else had too narrow a definition for “videogame”.

You might think the term “videogame” should be obvious, but it’s easy to run afoul of unintended meanings if you’re crafting a definition specifically to include some things and exclude others. The problem with the term “videogame” is a lot like our problem with the term “planet.” Our first definition was built with too many misconceptions and fixing it later is upsetting to people.

You could say that a game is any software that you find fun or entertaining. But then you find your definition includes all sorts of things that clearly aren’t games. I enjoy coding, but that doesn’t mean Microsoft Visual Studio is a game. My daughters love drawing anime characters, but Paint Tool Sai isn’t a game. Perhaps we want to say that anything designed to be fun or deliver entertainment is a game. But aren’t screensavers designed to be fun, or amusing, or something like that? I mean, the most effective screensaver is the simple blank screen, so anything more fancy than this is obviously there to amuse the user on some level. And if delivering entertainment makes something a game, then every Kindle reader is a game. That can’t be right.

Instead of worrying about mechanics, story, input systems, or end-game conditions, or even fun, we can sort out the videogames from the non-videogames by asking ourselves, “Is this something you can play?”

“Play” is a broad enough term to include lots of things. It means surviving as long as possible in a game with an explicit lose state. It means getting to the end credits in a game with an explicit win state. But play also means probing new systems and discovering how they behave in response to your input. What happens if I build an incomplete rollercoaster? What if I take away all the trash cans in my Sims house? What if I set fire to these Minecraft trees? You don’t win or lose when you answer these questions, but you are still playing. Play can also include exploring a game world to get an emotional response.

Using the definition of “A videogame is software which can be played,” we quickly spot a videogame without needing to haggle over oddballs like Proteus or The Stanley Parable. Screensavers are not videogames, even if they’re designed to amuse. MS Paint isn’t a videogame, even if you find it fun. A Kindle isn’t a game, even if it delivers entertainment. Using Games for Windows Live – while about as challenging as Dark Souls – is not a game.

In turn, this means that Proteus, Dear Esther, and even the “notgame” Loneliness are all videogames, because they’re all things you can play. You might not find them fun, but they’re still games. Odd, goofy, and unexpected, but still games.

Shamus Young is a programmer and a novelist, and he’s determined to never be too old for toys.

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